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Forces In Ambient; Tim Hecker

Tim Hecker, the Canadian musical artist whose albums create relationships in sound that at times confer feelings as to a most daring encounter or dance; in the most abstracted and imaginative of senses.

Paragon Point (above) from 2009’s ‘An Imaginery Country’ exudes a shimmering vastness to its drone, guided by a tonality that has the kind of haunted, soaring harmonic element that places it absolutely alongside Autechre, Boards of Canada and others, creating genuine moments of wonder and presence, sometimes eerie or resplendent, even while a fuller wildness or propulsive viscerality is emerging.

Paragon Point among others, can generate a very specific kind of relation with the spatial expression of the sounds. Spaces that resonate with a kind of ontological celestialism in the mind – that we are hearing the appearance of alien worlds, or stars on a vast cosmic wing of space, or ferral fields of metallo-sonoric plants. Forms of ringing life or unlife, that sing in the dark membranous light-worlds of eternity.

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I struggle to remember first hearing or learning of Hecker, which on one level adds to this feeling of him occupying some space of necessity to me, as if I have always carried the space and imagination of these sounds, or their analogues in a different form. It is most likely that I was alerted by the algorithm, perhaps to this song from 2006’s Harmony In Ultraviolet, ‘Blood Rainbow’.

At different times, I am struck by a certain dread austerity in its affect, perhaps around a sense that its obvious vastness is also somehow claustrophobic.  Its reverb backwash (that forms brilliantly into a sporadic drone of its own) among a seething, quietly hissing tide that resonates through everything and yet to give this song your feelings suggests an uneasy linkage – there is a disquiet of alarm alongside a searing sonic mood here. Perhaps my dilemma now, many years later in returning to this track that introduced me to Hecker’s productions, is simultaneously woven through the imagery and implication of its title.

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Dropped Pianos could also be considered something of a complicated listen, through its inviting and sometimes dirty piano-led texturing. It feels like its an experiment that draws upon the potential of the piano, but often where it is coldest, while still impressing with its emotive pallete. Although in its quieter moments like Sketch 4 it opens the field of the song to more space and subtlety, deft with a touch of Hecker’s assured, precise confidence in simplcity that at times, sends his songs to places of unmitigated contact.

There is the experimental feel, like searching out different capacities with the piano as voice. Sketches as such seems apt for these pieces, sometimes looping with a touch of the beguiling. Like Sketch 7 with its aquatic brightness, diving and returning through unknown but luminous.

While Sketch 9‘s piano chords, grandiose and subdued, sad and lovely in some subtly enhanced intonation – is slowly pierced by a blaze-tinged bass and reed that ascends the mix obliterating those quietly rich chords and effectively embalming them. It is in this instance, a giving over to a form of vastness ineffectively distinct to the impact of the silences that had preceded it.

In a way this seems redolent of its twin release Ravedeath 1972, whose humumgous drones can leave one gasping for space in which to appreciate these often alluring and startling melodicities. Again yearning for a different kind of impact of silence than that in contact with its dense corpus and tide-like glistenings. Ravedeath 1972 shows again Hecker’s interest in sound under pressure. Specifically in melodic leads or tonally significant basses and mids. There are often filters and delayed filters that suggest at any moment a sound might blast out of its form, or be overtaken by its trailing swarm of chorus or delay effect. These sounds become hyper-vibrant fields of simultaneous stability and turbulence, harmonic roles in scarcely pacified assemblages of song.

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Later albums explore some complex melodic and sonic interplays, involving orchestral instruments and electronics, sometimes with highly charged and viscerally propellant sonic aspects.   There are moments on albums like Virgins and Love Streams (further below) which are simply stunning, although it is on some of his more sonically minimal albums that I would argue the most astute and transformative work emerges.

‘Radio Amor’ (above) from 2003 adopts a decidedly minised and ‘subdermal’ approach, messages, sounds and songs hang about in a near inaudible haze and fuzz, travelling through which are a succession of tonally minimal and yet melodically successful motifs.  Glitched and jammed on micro loops of piano notes, held and then re-pitched, occasionally unfurled through its harmonic counterpart before returning, or daring onto the next textural plateau. It is in glaring simplicity, poised and delicate, despite its utilisation of the glitched and dysfunctional

With track The Star Compass, it also returns effectively to a kind of sound which Hecker had previously visited in the serenely affecting first album from 2001 Haunt Me, Haunt Me, Do It Again. A kind of jutterring, shine-laden melodic pulsation that comes as kin to the affect of the night time celestial. It somehow maintains through its lead melodic instrument, albeit quietly minimal, a dense enough timbre, that when it turns and moves in pitches it is sufficiently enmeshed and resonant with its quiet background space and hum, that it takes you with it in its sense of experience and discovery. A silvery cobweb of impulses and trajectories, traversing the void of space.

