Bob Becker – An Interview (1996)

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The following interview with Bob Becker took place on July 30, 1996. This is the first time it has been published.

Bob Becker (ca. 1980)

Bill Cahn: Do you see any “sea changes” happening now and if so what would you say they are and what are their characteristics?

Bob Becker: “Sea” changes in the musical world?

BC. Yes. Do you see any?. . . the next generation seeing things differently . . . the United States maybe any backing off of European cultural influences in music or the visual arts, and letting go of the embrace that it has on that?

BB. I’ve been aware for half of my life of the sort of sine wave that happens in relation to generational ideas – what people find attractive, what they respond to and what they don’t – and that seems to be a really natural thing. It doesn’t relate just to the arts, it relates to everything. Whatever a given generation is really committed to, the next one has to rebel against that – sort of fight against it – and go the opposite way. That’s a normal thing that always happens and will continue to happen I think. Consequently, that’s something that I don’t try to concern myself with too much, because you go kind of crazy trying to second guess that. It’s probably possible to second guess it but I’ve found personally that I’m more interested in trying to get to the bottom of what I really find to be the important thing – my own reality – to find a way to express that. That’s sometimes tricky for me. The sea is changing around you all the time. Someone made a statement about heroism – what is heroic. Someone said, “it’s so heroic to do something difficult.” Robin said, “no, the real definition of heroic is not to do something that’s difficult, it’s to do what is necessary.” That implies that you can perceive what is necessary, and then act on it no matter what – no matter what that means in terms of the potential outcomes.

BC. The issue of being true to yourself is central to this whole subject of sea change. I’m going to make a statement and then try to bring it into focus on the question. This is what every musician has to deal with now. Everyone has the option of deciding to be focused primarily on being true to what your own needs are. The dilemma comes – and it’s not a new dilemma; it has always existed – that you still have to survive. You still have to make a living, to take care of the basics in your life that are outside of this (artistic) field. In other words, you have to make money. Maybe you don’t have to make money. The issue for the performing artist, if you want to do it professionally, is to find that balance between what your needs and desires are, and at the same time trying to touch other people in a way that allows them to become a part of what you’re doing and enables you to be a professional at it. I think maybe it’s the rare person who is able to be totally true to the self, ignore virtually anything that pundits or academicians or other colleagues say about their performance – be true to the self and still maintain some level of success professionally. That’s the issue. I’m not making a statement here. I’m just trying to lay a groundwork for asking some questions. If there are any sea changes, what factors are affecting that issue today – the artist remaining true to their own vision and at the same time being responsive to the needs of let’s say a market. What’s the balance?

