Notes On A Tim Hecker Concert

FullSizeRender-35 copy

“A lot of good things come from isolation and hard work and being truthful to some object. The first work of artists often comes from that angle, the liberation of expectation from what that work will be.”
– Tim Hecker (interviewed here).

Recently I went to see the Canadian electronic musician Tim Hecker perform at Warsaw in Brooklyn. Hecker has been increasingly recognized over the past few years for the depth and layered complexity of his hard to categorize experimental music. His sound is a kind of best blend of the digital and the acoustic that steadfastly avoids the obvious in pursuit of the challenging and often, the beautiful. The sound sets on his latest release, Love Streams, incorporate field recordings of pipe organ recorded in Iceland, voices singing bits of Josquin Des Prez, and what sounds like electric guitar mangled, arranged, and finessed with processing into huge swaths of affect that behave like clouds.

In performance what stands out about Hecker and what makes his concerts a something to behold is his interest in pulsation rather than rhythm per se. At his Warsaw show I was struck by the varieties and subtleties of pulsing organ-ish chords, white noise, piston-sounding percussion, and low bass tones. These sound layers seemed to be constantly working against and through one another. The pulsations never line up, creating constant clashing, constant wah wah beating effects. The music heaves and lumbers, like clouds, yes, but also like giant ocean waves. There’s just so much depth and detail here–almost too much to process.

Along with its layers of noisy pulsations Hecker’s music is, to my ear, essentially a mutated species of tonal music, filled with all manner of chords, though you’re hard pressed to hear recognizable ones. Forget major and minor; Resident Advisor aptly describes the sound as “chaos with a patina of melody.” The chords are always disguised, always in processual unfolding, always the by-product of extensive sound layering in which it is hard know what the sounds are, how numerous they are, or where the digital takes over from the electric or the recorded acoustic. This kind of thick layering can have immense emotional effects.

Every few minutes you can hear a transition in Hecker’s set–a point a which one sound set fades into another, where a harsh digital harpsichord sound appears (10:48pm), where a three note up and down bassline appears (10:54), where super low tumble-muffled drum sounds appear but without discernible rhythm and then the bottom disappears (10:55), where a warped music box appears (11:03), where low feedbacking electric guitars appear (11:07), and so on. And through all these types of changes the concert hall remains dark–I couldn’t see Hecker from where I was standing–and rather punishing high volume brings everything to viscerality.

Listening to Hecker play his set I thought about the ways his music works against getting a handle on it, works against finding it’s sense; how it works to undermine your sense-making. The textures are so opaque with sound layers and the cues for directions–rhythmic or melo-harmonic–so not obvious that the listener needs to step up his interpretive game. As I listened to the set I thought about where it might be going, yet at almost every point of reflection the music went somewhere I wasn’t expecting, lingering on those cloud-waves of dissonance and pulsation, pushing the audience to stay with it just a little more, just a little longer. It was as if the music held the therapeutic promise of resolving itself at some point. But that would be too easy.

What is the social contract between musical performer and listener? Within the implicit genre constraints of Hecker’s music what is the performer trying to do? Surprise us? Overwhelm us? Chart uncharted paths for us? And what role do we play in facilitating the performer’s quest? I ask these questions not because Hecker didn’t deliver a powerful live set–he did–but because his performance raised questions and had me reflecting on what it is that performer and listener are working to accomplish together in the first place. I don’t have the answer, but sometimes it’s the gap between the music and our perception of it that holds clues. After the show as I was walking to the subway I passed a few guys (most of the audience was male) who had been at the show. Chatting in front of a bar they were unpacking what they had heard over the past hour and their expectations for Hecker’s set. “I thought he was building up to something and then the lights would go on” one of them said. “But he never got there.”

Curating The Week: A Trial Over Opening Chords, Music Listening, And The Spatial Layout Of Orchestras


An article on the case of whether not the chords of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” are stolen.

“While it is true that a descending chromatic four-chord progression is a common convention that abounds in the music industry, the similarities here transcend this core structure. What remains is a subjective assessment of the ‘concept and feel’ of two works … a task no more suitable for a judge than for a jury.”

• Two articles about music listening in our age of plenty, here

“I don’t need to know anybody at all to find music that appeals to my sensibility, the result of increasing algorithms and tracking, increasingly cooler music on TV shows and in movies that’s easy to find, whether by Shazam or just by living on the Internet.”

and here.

“I do feel pessimistic about the whole project. I do feel that if the great push of the smartest minds in this business is moving towards efficiency in curating for you, in delivering you what it knows you will like from the great abundance, well, something’s being lost, isn’t it? Isn’t the thing that’s being lost you and your efforts to figure out what you like and you respond to?”

An article about how the spatial layout of orchestras is arranged according to the biology of the brain.

“The seating arrangement of modern orchestras mirrors the listening bias of human ears. The ears project to the opposite brain hemisphere’s auditory cortex, which is where the listening bias originates. In this way, the seeming cultural oddity of who sits where in an orchestra could actually be the result of a biological oddity of brain organisation. It is not just a historical accident akin to driving on the right or left. In the concert hall, the cultural and the biological are closely intertwined.”

Brett’s Sound Picks: The Field’s “Pink Sun”


“I think that the music of our time has succeeded in achieving a kind of texture in which musical atoms (pitches and intervals) and dualisms (melody and harmony, dissonance and consonance, diatonic and chromatic) become absorbed in an overall background, so that what one hears in a great deal of contemporary music is background brought up close, with projections consisting of fragments, or bits and parts–one might even say memories–of individuals…The behavior, the role, and, in many cases, the identity of the individual atom become lost in the larger presentation.”

