Out of the fog
Pulsing but beat-less, visceral and physical, Tim Hecker's clouds of sound roll into MUTEK.
Eric Hill - May 19, 2010
A veteran of the Montreal experimental community, Tim Hecker has performed at the festival numerous times over the years as his international reputation has swelled to enviable proportions. Though he began his musical career as the ambient techno act Jetone, Hecker soon dropped all semblance of rhythm for more intense and atmospheric drone compositions under his own name. His work often bridges the divide between artful dissonance and avant-garde classical, delivering pieces that are at once harsh and soothing. He has since amassed a wide cult following with such classic albums as 2001’s “Haunt Me, Haunt Me Do It Again”, 2003’s “Radio Amor”, 2004’s “Mirages”, and 2006’s critical high-point “Harmony In Ultraviolet”. This year he returns to the festival stage to present innovations on his most recent recorded outings, including the 2009 album “An Imaginary Country”.
Tim Hecker will perform at the final A/Visions showcase, that he helped design, Saturday June 5 at the SAT. He plays alongside CM VON HAUSSWOLFF, VLADISLAV DELAY and in a special collaboration with BEN FROST, with whom he shares a distinctly guitar-oriented visceralism, which has turned both producers into cross-genre favourites with fans of experimental rock and noise music.
Just as MUTEK took its first few steps towards the future (what we know now as “the present”), Tim Hecker was already packed and ready to keep up. In the late 90s and early 00s he was carving out a niche for himself in the nascent minimal techno scene with releases under his early Jetone alias, including a Live in Montreal set on the Tony Boggs (Joshua Treble) & Chris Jeely (Accelera Deck)-run Aii netlabel. As Germany’s Mille Plateaux became a major taste-making label in electronic music, they recognized Montreal as an epicentre, and eventually opened a branch office. Jetone was one of their colonial anchors with the release of Ultramarin on their Force Inc. label as well as being a key artist on the 2002 Montreal Smoked Meat compilation.
While Jetone wasn’t exactly retired as a “phase” in Tim Hecker’s development, a decision to vacate strict beat structure began the redefinition of his music both for his audience and himself. “It’s partly that beat-driven electronics, especially in the early years, could be hampered by rigid tempo quantizing constraints. It had the effect sometimes of being a grid-like prison of predictability and metronomic dullness. Personally, it was liberating to leave percussion aside. [Being] unanchored from a snare opens things up considerably.”
While minimal techno continued to blossom and find its audience, this parallel strand of electronic music that was as interested with the bedroom stereo as the dance floor was also finding an audience. In Montreal labels like Constellation and Alien8 were doing an admirable job of nurturing a scene that Hecker, in a 2005 interview with Splendid, admitted was long in the making. “Montreal has had a long past with the genre [experimental electronics]. For what I am aware of, artists like David Kristian and Martin Tétrault have been working on such experimental music as least since the 1980s.” Hecker’s first contribution to this continuum came with Haunt me, Haunt Me, Do it Again on Alien8’s Substractif imprint. It was a subtle shock to the system that embodied the minimalism of Brian Eno or Aphex Twin’s best ambient works, but also held richness of detail down to the microscopic levels of its sounds. Hecker seemed immediately expert at communicating melodic beauty that was absent from the cold 4/4 of techno along with an intriguing messiness that also ran contrary to the organized clean of digital music.
LISTEN: Night Flight to your Heart Prt. 1 from Haunt Me, Haunt Me Do it Again (Substractif, 2001)
The heart of what makes Tim Hecker’s work special is this duality between the calculations of music created within a computer and its real world permeations. Where his early contemporaries like Frank Bretschneider or Alva Noto created an alternate reality that was sleek and disconnected from earthly elements, Hecker’s work was dappled with sunshine, chilled by permafrost and sailed on tropical breezes. It even displayed a willingness to crack wise and engage with the musical world beyond experimental electronics, as on My Love is Rotten to the Core, an EP that battered samples from 80s hair metal into new molten shapes. As he revealed in an interview with Cyclic Defrost this was not judgement from on high but a product of his (misspent) youth: “I had a really typical, for what is a North American, suburban childhood. I was exposed to stuff like MTV and I listened to my dad’s Meat Loaf and Fleetwood Mac eight-track tapes and stuff like that, you know. I wasn’t really educ ated in like John Cage and Xenakis or Stockhausen.”
