Saturday, October 5, 2019

Music for 150 Carpenters at the Berman Museum, October 26, 2019

I am honored to be a part of this upcoming performance of composer, sound artist, and sculptor Douglas Henderson's epic Music for 150 Carpenters at the Berman Museum of Art, October 26, 2019. I will be assisting Doug in teaching the piece to a team of "lead carpenters," who will then conduct their crews in two performances of the work. It should be a lot of fun.

I interviewed Doug back in 2009 ahead of the Brooklyn premiere of Music for 100 Carpenters, and he provided plenty of insight into his compositional and recording processes. You can check out the interview here.

From the Ursius College website:

In celebration of Ursinus College’s 150th anniversary, the Berman Museum of Art’s 30th anniversary, and the many individuals who have collaborated in the building of our remarkable institution, the museum will present a special performance piece by Douglas Henderson titled Music for 150 Carpenters.

Based on Henderson’s Music for 100 Carpenters, first conducted in 2009 in Brooklyn, this site-specific, multimedia piece will include a 30-minute live performance, where the audience will sit in the middle of the Main Gallery. Surrounding them along the perimeter will be 150 carpenters, consisting of not only professional, regional carpenters, but local artists, museum professionals, Ursinus faculty and staff, and of course, students. Henderson will compose an immersive sound performance featuring 150 workers, 150 sawhorses, 150 hammers, and some 10,000 nails, working in unison to create a unique score. Under the guidance of job supervisors, the sounds of construction will become waves of tonal murmur throughout the gallery. Tool belts, sweat, and lunchboxes will also be a part of the score that celebrates the college’s anniversaries with pomp, while acknowledging the diverse sources of physical and intellectual labor that are at the core of every academic and art institution.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Full score for Who You Once Were now available on Bandcamp

This is the full score for Who You Once Were, my collaboration with visual artist Lillian Warren and dancer Annie Arnoult. Who You Once Were was performed August 23 and 24, 2019 at Aurora Picture Show, Houston, TX.

“The idea for this piece came from the personal experience of my mother’s gradual and intermittent memory loss, and my emotional reactions as our relationship changes. Annie, Chris, and I worked as a team to draw on our collective experience of how memories are embedded in objects, splintered and fractured by time, triggered by sounds, and lived through the body.” - Lillian Warren

All music composed, recorded and mixed by Chris Becker. Beckeresque Music (ASCAP)

Talking drum patterns in "Chairs" created and recorded by Joseph Benzola. Guitar solo in "Writing Music" created and recorded by Dan Sumner.

Rehearsal and performance photos by Lillian Warren.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Who You Once Were Video

This is a four-minute composite of just a few segments from Who You Once Were, a multimedia collaboration between Lillian Warren (video and project direction), Annie Arnoult (movement), and Chris Becker (original score). Performed at Aurora Picture Show on August 23 and 24, 2019. Both performances were sold out, and the audience response to the work was incredible.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

On Composing Music for Who You Once Were

Video image by Lillian Warren
Who You Once Were is a live, multimedia performance created in collaboration between, myself painter and video artist Lillian Warren, and choreographer Annie Arnoult. Performances will take place at Houston's Aurora Picture Show August 23 and 24, 2019. Lillian writes, “The idea for this piece came from the personal experience of my mother’s gradual and intermittent memory loss, and my emotional reactions as our relationship changes. Annie, Chris, and I are working as a team to draw on our collective experience of how memories are embedded in objects, splintered and fractured by time, triggered by sounds, lived through the body.” The 40-45 minute performance combines Lillian's images from four separate video projectors, improvised movement by Annie, and my score, cued in realtime from a laptop computer and played through Aurora's mixer and P.A.

