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Rafiq Bhatia Talks Studio Composition, Improvisation and His Collaborators


Text / Interview: よろすず / Yorosz
Translate: 北澤 / Kitazawa
Cooperate: Hannah Houser

1: “Breaking English” is released from Anti-Records to which Tom Waits, Daniel Lanois and Nick Cave belong. What point did you sympathize with this label?

ANTI- is a label that people expect to release the unexpected. They pride themselves on providing a home for music that doesn’t fit neatly into categories. And, on top of that, they have a reputation for signing artists they believe in and giving them full creative control over their own projects. All of these are things that resonate deeply with me.

2: Could you explain about a common production process of songs of “Breaking English”?

It’s not something that can be neatly summarized, but I can say that I put aside most of the tools I was most familiar with going into the making of this album—my guitar, the improvising ensemble—and instead embraced techniques that I was interested in but were not previously part of my process. All of the songs came from a sort of iterative, sculptural approach with sound. Never having created music using electronic means, it was a long road, but eventually I found myself inside of it. I’d fixate on fragments of audio and work with them, manipulating and fraying them, building virtual instruments or composites out of the results, until I had raw materials or “ingredients” that felt evocative enough to suggest form.

As I worked, I learned that audio is neither helped nor hindered by intuition. When I play the guitar, there are a million little micro-decisions I make subconsciously to respond to the way the instrument is behaving—I might tug at the neck to pull a note in or out of tune, adjust my finger tension, change the position of my picking hand relative to the neck or bridge to adjust the directness of the sound, etc. Many of these things are happening at a relatively subconscious level—they are intentional, but I’m not focusing on them—but they help the music feel alive. With audio, none of that happens without a very active approach. If you want the sound to behave a certain way, you have to specify it. That realization felt like it unlocked something for me; I started to be able to bring the ingredients to life, painstakingly imbuing electronic sound with the kind of breath and movement I was looking for.

Periodically, I would invite other instrumentalists into the fold to respond to my ideas in progress and shock the system of my approach. Their reactions to the music were documented and filtered back through my process—rinse & repeat.

3: On the surface, this work receives the impression that composition is emphasized rather than improvisation because of the shortness of the solo section. Could you tell me what is the importance of “improvisation” in this work.

I find that people tend to think of “composition” and “improvisation” in separate, or even opposing, terms. But where exactly does one draw the line between the two, really? The one clear factor that tends to separate how we perceive the two modalities, however, is the relative importance of the moment, which clearly tends to grow the closer we get to the “improvisation” end of the spectrum.

In “composition,” we have time to interrogate our initial impulses, to iron them out and “perfect” them. My orientation, however, is that this process does not necessarily yield an improvement. There is a danger that doing this might scrub an idea of its magic, sterilize it of its substance. I’m interested in the ephemeral nature of human action that improvisation foregrounds—we can prepare as improvisers, but ultimately what we do is our response within a given moment, and there’s no time to adjust.

Interestingly, I find that jazz recordings are often guilty of the type of sterilization I’m talking about—they go to such great lengths to try to simulate a bunch of musicians creating “in the moment” together, but that’s not at all what’s happening. There’s no audience in the studio, no vibe, no risk; every musician is in their own booth, there are blankets over the piano. Every take is meticulously edited and stripped of anything that might even hint at a mistake. So what you get is this very clean, sleek result that has very little to do with the things that draw me to improvisation—instability, uncertainty, rawness. Human struggle and transcendence.

There may not be many “solos” or moments that capture a group of musicians playing together on this record, but the music is absolutely built on trying to bottle those aforementioned qualities and expand upon them. Improvisation, liveness, and risk are threaded deeply into the fabric of this record. Making it was a constant adventure into the unknown—rather than working with what was familiar to me, I was constructing systems of manipulation with uncertain outcomes and listening to their outputs, adjusting the sound in response to what it was telling me. Almost every layer of sound contains some sort of volatility. In that sense, improvisation became less of a process and more of an orientation for me on this record.

