Tim Hecker: Reluctant Neo Eno

Tim Hecker: Ravedeath, 1972Tim Hecker: Ravedeath, 1972 (Kranky, 2/14/11)

Tim Hecker: “Hatred of Music I”

[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Hatred_of_Music_I.mp3|titles=Tim Hecker: “Hatred of Music I”]

Furls of white exhaust smoke are chugging from a pickup in winter. The engine idles and rattles the frame of the rusted truck, bright red against the new snow. The sound settles into a measurable rhythm. Yet the whole affair is wracked with the anxiety of waiting for someone to come along and relieve this mechanized panting with the full glory of acceleration and engine noise. No one arrives, because it is not a pickup truck.

Speaking with Tim Hecker might be a mistake. He ruins everything.

“I just destroyed all of your images in one fell swoop,” he says.

The sound that is not a truck becomes most prominent early on, at the outset of “In the Fog I,” the second track from the ambient electronic artist’s new album, Ravedeath, 1972. The centerpiece of the album — a church organ located within the small, wooden Frikirkjan Church in Reykjavik, Iceland — threads the entire work together thematically and acts as the sonic foundation of every piece.

The music for the organ was composed beforehand and recorded during a single session, on a single day (July 21, 2010, with engineer and collaborator Ben Frost), and the origin of the noise in question turns out to share as much specificity as the date that it was captured.

“You know what that is actually?” Hecker asks. “That’s actually the compression system of the pipe organ. It’s the microphones stuck inside the pipe-organ chamber and the air is just blowing. It’s kind of like a rotary system. It has this weird mechanical sound underneath all that noise. That’s really good listening. That’s great that you picked it out that way, but that’s the truth.”

Over the course of a decade and six official full-lengths, Montreal native Tim Hecker has emerged above the din of his contemporaries to make a name for himself within a genre that normally cultivates anonymity. Culminating with 2006 album Harmony in Ultraviolet, Hecker’s brand of sound art is arguably a compass point where all others in similar pursuits these days are drawn.

Like-minded electronic composers as disparate as Oneohtrix Point Never, Emeralds, and Benoit Pioulard have been journalistically clustered under the Hecker umbrella. At 36 years old, it is probably premature to deem Hecker an elder. Even with the long shadow of Brian Eno ever present among them, the term “ambient” seems improper and maybe even caustic. So, however improperly the music may be coined, or misheard, all of this tiptoeing makes any discussion of it problematic.

“Maybe I should never do interviews,” Hecker says. “I enjoy talking about music, so I wouldn’t not do them just to foster some mysteriousness about myself, but I think there’s a limit to what you can talk about.”

Hecker will shrug off any significance imposed upon things like song titles or album art. Though with a gatefold photo of a group of MIT students tossing a piano from a rooftop and with titles like “Hatred of Music,” he’d be lying or coy to insist that it’s all some irrelevant irreverence. But he does.

“I went over the top with that, and it was kind of funny,” he says. “It doesn’t seem like there’s much humor to that, but of course there’s lots of humor involved in those decisions. You could’ve made those songs about elephants making love in the Sahara, or in the high grass. And it would work, right? This is an elephant’s song. That could make sense, right? So when you say it’s about how crappy it is being a musician, or how I hate music, that works too. Just have a laugh with it. I do.

“At the end of a record, you want to shoot it and leave it in the road,” he adds, after a pause. “This one, I’m really proud of; I really think it’s one of the better things I’ve done. I still don’t want to be near it unless I really want to listen to it. It’s an exhausting amount of energy to do something well.”

The exhaustion of which he speaks culminated over time, after that single day spent inside the confines of Frikirkjan Church. In fact, it’s a bit misleading to characterize Ravedeath, 1972 as being recorded in a day. Though some tracks will let the organ resonate unadorned by electronic manipulation, letting the original environment breathe and be heard, it’s the work done after that day that complicates any easy classification of this music.

Hecker will agree with the similarity that its construction has with filmmaking, another touchy subject because many times the nearest crutch on which to lean is to delve into the cinematic, or soundtrack aspects, of his work. But on that single day in July of last year, he got “footage” and spent countless hours forging that day’s work into what would become the final recording. In that respect, it is like assembling a film — one without images but sound.

“Exactly,” Hecker concedes. “It’s editing montage like a film. It’s not a document of 60 minutes, without stopping, of one person jamming out in a church. It’s a complete act of sonic artifice. It’s the work of easily one month of mixing down and editing and pulling away.”

It’s in the pulling away that Hecker seems most engaged. He’s said in the past that the portions of an actual broadcast that he sampled for 2003 album Radio Amor were purposely drowned into the final mix so that the exact words would be difficult to discern, thus throwing a blanket over any transmission of a perceived message. On Ravedeath, 1972, there is the same kind of blur between what was captured organically on that day in that church and what was manipulated later in the circuitry of Hecker’s studio.

“I think it’s fair to say that about obfuscation,” he says. “It’s an overarching metaphor. I’ve always been interested in that threshold of being between, of hiding, obfuscating. It’s so suggestive. Certain painters in the ’70s would blur faces or portraits with a brush or a squeegee — I’ve always been into that with sound.”

But Hecker’s music also is predominately about evocation. The fact that this music cannot exist without a listener also means that the listener is just as responsible for what any of it might mean, if it means anything at all. Hecker jests that with the simple decision of switching a phrase printed on an album sleeve, a song could as easily be about mating elephants as it is about enduring as a musician in the digital era. If what he says is true, then it is a goddamn pickup truck. Do not let the man who made it tell you otherwise. After all, he’s an admitted failure.

“All of my records are failures in some ways,” Hecker notes. “I have these super-grandiose hopes for how the work will turn out, and I don’t think I ever realize them. So I would say that they’re failures.”

So why bother at all? Hecker made the deliberate decision to capture this music inside a church, a place where throngs gather to seek something beyond their own selves. Ravedeath, 1972 is secular music, but maybe that’s an assumption too. Now we know that there is no car engine. Despite the environs, there is no God here. But if you happen to hear them both, not even Tim Hecker can destroy that. If you listen to him as carefully as his music, you might hear something that sounds like salvation.

“I do this because it makes me feel alive and human and gives me the feeling of contributing something to the world,” he says. “But also, not going crazy. Not writing music leads me to periods of despair. It’s a good thing when I make music. It’s given me great pleasure and great pain over the years, but it’s something I’ve always needed to do.”

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