Ableton Live session for Who You Once Were
I am a composer. I began my musical training at the piano, learning to play Bach, Mozart and Chopin, and composing for traditional classical ensembles, jazz ensembles, and solo performers. Although I started out as a pen on paper composer, my main instrument for composing is the computer, specifically, the popular software music sequencer and digital audio workstation Ableton Live. When people ask me what instrument I play, I tell them the recording studio, which I use both as an instrument and (to quote Brian Eno) a "compositional tool." To create a composition, I record musical performances, sometimes notated, but often improvised, and combine those recordings with my own field recordings. The process is not unlike recording so-called "pop" music, or music in any number of other genres outside of classical or jazz. But what I do with Ableton Live certainly has its roots in the earliest years of musique concrète ("concrete music") created in the years after World War II by Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henry, and John Cage. The "studio technology and compositional strategies" of Jamaican dub music have also had a profound impact on how I conceptualize and engineer music, even if the results sound nothing like King Tubby or Lee "Scratch" Perry.

Although I have scored several videos for performance artist Jil Guyon, and composed music for dance companies across the U.S., including choreographer/director Rachel Cohen's New York-based Racoco Productions, this particular project was quite different than scoring a film or a choreographed dance. From the very beginning of our collaboration, Lillian provided video-in-progress to work with, which was very helpful in mapping out a timeline for sections of the score. But initially, there was no choreography for me to watch, so it was up to me to decide how tempo, harmony and texture could work in relation to Lillian's video and her suggestions to Annie for movement.

I began creating musical sketches in Ableton Live, using sounds inspired by conversations Lillian and I had about the subject and themes of this piece. She told me her mother is a fan of classical piano music, and four chords I played on friend's grand piano became an idée fixe that recurs and is transformed throughout the score. Bird songs appeared in these early sketches, and became another crucial sonic leitmotif after Lillian told me her mother is a bird watcher. Throughout Who You Once Were, both in Lillian's projected video and in person, Annie walks through doors into rooms only to encounter more doors, as if she were navigating a mental labyrinth. This image inspired me to incorporate the sounds of opening and closing doors throughout the score. The sound of a door slamming shut is so primal, loaded with emotion and meaning. But when that sound is drenched in reverb, and combined in layers with the sounds of different doors closing, you end up something closer to Taiko drums, or a tree falling on a car, or something from outer edges of so-called "industrial" music. Still, I believe no matter how much I may transform my source material, the original reference remains, like footnotes to a poem.

Speaking of poems . . . to help with the creative process, Lillian shared with Annie and I a poem she wrote about visiting her mother. The poem became yet another "way in" to the work, and I recorded myself reading the lines, and used fragments of that recording in the score. I also recorded Lillian and Annie reading the poem, and their voices are hear at key points as well, which I feel speaks to the personal and emotional investment each of us has in this project.

There's a scene in the film Bladerunner 2049 where a woman who creates fake yet vivid and emotional memories for replicants explains, "They all think it's about more detail, but that's not how memory works. We recall with our feelings. Anything real should be a mist." I use reverb in my score is to create this "mist" and give the listener a sense they are hearing something that is present but not entirely in focus, like a dream image you can't recall when you wake up.

I tend to work quickly and intuitively when I compose. If the material I'm working with is inspiring, I find it will lead me to ideas I could not have planned out in advance. This is when composing (and recording) feels more like performing. That said, like any studio nerd, I will spend countless hours mixing, comparing one mix with another, and taking apart and rebuilding what already sounded good in the first place. I figure, as long as the process feels good, and I'm not missing a deadline, what's wrong with going down the proverbial rabbit hole? When is a recording "finished"? I'm not always sure. However, at some point you have put down the brush and walk away from the canvas.