In that same interview he describes the almost accidental entry point to his current artistic calling. “I’m essentially a product of failed bands, in the sense that I bought a sampler to emulate my drummer who wouldn’t show up to the practice space. So I played drum beats and looped it to continue playing music…. Before you know it, I was getting into more transformative structures of music, as opposed to traditional rock structures. And now I’m deep in the fog of abstraction!” Within this fog exists another musical duality: the fairly pure punk impulse to make a noise and send it off into the world and the poetic impulse to continually refine and redefine that noise so that it carries the greatest possible charge of meaning. On Radio Amor that involved marrying the real world story of a Honduran “high wire” shrimp fisherman to a soundtrack of deconstructed electric guitar. A simple, emotional engagement of minor chord guitar exposition would get the job of narration done, but the fragmentary nature of Hecker’s recounting allows for greater complexities within the storytelling.
Perhaps the trickiest balancing act of all is engaging in this process as an art form without disappearing into one of its many isolating academic cracks. When asked about how he conceives of his place in this he says “I can’t visualize my work fitting into a notion of popular culture public vs. an avant-garde or art one. It bleeds into both in surprising ways.” In an interview I did with Christian Fennesz, who collaborated with Hecker at last year’s MUTEK, he addressed similar concerns about this divide saying, “I think it is important that I’m not just in one very small genre that just a few 22-year-old men are listening to.” While both men’s work has superficial similarities that have been over-reported for a decade, the impulses behind their trajectory are almost mirror opposite. While Fennesz strives towards insuring that a certain popular thread continues to run through his challenging soundscapes, Hecker pushes from that pop center outwards, capturing fine art elements into the gravity he generates.
LISTEN: Where Shadows Make Shadows from An Imaginary Country (Kranky, 2009)
From the 2004 release Mirages to last year’s An Imaginary Country, these intellectual/ conceptual overlays have continued to deepen the well of signifiers that Hecker works with. From texts by Georges Bataille, paintings by Matisse and the music of Claude Debussy, he strives to build an aesthetic bridge, or more accurately a staircase, that transports him between individual and universal passions. All the while trying to avoid the emptiness of intellectual and political gestures that have no real meaning. Mirages’ press release included a hilariously hyperbolic call to arms against “trustafarian pseudo-leftists to the Ikea nihilists of the bobist rive droite. … With its motifs of eroticism and torture, militancy, and ecstatic pain, Mirages also points backwards towards the Viking penchant for fighting and feasting.” Again it’s important to mention his sense of humour.
How else to explain his Motley Crue remix, performed while dressed in medieval garb toting a beer cooler that introduced his performance with Fly Pan Am at the 2004 FIMAV festival in Victoriaville. That slightly lowbrow affair followed a previous collaboration at the 2003 FIMAV with Oren Ambarchi that was as sublime as the other was ridiculous. Ambarchi is a fellow traveller in the path towards finding new expressions for the electric guitar, and his tendencies to gather and compact tone to its hardest core fit incredibly well with Hecker’s vaporization. “It’s nice leaving the cocoon of solo practice to collaborate once and a while, and always strange in a good way to hear the direction someone else takes a piece in. The best is when an enigmatic synthesis takes place goes beyond a simple merging of two approaches. The worst is when it is a weaker version of two people’s work slammed together.”
At this year’s MUTEK the collaborative collision will come with Australia’s Ben Frost. It will come after two weeks of European shows, “sort of [an] annual tour I like to do in May. It’s not in support of anything really although I use it to play some pieces I’m in the middle of working on to get a sense of what works on a large PA system.“ How Frost’s moderately aggressive tendencies will gel with Hecker’s work should be a pleasure to discover.
On the current climate of the business that perpetuates his art Hecker bemoans ”the cultural-technological forces around the internet which brings success to niche artists are also the same forces which constrain the ability to profit off that success, if that makes sense. Small boutique labels often struggle to sell music in whatever form, and royalty cheques to artists are an increasingly rare thing. Hit the road!—the well-off establishment of yest eryear decries. That’s an insufficient, untenable and unsustainable answer to the issue.” Given this point of view it’s unsurprising that Hecker is reticent to speculate on the next decade of his career. “It’s a challenge, honestly, after doing maybe 8 albums to answer the question of why bother continuing to produce new work. Partly it’s the question of whether the world needs more music from the same person. I honestly don’t know the answer but I try to stay upbeat! Partly because I love working with sound, and also because that with each work it seems like there’s an ever greater cascade of failures and unrealized possibilities that need furthering.”
Eric Hill manages a venerable indie record shop, Backstreet Records, in Fredericton, NB. He has been a regular contributor to Exclaim! for many years and programmes the bi-monthly experimental music podcast Surgery Radio. He also curates the Surgery Series for Gallery Connexion in Fredericton.
Photos and audio used by permission of the artist.