“I bring in the reference to persons not because the music is about persons, which would reduce music to only a metaphor, but because it is for persons. Musical behavior is my behavior, and the understanding of a certain kind of musical motion stands in a symbiotic relationship to the understanding of myself and my culture” (172).
-Thomas Clifton, Music as Heard (Yale U. Press, 1983, pp. 168, 172).

What makes this music move is its motions—
the play of the bouncing samples against the main pulse,
crossing chord and voice fours over steady synths, cymbals, claps, and kick threes.
This crossing against creates torsion,
suspenseful edges for our expectations.

New Simplicities: On The Trickle-Down Of Pop And Soundtrack Aesthetics In Contemporary Classical Music

The phrase “new simplicities” occurred to me over the past few months while listening to the tuneful, accessible musics of Olafur Arnalds, Nils Frahm, Max Richter, and (even, briefly) Ludovico Einaudi. Much of this music is for piano or at least features piano, cycles through a few repeating chords, and lies on the gentler end of the musical affect spectrum. Some people call it “post-minimalist” classical music–an appropriate label considering how it uses repetition and situates itself squarely in the tonal realm. But the music reflects other influences too, including ambient, film scores, and, inescapably, pop. In fact, to my ear the chord structures of these pieces sound like traces from popular songs, as if, to riff on Mendelssohn, they were once songs with words and are now songs without. Here are some examples:

Listen to Arnolds’ “Þú Ert Jörðin” for piano, strings, and a beguiling electronic lead sound. (This piece has been streamed 20 million times on Spotify by the way.)

and his “Near Light” (12 million Spotify streams)

Listen to Frahm’s piano piece “Amber” (21 million streams)

Listen to Arnalds’ and Frahm’s “Life Story”–a collaboration in which the piano sounds are gentle, muted, and ringing, blurring the notes into one seamless chord wash.

Listen to Richter’s “Written On The Sky” (10 million streams)

And finally, listen to Einaudi’s “Nuvole bianche” (36 million streams).

It’s interesting to use these musics to think through our cultural moment. Painting with broad, generalizing strokes, Why are the musics so popular and what does their popularity say about our listening and what we’re listening for today? The answer has something to do with the way the pieces gesture towards a particular kind of emotionality bordering on sentimentality–as if the musics are designed expressly to make you feel stuff and have the sense that many others feel just as you do. Also, the popularity of these pieces is unthinkable without our collective exposure to the ways music has been used in film, TV, and advertising over the past century. This use of music to support other media in turn connects to a long history of European classical music and the various ways it has gone about encoding feeling over the centuries. In other words, part of the reason these musics work is that we’ve been thoroughly enculturated to respond to their tonal language, whether we want to or not. That being said, some of it is excellent.

Anyway, zooming out to the bigger picture. Consider an idea and an image: it is as if these musics have a pre-mediated sound–as if they were intended all along not as listening objects but as soundtracks to be woven into our lives. It’s the perfect music for our era of the quantified self watching itself–sounds to soundtrack our faces looking into screens and seeing their own reflections, always seeking connection, reaching out, almost touching, but trapped in digital cells of our own making.

Curating The Week: On Tim Hecker, Composers Doing Field Research, And The Decline Of EDM


An interview with electronic musician Tim Hecker.

“It’s a fight to dial into something that has meaning.”

An article about composers doing field research.

“With a sense of racing against time, composers are conducting field research with the goal of preserving or celebrating lost tongues in their work.”

An article about the decline of electronic dance music.

“EDM—the hype-fueled, glowstick-twirling meeting of Southern California rave culture, Vegas bombast, youthful hedonism, and corporations eager to cash in—was always an unsustainable proposition. Like capitalism, it was predicated on limitless growth—ever bigger main stages, ever fatter paychecks for the DJs, ever brighter sparklers jutting from the jeroboams in the VIP section. But as everyone knows, that shit can’t go on forever. The bursting of the EDM bubble was a foregone conclusion.”

Musical Resonances In “City Of Gold”

“In a lot of ways I think food is starting to take the place in culture that rock and roll took 30 years ago, in that eating has become incredibly political. And just as the street has always dictated fashions on music and other things, it’s starting to happen that way in food.” – Jonathan Gold

Is there is a special connection between the world of music and the world of food? I thought about this question as I watched “City Of Gold”, a recent documentary about the restaurant critic Jonathan Gold. There is, at the very least, something very musical about Gold himself. He grew up playing cello and listening to classical music, studied music and art in college, and began reporting on food and popular music in the mid-1980s. Since 2012 he has been the L.A. Times’ restaurant critic, publishing weekly reviews on the city’s best eateries, often focusing on little known places hidden in plain sight. “City Of Gold” brings us into Gold’s life as a critic and at home with his family. We fellow him around in his pick-up truck as he drives to strip malls for Northern Thai and food trucks for tacos, see him pitching ideas to editors at work, watch him sit super still in front of his laptop thinking but not yet typing, and eavesdrop as he talks with his kids at an art gallery. Gold always seems to be thinking about his work–while eating, while writing, while talking with others about food, while reading up on histories of regional cuisines, and of course, while driving his truck all over L.A. seeking his next culinary discovery. He comes across as both a composer and an improviser–on the one hand, taking his time, savoring essences, and planning; and on the other hand, delighting in playful, on the spot verbal quick fire. You sense that this someone at once deeply thoughtful and intuitive, following his curiosity down whatever paths they lead.

Watching Gold go about his work it struck me that writing about food is something like writing about music. Consider this: both eating and listening are evanescent encounters with passing stimuli that can conjure a spectrum of powerful sensations, feelings, and even memories. How does one write about such encounters in a way that captures their depth of feeling, gives them context, and renders their relationship to the eater or listener? Does one focus on the particulars (flavors, sounds) or on the associations they conjure? “City Of Gold” gives us a sense of how one critic goes about evaluating the intangible matters of taste by celebrating them with grace and generosity.