Video image and photo of Annie Arnoult by Lillian Warren
Each composition I create is its own landscape, in the literal sense of that word, with its own indigenous elements, just like the plant and animal life and weather of our planet's remote regions. Identifying, being aware of and composing with these elements can give the score a unified sound and help bring all of the components of a complex, multimedia performance like Who You Once Were together into a complete work.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

From Urban Dread to Holy Water: Painter David McGee's Manifest for Survival

David McGee Holy Water, 2017. Oil, glue, and enamel on canvas. 60" x 48"

Shock is not too strong a word to describe how people reacted at the opening for Houston artist David McGee’s September 2017 show at Texas Gallery, Urban Dread and The Complications of Water, two separate, yet wholly interrelated series of paintings conceived as a dual presentation in the same space. That McGee is a celebrated master of figurative portraiture no doubt confused many viewers who, upon encountering the fifteen atavistic yet meticulously constructed paintings that make up The Complications of Water, found themselves wondering, “What the hell am I looking at?” Drawing equally from Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, with an understanding of how certain tropes in Modernism resonate uniquely for black viewers, Urban Dread and The Complications of Water are a ship’s manifest of McGee’s metaphorical and psychological journey from land to water and back again. Some historical and conceptual context may offer a “way in” for viewers wrestling to come to grips with such an uncompromising body of work.

Born in 1962 in Lockhart, Louisiana and raised in Detroit, McGee may be best known for his vibrant watercolor portraits of friends, guest models, emcees, and contemporary funk musicians recast as literary and artistic icons. But he has certainly explored abstraction throughout his career. In the 1994 oil and enamel on newsprint painting Untitled from his series Wasteland, thick, vertical strokes in sickly yellow-green and charred black hang like leaves in a dying rainforest, while tiny paintbrushes, shoes, and sperm, the detritus of a decimated community, float in the foreground, like satellites lost in space. Whether it be a nightmarish wasteland stretching beyond the edges of the canvas, or a portrait of Snoop Dogg as Van Gogh, McGee is highly sensitized to the emotions that colors and shapes can trigger, as well as the disconnect between what a person is seeing versus what they feel. In an interview with Arts and Culture Texas, McGee describes experiencing a sudden, unexpected feeling of anxiety upon first viewing Barnett Newman’s The Stations of the Cross (1958 - 1966), where thin stripes of black paint vertically divide the white expanse of fourteen nearly square canvases. Later, McGee realized that the black and white colors of Newman’s Stations are the colors of police vehicles, a “warning symbol” for black men and women. [1]

The thirty 24” x 18” Urban Dread mixed-media paintings are also black and white, with hard edged diagonals, squares, rectangles, crosses, and loops evoking the buildings, streets, and signage of an “urban” neighborhood, the word “urban” being a long held euphemism for “African American.” A study for the Urban Dread series titled Strike provides some clues to McGee’s process, which included experimenting with painting on burlap covered with newspaper. An excerpt of vintage journalistic copy (“. . . we’re in a war to put the finishing sock to the rabbit punchers of the common people, to the fascists who would like to throw our lives around like a worn out football. . . .”) remains visible behind a descending curtain of thickly applied, black enamel paint, dripping into a horizontal stripe of white across the bottom third of the canvas. After much experimentation, McGee chose to paint just on burlap, which he describes as a “rugged, ghetto fabulous” surface, similar to black hair or “locks.” [2] McGee has occasionally referred to this series as “Urban Dreads.” [3]

The Complications of Water is even more experimental in conception and construction. For McGee, painting begins with journaling, when he makes notes on his latest obsessions, be it poetry, literature, music, or film, notes that may nothing to do with how a particular painting will look, but everything to do with how it will feel. [4] McGee’s journals for The Complications of Water include several chapter titles and excerpts from Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick, an “American nekyia” [5] published a decade before the Civil War. One chapter titled “The Whiteness of the Whale” is a highly detailed meditation on “the supernaturalism of this hue” [6] and its role in Western religious rituals and colonialism (“giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe”). [7] White is also the color of some of nature’s most formidable predators, including Ahab’s elusive whale.

