Organizing Sound with Tim Hecker

on May 06, 2014, 5:02pm

Throughout the month of May, Red Bull Music Academy will present a wide spectrum of events in New York City, ranging from a conversation with R&B star D’Angelo in a museum auditorium, to a headlining performance from Panda Bear, to the Larry Levan Street Party, a block party celebrating the life of the legendary DJ and house music promoter. The thoughtful, studied Tim Hecker, though, seems to perfectly fall under the Music Academy name. His music both influences and is influenced by metal as well as John Cage. On May 16th, Hecker will be featured as part of Hardcore Activity in Progress, a night of music and art installation. The large, impressive bill also including acts like The Thing and Wolf Eyes, genres covered from classical to grindcore.

Though I sat huddled in the corner of a waiting room as we spoke, connected to the Montreal-based musician via phone, Hecker felt intensely present, sharp but not severe, detailed but not fussy, choosing the best words to get his point across and make an impression, but resulting in a real fluidity. Just like his music. Though centering on his creative ideals and inspirations, the conversation naturally jumped to the relation of these topics to everything from tennis to religion. As I hung up the phone, I more than ever felt ready to sign up for the Tim Hecker Music Academy. Until the day those doors open, though, you could do far worse than making it out to the Knockdown Center in Queens on May 16th. Just don’t tell him it was a religious experience afterward.

I’ve seen you described as someone who sculpts sound. Your works described like landscape paintings. Do you think there’s something about your methodology that actually makes you more comparable to visual artists than many other musicians? Or is it just something being superimposed by others?

I think it’s kind of pretentious to say, like, music doesn’t fit my kind of… my approach. But I would probably not say that. It doesn’t really hit the mark. But I definitely feel an affinity as much sometimes with visual tableaus as much as I do with writing music as composition and the history of the way music is composed. I’m organizing sound. So, I’m kind of in between the two. Obviously I come from a history of music making. But sometimes that doesn’t always satisfy me, aesthetically or intellectually. I’ve kind of drawn influences from outside of that, as anyone does to a certain degree.

I hate to compare you to yet another medium, then, but I read in an interview that you’re a tennis fan, that you play, and that reminded me of David Foster Wallace. His work, a lot like yours, is often talked about in a context of darkness and difficulty, but you both also have a real sense of humor that can get overlooked.

In terms of tennis? Is that the comparison you’re drawing?

The tennis thing was more just a coincidence, a shared interest maybe. It influenced his writing, he wrote about it. But more just that led me to the thought of the similar assumptions being put on both of your work.

Yeah. Tennis is… that’s something I do, for sure. But I don’t know how much it equates to music. I mean, it’s not a team sport. Music for me is more of a team sport than tennis is.

But more than tennis, David Foster Wallace often got tagged with being obtuse, or dark, or severe, because of his work. I’d have to imagine you get the same sort of assumptions placed on you because of your music.

Yeah, I mean, my work comes off as intensely brooding and stuff, and on a personal level, that doesn’t equate with my day-to-day. I did an interview once, and the guy was expecting to meet Nosferatu or something, and I’m basically Larry David instead.

[The music] is just something I’ve done. I try to channel mood, but the personal life is not the same. I think Foster Wallace was super tortured. He was deeply mentally ill. So, it’s not a parallel. I don’t live on that same kind of threshold of melancholy or whatever. But tennis is an awesome sport, and I play it whenever I can. [Laughs]

Have you listened to anything new recently that’s particularly moved you?

You know, my engagement with contemporary music is kind of patchy. I definitely have a group of friends and colleagues who are intense sound sculptors, and I pay attention to their work, and I’m definitely interested, but I can’t really name-drop work.

What about earlier? Was there any sort of inciting moment, a musician or work that opened your eyes to music that was less pop-oriented or more experimental?

For me, my journey to the outside of the Top 40, or whatever you want to call it, was a really slow one. I grew up on a steady diet of maudlin vanilla rock music. It wasn’t until my late teens, I think. Someone gave me a New Order tape in grade 9. Someone gave me a Pogues tape in grade 8, or something. It was just slow. It was the Pixies and things like that. It was this slow, suburban leverage away from what you’re being fed with the radio, and Much Music we have in Canada, or MTV, or whatever you want to call it toward things that are different and challenging.

