“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.”