Several of the Water paintings reference Melville’s novel. In The Blackness of The Blackness, layer upon layer of horizontal and vertical blacks nearly cover the otherwise white canvas, and loom like a gathering storm behind a wood crucifix affixed to the lower right of the canvas, the Greek word “tetelestai” or “It is finished,” the last words of Jesus on the cross, scrawled across its upper axis. The cross, again in black, is nearly amorphous in The Baptism of Pip, and buoyed by wave-like arch of blue in an sea of white. Pip, the youngest crew member aboard the Pequod, is described in Moby Dick as “the poor little negro.” [8] After falling into the ocean during a whale hunt, he is left behind to paddle in place until his rescue, and experiences a classic psychic crack up. As Melville writes: “The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul.”[9]

Like Ahab and his crew, Vikings were conquerors who traveled by water, and three of McGee’s Water paintings are named, with some variation, after various heroes and gods in Viking mythology. Floki pays homage to Loki, the Norse trickster god, whose parallel in West African mythology is Anansi the Spider. Anansi appears in the guise of the dapper Mr. Nancy in Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel American Gods, its 2017 television adaptation being yet another source of inspiration for McGee. In the prelude to episode two, Mr. Nancy, played by Orlando Jones, appears below the deck of a Dutch slave ship and describes, to the horror of its terrified human cargo, what the next 300 years of life in “the land of opportunity, milk and honey” will be like for black people. (“You all get to be slaves! Split up, sold off, and worked to death!”) His advice? Slit the throats of the crew, set fire to the ship, and “Let the motherfucker burn!” This sentiment is present in several of the Water paintings. Like an image taken from a still to a splatter film, Incoming Christians is a landscape streaked with excrement and dried brownish blood, populated only by a weird, half-human half-crocodile creature, like a warning scrawled in the last surviving moments of an exterminated people. Two relatively placid “white” canvases, Rope and Sail and the final, 73” x 70” behemoth simply titled Viking provide some respite. They are becalmed, though when seen up close, their surfaces are battle scarred, like sails in the wake of a terrifying storm, or the pockmarked skin of some ancient leviathan.

With Viking, there is also a feeling the viewer has come to end of a journey, and perhaps a reconciliation, like Ishmael in the epilogue of Moby Dick, floating in the sea, clinging to the remnants of the demolished Pequod. “Why then here does any one step forth?” he asks. “Because one did survive the wreck.” [10] The dramatic contrast between the two series (“land” versus “water”) speaks to McGee’s own psychological unmooring, the “night sea journey” described in Carl Jung’s Symbols of Transformation. Jung biographer Gerhard Wehr writes: “. . . only one who has accepted this process of mystical death, who has undertaken the soul’s journey to the other side and withstood the voyage on the night sea, into hell, can stand before his fellow men with this experience as one changed . . . and bring them the knowledge of a new life.” [11] With Urban Dread and The Complications of Water, McGee provides the viewer with a map for survival, and a testament to the continued potential of abstract painting to convey “the moods, ideas, and strategies” [12]  of all artists, no matter what their tribe.

[1] "Moving Forward, Looking Back: David McGee at Texas Gallery and HMAAC," by Casey Gregory, Arts and Culture Texas, September 21, 2017.
[2] McGee, David, interview by Chris Becker, unpublished, May 15, 2017.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Melville's Moby Dick: A Jungian Commentary, by Edward R. Edinger, New Directions Books, 1975.
[6] Moby Dick, by Herman Melville, 1851. Reprint, Barnes & Noble Books, 2003.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Jung, A Biography, by Gerhard Wehr, Shambala, 1988.
[12] Black Art, A Cultural History, by Richard J. Powell, Thames & Hudson Ltd, London, 1997.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Season of Calm Art (Sketch)

Released December 24, 2018
Lynn Wright - Electric Guitar
Becker - All Other Sounds

The sketches and creative brainstorming continues as 2019 approaches. Next year, I hope to bring one or two album projects to fruition. In the meantime, enjoy this short moment of vibe. Happy New Year.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Music Therapy and the Avant Garde: Listening Samples and Sources

Below are various music samples and links related to my lecture Music Therapy and the Avant-Garde, which I will co-present with creative arts therapist Enrico Curreri on November 3, 2018, at 10:00 CT at the Jung Center of Houston.

John Cage, Five5 (1991)

Creative Arts Therapist Enrico Curreri improvises with a 12-year-old patient.

Luigi Nono, Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima (1979-1980)