4: “Breaking English” is the first solo album after joining Son Lux. How did the activities on Son Lux affect your band and album?

I joined Son Lux during a period where I’d been trying to pursue my interest in production, or electroacoustic composition, or whatever you want to call it. My strategy had been to try to collaborate (as a guitarist) with people who were doing that well, in the hopes that I might learn something. But I never expected to learn as much or get as deeply involved as I did with Son Lux—first it was just a couple of recording sessions, then a couple of gigs, then a tour, then another tour, and before we knew it, we’d become a band. Both Ryan and Ian have become some of my closest collaborators and inspirations, and they both had a significant role on Breaking English—not just as contributors (Ian played drums on several tracks and Ryan helmed a string arrangement for “Before Our Eyes”) but also as listeners who gave much needed feedback along the way.

5: I felt that the sound making of “Breaking English” would shine as both headphone music and dance music. What type of listening environment do you want the listener to hear?

It’s hard for me to say, because I’m way too close to the music! I guess the music is equally inspired by music people might listen to in headphones and stuff they might dance to, so it comes out somewhere in the middle? But mostly, I want them to listen loud, on the best speakers or headphones they have access to. Also, ideally I want them to actively listen to the whole thing all the way through, from start to finish.

6: I feel like the strings part of “Breaking English” incorporate many microtones that remind me of sitar in Indian music. Is there music that you referred to in arranging the strings part?

A lot of that has to do with Anjna Swaminathan, who performed those parts—the ornamentations all came from her, and I just responded to what she was doing. Anjna is trained in (though not limited by) the South Indian classical (Carnatic) tradition. But in working with her on this album, I wanted to try to situate that sound in contexts where it’s not usually found: in swarms a la Györgi Ligeti or in layers of independent voices a la Ornette Coleman.

7: In addition to Tim Hecker and Ben Frost, let me know if there are inspired musicians or works in electronic / ambient music scene.

It’s hard to pin down what exactly influenced this record, but in addition to Tim Hecker and Ben Frost, I was also listening to Valgeir Sigurdsson, Colin Stetson, James Blake, Flying Lotus, Holden, Daniel Lanois, Oneohtrix Point Never, Deantoni Parks, Paul Corley, Alex Somers, and many others at various points while working on this record.

8: Could you tell me the reason for having involved with artists of Bedroom Community such as Valgeir Sigurdsson and Paul Corley.

I’d met Paul some years back. At some point after we connected I began sending him sketches of what I was working on, to which he’d always respond with a few well-chosen questions or suggestions. He’s a formidable sound designer, but he also has an amazing aptitude for challenging artists and pushing them outside of their comfort zones in just the right kind of ways. For that reason, he’s been a vital collaborator on a lot of my favorite records over the past few years.

Over time, it became clear that it would be amazing to have Paul jump in and work with some of the audio towards the end of the process, right as I was the closest to losing all perspective on it. He’d do a few layers / manipulations and send a session back to me, and I’d study what he’d done and see how I felt about it. The work he did that I didn’t use was just as helpful as what I did, because it all challenged my assumptions and got me looking at my own music from different angles.

Valgeir has been a collaborator and inspiration of mine dating back almost ten years now, and I knew he’d be the right mastering engineer for this project—he kept the dynamics and production and mix intentions intact while cleaning up my mess a little bit! He’s amazing at what he does and it’s always a privilege to work with him.

9: Let me know if there are inspired artists in NY’s avant-garde jazz / improvised music scene such as Okkyung Lee and Peter Evans.

Again, it’s hard to say what exactly had an effect on this record, but there’s no doubt that that scene has helped make me who I am, musically-speaking and otherwise. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with both Peter and Okkyung and they’ve definitely both had an impact on me, as have Marcus Gilmore (who plays on the record), David Virelles, Rajna and Anjna Swaminathan, Billy Hart, Vijay Iyer, Shahzad Ismaily, Qasim Naqvi, and many others.

Rafiq Bhatia: Bandcamp / Spotify / Twitter