TRANSMITTING TONIGHT Tim Hecker

On his striking new
album, the
Canadian experimentalist
continues his pursuit of ambiguity and mutability.

 

BY WILSON NEATE

 

Brian Eno once noted that the supreme vagueness of My Bloody Valentine’s blurred, gauzy sound “set a new standard for pop.”
Montréal-based ambient experimentalist Tim Hecker operates at a far greater
remove from the musical mainstream than MBV, eschewing orthodox rock and pop’s
concise, well-wrought forms in favor of hazy, abstract electronic soundscapes
— yet his recordings nevertheless have a very similar quality. An Imaginary Country (Kranky) is a
brilliantly vague work foregrounding the spaces in between sonic identities,
the places where sounds are neither completely one thing nor the other.

 

Hecker’s pursuit of ambiguity and mutability starts with
his treatment of the core elements of his pieces. Although the components in
his digital canvases might have origins in organic instrumentation like guitar
and piano, he renders them unrecognizable via processing, obscuring their
original forms and manipulating them into new textures and shapes within his
densely layered environments.

 

The names of Hecker’s albums often signpost the liminal
nature of his music: Harmony in
Ultraviolet
(2006; recently remastered and reissued on vinyl by Kranky) merges
the concepts of light and sound, while the titles Haunt Me, Haunt Me Do It Again (2001) and Mirages (2004) allude to traces
and vestiges, half-presences. Likewise, on An
Imaginary Country
, track titles like “Borderlands” and
“Where Shadows Make Shadows” evoke boundary crossings and fluidity.
Paradoxically, that notion of undifferentiated flow gives the album a conceptual
unity: many of the titles reference water (“The Inner Shore”; “A Stop at the Chord Cascades”;
“Sea of Pulses”), echoing the ebb and flow of the record’s oceanic,
beatless compositions. This aquatic aesthetic connects Hecker to fellow
travelers like Fennesz (Venice, Black Sea) and Loscil (Submers, First Narrows).

 

The disruption and blurring of distinct identities carries
over to the actual structure of the album, as several tracks overlap or spill
into one another. Even within tracks there are sometimes hybrid identities: “Sea of Pulses” and the epic
“Where Shadows Make Shadows” combine ringing, amorphous dronescapes
with muted, propulsive bass pulses that also establish a slightly more rigid
foundation and a linear impetus.

 

While some strands
of electronic music have tended toward the affectless and the post-human by
rejecting melody, there’s a tradition of artists occasionally integrating it
into their machine-centric sound with truly memorable results: to name a
handful since the early ’90s, Aphex Twin (the Selected Ambient Works albums), Autechre (Incunabula), Oval (Ovalprocess)
and Boards of Canada. Hecker’s work performs the same feat, achieving an
emotional redolence largely as a result of its subtle melodicism. This is
evident in a couple of An Imaginary
Country
‘s more understated pieces: amid the ethereal swathes of
“Utropics,” a spectral choir can be heard; on
“Borderlands,” simple repeating piano notes echo and ripple
hypnotically. However, Hecker’s melodic sensibility is most striking in his
dense, abrasive soundscapes, where he conjures austere melody from clouds of white
noise, a characteristic of Harmony in
Ultraviolet
and last year’s collaboration with Nadja’s Aidan Baker, Fantasma Parastasie. In that vein, the
1’25” interlude “Pond Life” attains an electro-baroque hymnal
majesty and “200 Years Ago” brings the album to a mesmerizing,
transcendent conclusion. (The latter calls to mind a massively processed
21st-century reimagining of Popol Vuh’s haunting 1972 theme from Aguirre: The Wrath of God.)

 

An Imaginary Country is one of Hecker’s most accessible releases
so far. It’s a marvelously syncretist work, bringing together dissonance and
harmony, distortion and clarity, dark and light, density and simplicity. Above
all, though, the main distinction that it renders vague is the boundary between
the experimental and the listenable.

 

 

Tim Hecker on the web: www.sunblind.net; www.kranky.net

 

 

 

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