BB. That’s an enormous topic. If someone is able to determine what their true nature is, that’s a huge thing to do. I don’t think many people get that together. That’s one thing – to find out who you are – and if you have something to communicate, what that is. To see that with some kind of clarity is . . . that right away is rare. It’s something that’s a big question in my life – to figure out if I’ve ever been even close to that, and when you get close to it, then to accept it. That’s difficult for me . . . just as difficult as finding out what it is in the first place. (laughter) Then to be able to perceive what other people – in the market – want or need . . . and those are two different things too . . . you can perceive a desire to receive something or to have certain kinds of experiences, and you can perceive a need in a person or group or whole society, and then you’re making a judgement. That goes back to finding out something about yourself, because if you’re going to say, “this person needs this”, to me that’s presumptuous, and I’m not sure that I can make a statement like that, or that I could ever determine something like that. It was interesting out at Banff last month. There was a get-together of people to just have a drink and meet each other, and it immediately got into some intense discussions about art. Some artist the previous year had made some work in the Banff area. It was environmental work, so that the artist had created little odds and ends of things and taken them out into the woods and just left them somewhere, where another person might find them, or maybe not. These things were left around without any indication that they were meant to be viewed as a work of art. They were just plunked down. It could be like a torn-up T-shirt hanging from a tree. I don’t remember now all of the specific objects, but they were not the usual fine art sort of thing. You wouldn’t recognize them necessarily as being a beautifully made object that was artistic in the traditional sense. It was just an object that had, or could have meaning. There was a big discussion about “was that art or was that just something littering the environment”, which was sort of my position. As if someone were taking it upon themselves to force me, the person who was perhaps taking a hike in the woods with a very different set of values, needs and intent in going out there – they took it upon themselves to communicate something to me that they thought I should get or that maybe I needed. My position was that I don’t want it. I equated it to Muzac. There’s another example of somebody taking it upon themselves – the store manager or an elevator company deciding that I needed to hear that stuff, or that it will help me some way. So, I resent it; I don’t want that. It led to the question in the discussion about intent in art production, and how do you determine when something is a work of art or not? Someone said, “well it depends on whether the artist, or the person who made the thing (the object or some music) – you don’t even have to define them as artists – intended it to be art. That means to me then logically, that the only person who can tell if something is a work of art is the person who made it, because there’s no way to determine someone else’s intent. It’s impossible. Someone can tell you, “yeah, that’s what I intended”, but they could be lying. How do you know? There’s no way. So, intent can’t have anything to do with it. Art is an experience. It’s not an object. It’s not a musical note or a series of notes, or anything like that. Art happens in your brain. It’s a personal thing and it requires awareness on your part to have an artistic experience, or a willingness to engage with something in your environment in a way that could be called artistic or creative. You have the creative experience because you decide that you’re going to have one. That can take place at any time, and it can also not take place. You can be in the presence of the most highly regarded artistic expression in the history of mankind and you might have zero artistic experience. By my definition then, there isn’t any art there because you’re not experiencing anything. For me to assess what’s going on for another person, let alone a whole generation is difficult because by my definition of what art is – it’s experiential and it’s taking place inside a person’s brain – how could I ever assess that. They can tell you, “this is what I want” or “this is what I need”, or you can sort of think to yourself by looking at society, “well these people seem to want this”, but you can never be sure of that.

BC. But, you’ve had the experience certainly of getting very positive feedback from a lot of people about something you’ve done.

BB. You still can’t really tell. I can’t. I look at myself. After a musical performance or after viewing a show of artwork or a dance or eating a meal, I can say something to someone who’s involved or responsible for it. There are all kinds of things I could say. Generally they’d be positive, but I could never communicate what I’ve really felt – my experience – to that person. Very often if I look back at what I’ve said, or if I’m paying attention to myself doing it at the time, it’s like a mixture of some things that are true – as best as I can, I’m expressing something that I felt. Some of it might be just trying to be socially helpful, or I want to make the person feel good, or I want to be polite. There are a whole slew of reasons for saying certain things after an event. I’m aware that people, when they say things to me, are full of all that same stuff. Some of it is heartfelt truth. Some of it’s being polite, or they respect something I did ten years ago and they want to say something nice now. I have no idea, really, what their experience was of anything I did.

BC. I’m not sure that the idea is to know what other people are thinking in terms of relating to a market, although I think that is the goal really. I’m not sure there’s a way to know how to do that unless there’s some mechanism for listening to what people say. You and I had a meeting with a marketing professor from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and basically he said marketing was simply listening to what people say and trying to draw some conceptual framework to package what you’ve learned from listening to people – not necessarily to have what you’ve learned drive everything, but certainly to have what you’ve heard be a part of how you present yourself in some way – and have it be an influence. The issue that I’m dealing with is how do you form concepts in what you do creatively that embrace in some way listening to other people? Should you do that, and how should you do that, if the answer is yes. If the answer is no, then what is the solution? Do you just do what you want to do without any regard for any other issues. That’s certainly an option.

BB. It makes sense as a marketing tool to think about it from that kind of perspective. If I look at my experience, which is very limited in the music world, including NEXUS, Steve Reich, and some of the New York artists who adopted a similar sort of approach like Philip Glass and people of that generation, those people had a vision that they believed in strongly and which got tremendously negative feedback from the press and from a big chunk of the public (still does). But, they forged ahead under a lot of resistance from all quarters and without much money, but with support from a certain community. That makes you think, “well who are you going to listen to then?” Are you going to listen to the majority of the people that you polled? Are you going to listen to the critics? Are you going to listen to a few colleagues who respond really positively? Are you going to listen to some undercurrent from your own generation who seem to respond to what you are doing? Or do you listen to yourself and try, come what may, to do what’s necessary? This gets back to this heroic approach for example. I look at some of those people and I feel that way about them. I feel that way about artists from the past too, although I didn’t know them and I wasn’t there to really see what happened. Some people who were incredibly individual and unique, whom I personally have found really touched me with their art, were extremely successful and others starved throughout their whole lives. Yet, I don’t know. I don’t want to base my life on somebody else’s approach, but I have to say I value that approach. They weren’t doing their work for me, yet it touches me that they did it.

