Tim Hecker

Doomed instruments and fictional pasts

Text by Tim Burrows

Tank _vol 7issue 228

Portrait by Mathieu Fortin 

On Ravedeath, 1972, the sixth album by Montreal-based artist Tim Hecker, grand vistas of surging melody and contemplative harmony are tempered by feedback that infiltrates like an annihilative, insidious gas. Like most Hecker albums, it relies on the sum of its parts (songs with titles like archive tags, a cover that includes a grainy black-and-white photograph of a crowd of people pushing a piano off a tall building) to create an aesthetic that is somewhere between intellectual asceticism and psychedelic abandonment.

The record shares something of the mournfulness of Burial’s THC-inspired night-bus sound collages. “I guess that’s an apt comparison,” Hecker agrees. “I think there’s a kind of psychic sympathy between us.” His work is far more abstract than Burial’s fluid 2-step, though; instead of being led by a percussive beat, it echoes with quivering white noise that recalls My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless.

If anything, Hecker’s work can be seen as an abstract form of documentary, representing fragments of time or place or minute details of its creator’s headspace. “A lot of the stuff that interests me visually is stuff like Gerhard Richter’s Atlas series, which is not nostalgic but more like historical documentation,” Hecker says. “It is austere, but incredibly powerful and well put together. I think nostalgia is crazy right now – it’s a machine in absolute hyperdrive. I’m not a futurist at all, but I like alterity, something different that is not just referencing the past. I think of history more in terms of fictional approaches. One of the reasons I use a lot of dates in my song titles is to convey the past as fictional, as an unrealised event or situation that can lead to some sort of creative idea instead of a sober documentation of reality.”

Five years ago Hecker gave up his nine-to-five as a policy analyst for the Canadian government and now studies and lectures at McGill University in Montreal. At the moment, he is writing about cultures of loudness in the early 20th century. “North American society believed that loud sounds had certain powers to produce and generate different things,” he explains. “Right now I’m writing about nautical signaling, stuff like foghorns.” He recently travelled to Atlantic City to see the world’s largest musical instrument, the Atlantic City Convention Hall Organ, which was built in the late 1920s. “It was a surround-sound musical device before they even existed, and it could be pummelling loud, but now it is completely fucked,” he laments. “The pipes are built into these clusters inside the walls but out of eight or ten clusters, only one works. It should be given the same amount of cultural integrity and value as something like the Eiffel Tower, but it’s just completely fallen to shit.”

Songs like “Hatred of Music II” could easily be minimal elegies to this doomed instrument. Much of the album was recorded at a church in Reykjavik and features its creaky pipe organ floating amid the flow of feedback, or buried under thick layers of ambient sound. These acoustic elements mark the new album out from Hecker’s past work. “It was really different from the internal mixing-board stuff I usually do,” he explains. “I’ve recorded live in a space before, but this was totally going that way, using eight microphones and creating a lot of feedback.” His favoured method of composition, though, has remained largely unchanged. “For me, it is always a studio-based process of editing down audio,” he explains, “manipulating it almost as if you were making a sculpture, until it becomes something else.”

Some have linked the vast spaces of Canada to Hecker’s work, an idea he swiftly rejects. “Writing and creation is always so much more than the person’s feelings or the space they live in,” he says. “It sometimes feels like when you have your hands on the Ouija board, but the Ouija board is moving on its own. There’s a point where you just go and you are riding on a horse that has an idea of which trail to take. You just kind of go there, but it’s not you.” §

Ravedeath, 1972 is out now on Kranky. sunblind.net