For the past five years, Rafiq Bhatia has been pushing out from the style and instrument that has made him a highly coveted collaborator.
A virtuoso guitarist that quickly earned a pedigree in the jazz world, Bhatia began to feel weighted down by the patterns he’d been adhering to on his debut album Yes It Will and EP Strata. His pair of 2012 releases gestured at times towards the warped soundscaping that define his newest album Breaking English, but was orchestrated within ensemble-minded compositions familiar to jazz listeners.
Between joining on with the avant-garde rock outfit Son Lux in 2014 and an untamed variety of collaborators — including work with jazz stalwart Vijay Iyer, rapper Heems, and Lorde — Bhatia began experimenting with Ableton, a digital audio workspace (DAW) that’s the primary instrument for electronic producers and avant-garde composers of all stripes. Over two and a half rigorous years of taming Ableton, his composing style, how he treated sound, and even his approach to guitar playing began to reconfigure.
“I was really not allowing myself to fall back on anything I was familiar with until it was absolutely called for,” Bhatia said. “I think a lot of the places I’m invoking and the questions I’m asking on the record are are difficult. That’s actually one of the dual meanings of ‘breaking english’: what happens to your voice when there’s something difficult for you to say?”
Breaking English, Bhatia’s first release with ANTI- Records, is a divinely distressed Rorschach test. Each song is its own freestanding structure, erasing any clear path from the ones before and after beyond the potency of their topics (environmental existentialism on “The Overview Effect,” the Black Lives Matter movement on “Hoods Up”) and their tight execution. The nine tracks are rife with improvisations that create a breathing world where a player’s instinctual spontaneity changes the atmosphere. Surges of synthetic drums and tortured guitar tones that crash over themselves like metallic waves are simultaneously anticipated and unplaceable — you know they’re arriving, just not when — making no two listens feel exactly the same.
Bedford + Bowery caught up with Bhatia in his home studio in Crown Heights, Brooklyn to explore the inner workings of Breaking English, from its intention to make the songs “struggle” to the deliberate way it approaches improvising.
You started using DAWs sometime after Yes It Will. How did you land there? Was that shift always in the back of your head?
I think the process of making Strata and Yes It Will led me in the direction of wanting to compose from a perspective of sound and of the studio. I had come from this background of writing music for improvisers, where you don’t want to over-specify the music because you want to leave space for the unexpected to occur. There’s a weight to those kinds of moments but make them really hard to…well, plan [laughs]. But that also means that you have to make space for them, and because of that indeterminacy you’d have to kind of loosen the music in certain ways.
But one of the things I realized when I was making those records, once you’ve committed an improvisation to a recording, you can have that ephemeral sort of feeling and capture and bottle it up and then recorded it, fixed all of a sudden. So over a long period of time, working with that as an ingredient or building around that or kind of fortifying it with sound design, is something that becomes possible all of a sudden. So as I was realizing that sort of thing, it became clear to me that I needed to start working with DAWs and these kinds of studio tools and learn how to do that for myself so that I could deepen my interests in that juxtaposition between the ephemeral moments and long-term, meticulously sculpted moments.
Ableton, specifically, has a tendency to quantize things, put things in boxes. How did you go about dismantling that to make your songs more open-ended?
Really, the reason why [I use Ableton] is because I started using it for live performance and there are other people around me who had gotten good at it. Ableton is really easy to route audio around in and it’s a nice sketchpad when you don’t know very much. All of those things combined made it approachable for me, but as I’ve of gotten deeper into it, I realized that the way that I’m using it is non-traditional, in a way. A lot of it was, like, throwing the manual out the window and experimenting from day one.
I learn new things about Ableton every week, it feels like. For [Breaking English], it was mostly a process of self-discovery: What does this do and how does this sound? If I like it, what do I like about it? I don’t like that, what might I be able to do to lead me in a direction I’m more interested in? And I had been around a lot of people who compose this way and that was the scariest thing about it, seeing people who are really amazing at this. It’s no walk in the park, you know [laughs]. I’ve spent years, thousands of hours of my life mastering an instrument and I’m still scratching the surface of that instrument.
How has learning how to command audio like that fed back into your guitar playing?
In innumerable ways. I think I was already heading in that direction, because before I started getting deeper into DAWs, I was hearing a lot of music that I loved that was being made from the vantage point of the studio. I’ve always had an interest in using the guitar to sound instead like a choir of bit-crushed, detuned violins, or whatever ends up inspiring me. And [that] has precedent in a lot of my favorite guitar players; you look at somebody like Jimi Hendrix or Bill Frisell, they were both interested in using technology as a stepping stone to speak something on the instrument that transcended existing confines.
I think a lot of the sentiments and places you were trying to invoke on this record — the early fossils found in Tanzanian gorge on “Olduvai,” or the nodding to Black Lives Matter on “Hoods Up” — arrive with the punch they do because of that radical experimentation. I was wondering if placing more of a premium on engineering and “playing the studio” emboldened you to explore these topics more so than on previous pieces?
I was really not allowing myself to fall back on anything I was familiar with until it was absolutely called for — the first couple years of working on this record, the guitar hardly played a role. I think a lot of the places I’m invoking and the questions I’m asking on the record are difficult. That’s actually one of the dual meanings of “breaking english”: what happens to your voice when there’s something difficult for you to say? I think this was a difficult record for me to make in a lot of ways, and so I think that both ways probably did have some sort of impact on each other.
How do you translate your own studio meticulousness, which carries those difficult questions, onstage in a way that balances those improvised moments you cherish in music?
I’m really lucky that the two musicians I’m working with in the live setting — Jackson Hill on bass and electronics and [Son Lux percussionist] Ian Chang on drums — are two I’ve worked with the most in my life and I have the closest rapport with.
And I have a hard time letting go of music — saying something’s finished, for example [laughs]. So one of the things that helped me make peace with putting a piece of work down and starting another one is the knowledge that it will continue to live in our live iteration. With that in mind, the music is continuing to evolve in a capacity that once again puts it into the confines of a space where the present moment has a currency that it doesn’t in the studio, you know? You can bottle a performance on a recording and remove the constraint of time, but in a live show, everybody’s breathing the same air together and in this space where risk and uncertainty have more potential and more weight.
How did you approach improvisation on Breaking English versus on your previous releases?
On Breaking English, there are maybe two moments where you hear an ensemble playing together in a room, where on other records for like that on every single track. Breaking English was oftentimes a single player entering the equation and putting forth their ideas which might reinforce or challenge a framework that I’ve created, and then getting that folded back into my composition. Even something like the performer’s breathing is something that I exaggerate in a lot of cases on Breaking English. Most producers of classical music or those sorts of styles tend to filter out the performativity most intensively. They’ll scrub that stuff from recording. And I always found that so funny; like, it’s such a big part of what makes the human, and what makes us empathize with it.