For the uninitiated, coming across the work of Tim Hecker can be like taking a 90-degree turn away from anything they have ever known as ‘music’.
First there are the simple, haunting melodies upon which layers of white noise and distortion build; then a sense of both development and collapse, with splinters of disintegrating sound, crackles, hiss and deep reverberations pulsing across utterly new and foreboding landscapes in sound. There is bending, blending and inversion, the stutter and start of ideas becoming noise and new melody, taking shape before suddenly metamorphosing into something more menacing or more beautiful – or both. Hecker’s technical and emotional control of this sonic palette is astonishing.
On his third visit to Australia but his first appearance in Adelaide, Hecker will perform both with Daniel Lopatin and solo, as part of the Unsound Festival, within the program of the Adelaide Festival.
It may seem Hecker is creating work quite unlike anyone else – indeed he is – but he does emerge from a tradition. Chatting from his studio in Montreal, Canada, last week, he insists rightly that “My work doesn’t come out of a Petri dish,” when asked about works such as 2006’s remarkable Harmony in Ultraviolet or 2009’s An Imaginary Country. “It’s closely affiliated with different artists, with ‘regimes of work’ or ‘musical sub-genres’ or whatever you want to call them. It’s hopefully a good execution of a hybrid of a bunch of things that interest me, the aesthetic palette that I’ve been working on at that point… (Harmony in Ultraviolet) was the culmination of seven years’ work to get to that tonal development.”
Abstract painting, Hecker finds, provides the best metaphor for how he works, combining techniques of building layer upon layer, from original melody, with that of deconstructing, towards a kind of oblivion. “It’s like paint scraping, or like a kind of abstract painting where you might start out with a few bold colours, things get added, then a knife comes out and stuff gets taken away, then things get put back, moved to the other side… I start out with little motifs and expand around them, make flourishes, I weave fabric, and at some point I cut out holes in that fabric, and make some crazy Grandma patch, and then maybe photocopy that, chop it up, then re-glue it with paper mache…
“That’s the hope of my process, a slightly educated kind of thrashing, of turning pieces over and into themselves.”
Random processes may abound, but as with the finest of abstract artists – and Hecker cites Gerhard Richter as an inspiration – there’s a very strong sense of control, of knowing when enough is enough; knowing what works, and what does not.
“There is no set of rules; there are mini-judgments that you are continually making about the direction the work is going, the palette it is forming. I’m involved in every process of sound creation: traditional mixing, editing, composition – it’s all a sculptural process for me. But the starting point is invariably the melody, which gets me emotionally invested in the work, more so than the abstract, textural sonic qualities. It’s usually a harmonic relationship.”
Hecker’s work is a kind of ontology, and examination of the theoretical and practical possibilities of sound – stretching and pushing, building and bashing and deconstructing, seeing just where & how far things can go.
“I’m not interested in Sound with a capital S, but I am a person who works in that medium, and I use it as a sculptural form. I still do types of classical composition; I’m still interested in the plasticity of sound. I’m not like Tod Dockstader or Xenakis; I’m actually interested in melodic and neo-romantic forms in relationship to that plasticity. That is not to say I’m not that radical in sound transformation; that is just one part of my interests.”
Does Hecker think his music reflects, or grows out of, a sense of pulverization, of the fragmentation of human experience in a post-modern, western world?
“I’ve been thinking about that lately. Some of my good friends who work in sound take a post-post-modern response, looking for perfect cleanliness, and that is as legitimate an approach as the disintegration and my focus on sonic decay, all the negative spaces and black holes that are a possible by-product of the corrupted palette. I am definitely interested in things that are more damaged generally.”
And, of course, finding beauty in that damaged, corrupted world.
“For me, once it gets beat up to a certain point, there’s a kind of unity that forms. If you started with a melodic or harmonic kernel, that will hopefully still shine through, even though it’s a new, damaged, flattened, or oblong-shaped thing.”
The metamorphosis is what keeps things interesting for Hecker who, by no means a veteran, has been creating new worlds in sound for some years now. As for his upcoming performances at the Adelaide Festival both solo and with Daniel Lopatin, he is wary of the program notes that promise an ‘aurally warm set’.
“I wouldn’t use a term like ‘warm’ – warmth is a kind of loaded thing that involves emotive states, the music can be equally cold and alienating as it is blanketing and soothing. I’d say both, a distinctly ambivalent sonic presentation. Both cold and warm combined into a confusing knot,” he laughs, hoping words have come some way towards describing a show that really must be experienced first-hand, and heard, and felt.
Tim Hecker performs with Daniel Lopatin on Thursday, March 14 and solo on Friday, March 15 at the Queen’s Theatre