BC. Where did Steve Reich’s support come from? His market may have been just two or three people who believed in what he was doing. That could be defined as a market, not necessarily just the audiences or the critics, or whatever.

BB. His initial support came from fellow composers, visual artists and musicians. I was involved in that. Russell was, heavily. There were quite a few of us who rehearsed hundreds of hours for Steve for free because we believed in the music and thought there was something important there. It wasn’t that we were just handing over a lot our time because we thought he deserved it and the music deserved it, although I thought the music merited my support, but I was learning a lot by doing it too. It certainly gave me something of a turn-on. He supported himself too. His work was important to him, so he drove a taxi cab for a number of years to make money. Steve’s a good schmoozer, so he was able to find connections. Like the paradigm of the abstract expressionist painters – finding patrons and finding those groups in New York society that were supportive of avant-garde work being done by people who were passionate and able to express what this work was about – why it was important. Steve was good at that. Whether or not his work is important ultimately, I don’t know, but he is able to create a sense of it’s being extremely urgent when he talks about it. That’s exciting, and it gets back to his own feeling about what he does. It’s not an assessment by other people that’s important. He’s able to be very passionate and sure of himself about this thing that he’s doing. That’s an incredible thing right there when you find someone who is able to do that – to be able to commit and to focus that intensely on something they’ve thought of.

BC. In Steve’s case, what you’re describing here is someone who not only is passionate about the creation of his art, but he’s also able to be passionate in communicating verbally about what he’s doing to supporters, to audiences, to whomever he deals with. Do you think that this is a skill that can be developed and ought it be a part of the artist’s skill? In other words it’s another way of making a bridge to other people. Let’s not call it marketing. Let’s just call it communication with other people about what you’re doing. Do you think that’s an important enough skill to merit being communicated somehow in a formal setting like a music school or an art school? Is that something that is capable of being learned at all?

BB. I think it’s absolutely learned. That implies that it can be taught, but I’m not sure it can be taught in schools, per se. Maybe. There are many different ways that this kind of communication can happen. Steve’s got one particular way that’s a very New York Jewish way. He’s got that ability, and it’s as much cultural as something he learned in any school . . . maybe more. You learn that growing up in New York among a group of people who talk like that and think that fast on their feet, and are that sure of themselves. Steve studied philosophy in school, so he’s got a very logical way of thinking, and he’s very intelligent. Not all artists are going to have that or even be capable of learning that kind of thing. Take a look at Miles Davis. Here’s a guy who on stage will just tell you “f___ off!” or “f___ you!” That’s about as far from being a (schmoozer) . . . but it’s passionate, and it communicates and people get off on it. Maybe it’s not so far from somebody like Steve, because I’ve seen Steve, and other artists who are operating at a high level, treat people like dirt, and in many cases people get off on that heavily. Are you going to teach that in schools – teach people how to dump on other people to get where they want to go – even though that’s a kind of greasing (of) the wheels that’s really different from being charming and eloquent when speaking about your work. But I’ve seen that work maybe even better sometimes. Maybe you’ve got to teach people to be themselves. It’s really difficult to know what people are going to respond to. Whatever “natural” is – whatever you are, whatever you’ve become growing up in your environment, whatever you are when you get to the point that you have to relate to this stuff – you have to lay yourself out. Part of it is luck. Your personality and your way, perhaps touches people and they get off on it for some reason – who knows – and they respond to it and you get success and you get what you ask for or what you demand. Or you don’t.

BC. I think there’s probably a trial and error aspect to this. There’s no golden rule.

BB. I’m just not sure that there’s a way to define all this stuff so that it can be taught – that there’s a methodology that ought to be adopted to allow artists to communicate with the public, whatever that is, that will work. Obviously there are things that work for certain people, but I’d hate to make a blanket rule about that kind of stuff.

