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Throughout seven albums and numerous EPs and collaborations, Tim Hecker has blended the seemingly disparate sounds of ambient and noise to create music that holds a barbed sort of loveliness. In a typical Hecker track, ethereal electronic tones mingle with waves of static and dissonant drones. He also takes a few cues from early minimalist compositions, especially Steve Reich and Terry Riley's phasing pieces.
Last year's Virgins marks the first time Hecker has worked with an ensemble of acoustic musicians. Woodwinds, piano, and the "virginal"—a Baroque-era harpsichord that plays one note at a time—are prominent on the album, though their sounds are often contorted by Hecker.
"It's a kind of back and forth between purely electronic means and working with live musicians, responding to simple scores and electronic motifs," Hecker says of the album's recording process. He's speaking from his home in Montreal after a trip to Iceland, where he was visiting and recording with his friend Ben Frost, with whom he collaborated during 2010's Big Ears festival. "Those instrumental performances get recorded, fed through back into my computer and treated. Usually an instrumentalist will then respond improvisationally to these new further processed versions."
Virgins is unmistakably a Tim Hecker product, but his interactions with live musicians introduced a new element to his sound. Live concert performances, however, remain solo affairs, with Hecker creating, processing, and manipulating sounds in real time. Compared to the usually more relaxed setting of recording in the studio or home, his live performance requires concentration and the ability to multitask and make multiple decisions on the spot.
"My live set-up is a kind of sound sculptor's metal bench," he says. "I mix, treat, process, effect, and layer pieces of sampled recordings, mixed with live instrumentation, which in my case right now is a synthesizer that I feed into the mix. It's fairly flexible and allows for a lot of different approaches to respond to varying types of situations live music puts you in."
When Hecker performed at the Big Ears in 2010, he did so in the near total darkness of the Tennessee Theatre. The only light in the venue was from his workstation and the glowing red exit signs; you could hear late-arriving concertgoers stumbling into seats as their eyes adjusted to the absence of light. This darkness is an effective strategy in creating an all-enveloping sound environment.
"My goal is to present a focused sonic experience," Hecker says. "That means it works best when the levels of external stimulus are tamped down so the acoustic field can really dominate."
He has a different philosophy about visuals when it comes to album art. 2011's Ravedeath, 1972 sported a photograph of MIT students pushing a piano off the roof of a building, with accompanying titles such as "The Dropped Piano," "Studio Suicide," and "Hatred of Music." Virgins' cover photo of a burlap-draped statue standing on a pedestal immediately calls to mind one of the more disturbing pictures to emerge from Abu Ghraib. The music itself seems more intense and visceral than usual, especially following 2011's more austere Dropped Pianos. Hecker leaves it to the listener's imagination to divine the connection between his music and torture, however.
"For me, the oblique route is usually the most effective," he say. "There is a significant potency with something like a direct, literal protest song, but there is also something that comes up when the literal message isn't hammered over your head."
Tim Hecker performs at the Bijou Theatre on Friday, March 28, at midnight. Visit bigearsfestival.com for more info and a complete schedule.