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Hecker is a sonic explorer and if you haven’t followed his output, or are relatively new to him, then his albums are numerous. Take 2019’s Anoyo (above) which meld’s Hecker’s fine sense of purring sustained drone-tones with some quite startling and uneasy yipping sonorities, before blurring back into such beautiful, haunting fields of slow-turning, gently arcing tones. In some ways it is among his most effective work, maintaining contact with a sense of the cosmic that has always been there and now working it through with a Japanese/East Asian folk music component, populating the percussion and other melodic portions by the Koto or Shamisen (or similar instruments).

There are times when we hear threads to Hecker’s other work, the parping fields of final song ‘You never were‘ (below) take us out through Hecker’s bristling fields of sonic liveliness, like mimetic electrified plant shoots that roil and jut, sparking pulses out into the night.

When you are genuinely engaged and participating in listening to the glimmering of its most alien and affective moments, a song like You Never Were, and music like this from Hecker – it would seem a mistake to think that what this is, something simply called listening to music – even while understanding the necessary lightness that must go alongside such a thought. It is more like realising that these are woven and wrought stories and experiences in sonic form, that carry with their very presence, realities of what they convey; that they are travelling through spaces, delivered as feelings of spaces, some of which are themselves feelings.

While such is the specificity and subtlety of this extraordinary (sonic) appearance, that at a certain point it almost seems possible to hear the edge of a feeling or tonally a sense; something in the melodicity, or the overall tonalities – and it almost feels like we are alighting on what might really be haunting the artist. ‘You never were’ ends in turn with overlaid electric piano, touching and full, yet forlorn and reduced from its earlier dalliance alongside the cosmic.

And here it seems is an emergent question of intensive dynamics. Those earlier sonic instances another kind of feeling or becoming through what this music suggests at its outer edges – something wonderful and extraordinary. In these moments also we are reminded what is so vibrant and transformative about music in its relation to being, that it, while also just being soundwaves, is something of an intensity that relates with us on the level of life, as to our experiences, our understanding, our connections and their unknown dimensions.

Its sometimes in this openness to massively populated fields of sound and extance that Hecker can generate things with more of an oppressive timbre. And for its overall incendiary achievements in sound, it is also clear from 2013’s Virgins album cover imagery and its inteplexing titles over the virginal and the stabbing, that there is also a decry towards facets of life centred through cruelty, or power and control, unveiling its conceptually arrayed sexuality through the entrenched act of penetrative defloration. The ultimate trope of the perpetually and violently de-innocensed. Such a thematic concern has many risks, not least it completely forgets its connective vector to what are in Hecker’s case, beautifully wrought deterritorialisations through sounds, opportunities of the perpetually alien and stunning. Is this meant as a balance in some way with Hecker’s albums named and dedicated to Love?

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Virgins is in turn subtle, chaotic, ephemeral, ethereal, graceful and barbaric. In its viscerality, it coveys these things with complete commitment and realisation, and invites our own experiences with what could be said to be Hecker’s most sonically diverse album, between its deformed and interrupted orchestral moments, reformed as seething dronic expulsions to those quiet and exquisite glitching piano. The subtlety of Hecker’s abundant strength of deformation goes down to these quiet moments, showing us again and again the emotive, expressive resonance of both the interruption (eruption) and its augmentive capacity to even the simplest and most delicate form. A mark of revelatory capability.

To start with, its necessary to remember that Hecker is completely across tonality, he is using sounds and tones that can produce real dischord and at times this is sublimely balanced as with the track ‘Live Room‘ where a whole barrage of tearings and rippings take place across clattering and brittle staccato piano, before the serene counter balancing warmth of the drone re-emerges, becoming a melody of touch and gently surging synth waves and old tape-washed spaces. A true maestro of tonalities is evident here.

Virgins is also home to a stunning and gentle piano motif, that haunts through the piece like islands of poised beauty before returning to full effect in later track ‘Black Refraction’ (above). It is a demonstration of Hecker’s range, as subtle and quietly turbulent waves lap against the refrain when we first encounter it touched on for just a moment, as a melodic futural at end of the track ‘Virginal.’

As Virgins winds out to its conclusion, it is again noticeable that this is probably Hecker’s most integrated album in the context of creating a singular, polyphonic space that is consistent with itself. This despite its extraordinary range and array of evocations and despite also its actual composition of the electronic, the densely noise-radiant and a chamber orchestra of instruments including a piano lead. The thought arises that here is someone who lives in music and knows it brilliantly well.

Towards its end, latter parts of final track ‘Stab Variation’ (above) and after its astonishing burst of tremeloed invasions, we arrive at a sonic space of a kind of crypto-melodics. Shards and strands of melody are suspended and truncated, set apart to be found anew again and to have their strange relation and distance somehow work to amplify their power and affect. Surged through by drones, expressing also that these other distended and refracted sonics, the fields in which these melodic brightnesses reside and bifurcate, are equally themselves as much and as readily a part of the overall and resonant space.

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What I end up with is this a composition even in fullness, with the absolute spareness of total connection and presence, which leaves me feeling that it’s as good a short-hand for Tim Hecker’s work on these pages as is likely to arrive.

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