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“Disarming and Channeling the Distracted Modern Mind”: Five Questions with Tim Hecker

Since his first release under his own name, 2001’s Haunt Me, Haunt Me Do It Again, Tim Hecker has been making a name for himself as an innovator in the world of experimental electronic music. SPIN recently called him “the mad scientist of rumbles and roars”; his concoctions are carefully constructed soundscapes that evoke a […]

Tim Hecker. Photo courtest of artist.

Tim Hecker. Photo courtesy the artist

Since his first release under his own name, 2001’s Haunt Me, Haunt Me Do It Again, Tim Hecker has been making a name for himself as an innovator in the world of experimental electronic music. SPIN recently called him “the mad scientist of rumbles and roars”; his concoctions are carefully constructed soundscapes that evoke a looming eeriness. Guitars and organs make their entrance and stake their claim for minutes on end, as other voices periodically add to the vast wash of texture. His 2011 album Ravedeath, 1972 was critically acclaimed for this haunting, ambient sound, balancing tranquility and anxiety. However, a shift has occurred in Hecker’s recent work, and he will be at the Walker on Saturday night to share these new creations.

Hecker’s newest album, Virgins, certainly works within the same world of his previous releases. This world, however, has been brought into sharper focus, and the newly revealed details are slightly disturbing. Lines and shapes begin to form in the haze: minimalistic motives are hammered on a piano and distinct woodwind timbres makes themselves heard above the drones.

In “Black Refraction,” cyclic phrases in the piano are slightly offset, sending the ear into an uneven swing that mirrors the pendulous incense in Sabrina Ratté’s video. But the unease in “Black Refraction” is Hecker at his mildest on Virgins; at other times, his sounds are powerfully shocking. In “Virginal II” the growth of the piano and percussion becomes almost overwhelming before drifting into a more amorphous blend of synths. This higher contrast in Hecker’s sound makes his music more immediately present, consuming the listener rather than the other way around. As NPR put it, “What had always been vaguely melancholy, solitary and dreamlike is now harrowingly vivid, visceral and real, yet no less mesmerizing.”

At the Walker, Hecker will share the evening with Daniel Lopatin, the electronic artist known as Oneohtrix Point Never. The two are quite familiar with each other’s work; in 2012, they released their collaborative album Instrumental Tourist. This Saturday, each artist will be playing his own music. (To learn more about Lopatin’s work, read “Oneohtrix Point Never’s Plunderphonic Vapors” by Tom Steffes.)

In anticipation for the show, Tim Hecker took the time to answer some questions about Virgins and his performance.

A lot of the press surrounding your new album, Virgins, has focused on its departure in style from your previous work, calling it more concrete, more expressive, more rhythmic. Do you agree with this assessment? How conscious was this shift throughout your process?

Sure, a lot of that follows some of the basic conceits I was using as a departure point: to avoid music that what too static, too diffuse, too reverberant, too flat in dynamics, and so on. I wouldn’t say this new work is a massive shattering of the mirror of the self or anything, but it does have a certain distance from past works.

As a fan of classic minimalism, I really dug the nods to Philip Glass and Steve Reich that popped up occasionally on the album. Were there artists or styles, musical or otherwise, that had particular influence on your newest stuff?

I really tried to avoid this record from being any sort of nod to the “great masters” or anything like that. Firstly, the only direct reference is Reich’s early Piano Phase, which was a motif I rewrote and tried to pull apart in different ways. Then I used the sonic palette of early minimalism as a set of colors, so that meant strings, woodwinds and specific synthesizers like string synths and organs, etc… Aside from that, the work is not really intentionally too deferential.

Much of Virgins was recorded with a small group of other instrumentalists – a first for you. Does this change the way a live performance works for you?

Sometimes, depending on the context, I’ll work with other instrumentalists in a live setting. For the most part, what I really enjoy most is using digital audio like paint and pushing, layering, or transforming sound in different ways.

As someone who knows the work of Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) quite intimately, how do you imagine your two sets at the Walker might complement each other? What aspects of Lopatin’s music speak to you personally?

I truly love his work. I would say the difference is something like a colliding chrome beach-ball mise-en-scène vs. the sonification of heavy incense….

Anything to note about your performance for those of us who are acquainted with your work? What about for audience members who aren’t so familiar?

Right now I present work in the dark, sometimes with dense smoke or fog depending on the context. This has the effect of reducing the senses back towards basic audition away from fixations on gesture or the limp bio-mass of the performer. Sound-wise usually I work with high volume. These are means of disarming and channeling the distracted modern mind.

Distraction-free is the way it should be. As Joel Leoschke, co-founder of Hecker’s record label, Kranky, described his music to SPIN, “it requires deeper listening, it requires concentration, it requires you to pay attention to what’s happening.” And with the commanding presence of Hecker’s sound, he shouldn’t have any problem holding our attention.

Tim Hecker and Oneohtrix Point Never perform Saturday, November 16 at 8 pm (sold out) and 10:30 pm the Walker’s McGuire Theater. Copresented with SPCO’s Liquid Music series.