BC. In this question I’m not looking for rules really. I’m looking for a general wind direction. When we were in school, I remember having lots of discussions with colleagues and even teachers. It was considered very trite and very condescending to say anything to an audience. In fact it was condescending to say anything, period, because what you did was supposed to be what spoke. You play the music; the music speaks, and that’s all the communication that’s necessary. That seemed to work fine for awhile until I got to another point, with NEXUS actually, when people started coming up and asking “what was that?”. . . “what did that mean?”. . . “what were you doing there?”. . . “what was that instrument?” . . . “it looked like you were having fun, but I don’t really understand what was going on.” Then I started looking for other ways of helping people to develop some way of understanding (or appreciating) what I was doing – in their own way. It’s not that there’s “a” way of understanding it. The issue I’m raising here is what does the performer need, if anything (maybe there is no need) – what other ways exist to open up bridges to understanding. It’s a trial and error thing and it’s probably going to be different in some way for everybody anyway. Is that what you’re saying? Do you feel you need to have other ways to advocate or describe what you’re doing? Have you encountered that with students or with audiences?

BB. I have been asked to describe things that I do, or to describe things that I’ve been interested in and that I have some experience with – that’s what workshops have been for me. Whether or not I can do them very well, at least I can talk about them. But, of course, that’s a very different kind of situation when everyone knows that is what is happening.

Whereas a performance . . . It’s a tough thing to answer for me, because I can see several perspectives

here. My personal feeling about it – let’s stick to music here since I know about it – musical performance is an event. It has a kind of magic about it. Maybe the most important thing about it for me, whether I’m playing or going to hear and see a musical event, is that magical element. When I use that word “magical” it’s very much bound up with mystery.

I read this somewhere – that mystery is not the absence of meaning, it’s the presence of more meaning than you can possibly comprehend. I want that. I don’t want to understand everything that’s going on – not me. Even if it’s a purely visual experience . . .

BC. It’s maybe presumptuous to think you can. (laughter)

BB. O.K. I think you’re right. You can’t. If it’s presumptuous for me to think that I can understand everything that’s going on, or even a tiny percentage of all that’s going on, would it not be presumptuous to try and communicate to an audience what they should understand about what’s going on? I like the fact that I don’t know everything and that there’s a magic to it, and I don’t want to pierce that bubble when I’m in it, because it’s so precious.

BC. Absolutely! Don’t misunderstand my question. It’s not about getting audiences to understand a specific thing or things, or to understand what you understand, or to understand anything. The issue is giving something other than performing, if it’s possible – I don’t know that it’s possible – using another tool to help people to develop their own understanding, whatever that is. That’s the beauty of the whole thing – when you go to an experience and you grow somehow – your understanding expands, whatever that understanding is . . . not to a specific thing – that’s way beyond the point, because it isn’t possible to have a totally shared understanding I think. The question has to do with other tools that artists can use to help people they are interacting with to come more fully to their own understanding, if it’s possible, with more than just the art vehicle itself – the performance, the painting. I suspect it is possible, but I’m not sure. These are issues that I’m wrestling with.

BB. Of course this kind of stuff happens. Otherwise none of us would be doing what we’re doing. We find out things about the experience of making art or having an artistic experience – being creative. Give workshops, write a book, give a lecture, but when you start to incorporate . . . You’re not really advocating teaching or being didactic.

BC. No.

BB. I’m not against expanding the creative environment for a concert, let’s say. I know that I respond to certain things personally, and other things will bring out a resistance right away. I can feel tension happen. I’m sure everybody’s sort of like that, but it’s probably more common among people who are professionally engaged in creative presentation. If you’re involved in that, you’re able to put yourself in the place of a person who’s presenting to you. You can be embarrassed very easily on behalf of somebody else, because you’ve been there. Perhaps you’ve done something similar. That’s how you relate and understand, because you see yourself in what the other person is doing. It either feels good or it doesn’t. When it doesn’t feel good I feel that – ugh! This is all very individual – what you feel comfortable with in a given situation.