Even though my parents taught art, I wasn’t pushed aesthetically. There wasn’t a challenge function from my parents as a kind of guiding force. So it really took meeting weirdos, and in the suburbs it’s more of a challenge, maybe.

Do you find any particular type of experience creates more of that push, that inspiration? Is it often music, or could it be a book, or seeing a new place?

In terms of inspiring? I’d say it’s states and moments. Things like films, and books, and traveling. You know, being lost in the world, or looking at some kind of weird image on the screen. It can be anything. But with music, I try to make music that makes me feel in a weird way. And things like certain minor key chord transgressions can produce a kind of obvious, predictable effect and I’m more interested in ways that that can kind of be challenged.

What about your live performances? Is that an attempt to reinterpret those moments in your compositions, in your albums? To create some sort of element to the puzzle adjacent to it?

Yeah, I mean, I play pieces that are derived from works on the record, but they kind of get hammered and thrashed into place. I kind of present a more forceful, more imposing version of what I do on record, and I use volume, and I use light, and I use the absence of light more often to kind of focus that concentration and focus that intensity. Yeah, I would say it’s a different version, the pieces presented in a pretty loud way.

I’ve read some people describe that experience as ritualistic, or religious, as some sort of big cathartic experience. Does the creation feel religious in any way, or is it just something felt on the receiving end?

I think that that’s a crafted thing. I think that’s the unfortunate thing of being booked into churches, often because of their acoustics, and they’re cheap because churches are hard up for money like anyone else. So, playing this kind of music in a church has this obvious loaded signifier which is impossible to escape from. And I don’t really encourage that. I prefer, like, really secular, clean … My favorite right now are really austere, black-box spaces, so it’s not this kind of like, “Here’s the secular person for all of you atheists.” So, you know, it’s something different.

I try not to… Probably, that kind of feeling of religiosity or whatever stirs is just having feelings in music, because I kind of force that. It’s pretty heavy-handed in what I do live.

Tim Hecker VirginsWhen you were making Virgins, you led the live instrumentalists in guided improvisation, which reminded me of John Zorn’s Cobra, the “Game” pieces. Was that an influence?

Not Zorn specifically, but there’s obviously a long history of studio architects working with live sound, with live instruments. I come from a kind of history, a studied history of how people interact with live instruments and kind of force them into music that’s going to be abstracted. More and more it’s interesting to me, that role of approaching writing and the germ-seed that starts something else, and then you bring other people in and see how that interacts. It’s more of a guidance than a kind of singular, visionary manifesting every aspect of it.

It’s almost role-playing at a certain point. You might present a certain score to a musician, but it might be the most elementary motif. It might be just this basic three-note run. But then I inform them that they’re supposed to feel like, if they’re a clarinetist, they’re Chewbacca, who just drank 9,000 liters of codeine cough syrup, and trying to sing the blues through a saxophone. How does that play out? Just things like that.

Did knowing that you were going to work that way in the studio with the musicians drastically change the way you came up with concepts or themes for the album? Or is it sort of the other way around, that it fed into the concept later?

I think that they kind of mutually inform each other. It’s not an immaculate conception coming from one direction or the other. There are some pieces where, “Let’s experiment with woodwinds, I haven’t done that before.” Or, “Let’s try percussion, okay, there’s this massive xylophone that totally sucks, let’s piece that to oblivion.” You know, “Let’s ramp up the bass clarinet.” And then the bass clarinet goes back into the piece, and I might work on it, I might add on some weird instrumentation, and then kick it back out to some kind of live setting for one more round of processing or transformation.

It’s just kind of a tableau. You just erase, and write over, and erase, and then little bits from the old erasure, five levels kind of come up, other parts, brand new scripts. Just a kind of multi-layered thing.

It’s interesting that you use the word scripts, kind of tying back to your inspiration being moments. Do you see these interactions as a way to sort of script the moment that you had earlier experienced?

Yeah… I don’t really like the idea of the authentic moment of recording, because I think we’re really beyond the studio’s function as this place where it’s four people having this real moment in space. I think that was imploded like 50 years ago, but society is slow to catch up to that reality. Pop music is far more aware of that kind of hybrid, cyborgian truth or whatever. I’m not really so interested in that documentary role of studio recording, capturing a moment.

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