BC. I can think of when I played in the Rochester Philharmonic. There were any number of times when I had to do something in the context of a concert that just wasn’t me – I had to go out in front of the orchestra and play on a typewriter or something, or I had to make a certain kind of vocal sound in the orchestra and it just didn’t feel right. But, the issue was that I had to do it anyway. I had to do it. This was my job. I was being paid and I had to do it. And I had to do it in a way that was convincing, because I felt I owed it, not only to the music and my colleagues – even though if I’d had my “druthers” I’d druther not be doing this – and there are going to be people listening to it and I owed it to them not to do it in a way that gives them the feeling that I don’t want to be there. There’s an element of acting to all of this too. I’m not saying that everything you do is acting. Maybe this is not true in the visual arts, but I think in a professional situation where you’re not always doing exactly what you would choose to do …

BB. Now that’s the critical point to me. My personal experience has been that through a clear perception or, more often than not, through either failure or my own magnetic fields, I just found myself pushed away from those kinds of situations, like a symphony orchestra. I found early on that this was not a place where I was comfortable, not only because of what you’re describing, but partly because of that kind of stuff. I found myself taking the path, not of least resistance, but of more pull – things that felt right to me, that I could do well, things that were me. I went in that direction. What you’re describing is something that’s getting a little beyond the purity of the way I was trying to conceptualize the issue, because now you’re talking about a job where you have to fulfill a role and you get paid to do something – things get thrown at you.

BC. This happens in NEXUS all the time.

BB. Oh yeah. It still does. And I’m still aware that in my life I’m being pushed and pulled in ways. This is one of the reasons I’m writing music. It’s a way to get even closer to my self.

BC. Let’s return to this issue of “sea” changes. What I’m seeing with symphony orcheatras – in fact it’s one of the reasons I left, but not the main reason – is that there’s a sea change for them too. More and more, in all areas, the musicians in symphony orchestras are being asked to do things that they haven’t been trained to do – relating to the public directly, shaking a bell in front of their music stands, playing pop or jazz styles, playing from different positions on stage. A lot of new things are coming at them from a lot of directions, and there’s a natural insecurity with trying new things. There’s a natural reluctance to change the model. At least in that world I’ve seen a big sea change and a lot of it is fairly recent – within the last five years or so. I’m starting to see the same things in other areas too – chamber music. After reading Chamber Music magazine, it seems that they’re also coming to terms, or at least an understanding that they’re going to have to look at what they’re doing in other ways.

Regarding the issue of predictability, one thing I encounter in my position in NEXUS in having to deal with presenters who want to have NEXUS come, is trying to help them to address their concern of wanting to give their markets or audiences something that they’ll get positive feedback on. They are looking for something they can use to tell their people about NEXUS, so that people can come to a NEXUS concert with some predictable idea of what they are going to get. Given the fact that nothing is predictable totally, that there is always randomness and there are always variables and some sort of spontaneity in a performance, how does this issue of predictability – not only in programming but even in the case of a percussion ensemble, which when you leave the conservatories and go to places where percussion ensembles are unknown – relate to the issue of using other tools to help people to understand what you are doing and to help them to open up and to receive it in whatever way they can? How do you deal with helping people to be comfortable with having an experience, not only with an unfamiliar repertoire but with simply going to hear an ensemble that’s totally different in live performance from those they may have experienced?

BB. If it’s something completely different from anything they’ve ever experienced in their lives – if they’ve never gone to a concert, if they’ve never heard people try to make music together – then I can’t help them. I can’t think of a thing I can do to help them other than to maybe say this is something you’ve never done in your life.

BC. It’s not that extreme.

BB. No it’s not. I think really what it comes down to is you sell personalities.

BC. That doesn’t seem to be any easier, because the presenters I’m talking to generally don’t know us. In fact it’s maybe harder for them. This is an issue that orchestras are dealing with, and it came up in the Chamber Music magazine articles. Do you see audiences being less willing to go to something to be surprised, to be adventurous, to want to be stimulated, to want to be taken in new directions? Or do you see rather that audiences are simply concerned with having the already familiar reinforced in some way? Do you have any observations about audience tendencies in one direction or another?

BB. I don’t think I can generalize about audiences in that way, because I’ve seen situations where things have been presented in such a way that the environment is exciting, and people will listen to anything.

BC. Ala the Winnipeg Contemporary Music Festival.

BB. . . . for example! People will listen to anything and love it.

BC. What is it that opens people up to say “yes!”? Do you have a handle on that?

BB. No. (laughter) I’ve seen it in action. In Europe there’s a tradition to this. Many people want the new and unusual and will seek it out. In North America maybe that’s true in a certain strata of society, but it’s certainly not common across the board in the heartland. That thing in Winnipeg is interesting. It’s hard to isolate a single element that makes it successful. It’s a real focused thing. It happens for one week. It happens during a time of the year in a city where the environment is extremely severe, so people are enclosed, like in an icebox, and here’s an event to take your mind off of it.

BC. It’s social in the context of the winter there.

BB. It’s glamorous. It’s held in a big venue. The media make a big deal out of it and support it on TV and radio. There’s a certain element of nationalism – rah, rah, support Winnipeg – so that there’s almost that element that you get in sporting events. That’s encouraged. And then there’s the bringing in of stars. Whether or not the population at large has ever heard of them, the media turn them into stars for a brief time. The personalities of those people are elevated to some extreme place. All that stuff works for them. And cheap prices, that’s the other thing.

BC. It’s accessible.

BB. And huge support from a cigarette company – totally politically incorrect – it could never happen without that. At least, it could never happen the way it does without that sort of backing. They get full houses in a big hall all week long because you can buy a ticket for three or four dollars.

BC. One point you just made that is interesting to me in the context of these questions is that there isn’t necessarily just one sea. There are a lot of seas. In Europe in general, there’s a different environment in terms of what is sought in a live performance in North America, but there’s also another sea in Winnipeg, so there undoubtedly are several seas.

BB. I still think that the personality aspect of this is powerful when marketing comes into play. Contemporary composers have been successful – Philip Glass and Steve Reich, among others. You’ve got real characters there. Orchestras traditionally have been marketed on the personalities of their conductors.

BC. Jazz is completely inseparable as an art form from the personalities involved. You don’t talk about pieces. You talk about Art Blakey, Wynton Marsalis, whomever.

BB. Musicians who are remembered from the past are big soloists, special characters, composers who were unique characters.

BC. I have a statement made by psychologist, James Hillman, in a book I read by Suzie Gablik that goes, “in our culture the notion of art being of service to anything is anathema. Service has been totally deleted from our view of art.” Presumably, by that he means service to other people. Does that generate any responses from you?

BB. When he makes a statement like that he’s focusing on something. He said “in our culture”. I think in North America there are a lot of places that don’t have a “culture” in the sense of an evolved artistic expression that’s broadly understood. It’s more on the level of a folk culture. In fact there are probably very few places in North America that have the kind of culture that I think he’s talking about. If he said “in the folk culture of America the notion of art being of service to anything is anathema”, then I would object, because then you get into a very different kind of culture where art is always in service to something. If you talk about Culture with a capital “C”, then I agree with his statement. That’s a European notion in my opinion, that “the notion of art being of service to anything is anathema.” That’s something that’s coming from a “high” culture – a highly evolved thing, not only in European culture, but you can also see it in the “high” culture of India, for example.

BC. It’s art for art’s sake.

BB. Yeah. There’s been a huge development that’s been supported by people with a lot of wealth and power over a long period of time, and it’s got a basis in something strong, usually a religion, that has fostered that kind of expression. That’s true of European culture as well as Indian. So you have a spiritual thing at the bottom of it that was deeply meaningful at some point, and maybe still is for a lot of people, or at least touches some place inside of us that we all want. You have this elaborate evolution of what really is a high capital-C “Culture” and the whole idea of creating something like that is that it’s independent of service. It’s abstract.

BC. But even an abstraction must have an end. It is in service to something.

BB. Well if you look at Indian music, ultimately it’s in praise of God. So the music is ultimately spiritual. I would apply that to European art music as well. Really, any kind of music is spiritual when it has been done well – right, correctly. That’s an important element, but how do you define it? What is the spiritual element of something? I don’t think I can define that without using other words that I equally can’t define. But, I don’t have a problem with that. It’s something to which I’ve committed my entire life. You can say that’s a very elitist idea, and that it can’t be sustained without financial security and without the opportunity for a substantial education. It has to be supported by an infrastructure that can be viewed as capitalist and decadent – using the working class, or ripping off other cultures that are less developed. It, as a structure, can be questioned and maybe should be, but I don’t question the power of the spirituality of the result.