Not many experimental solo artists get the attention in the mainstream music press that Tim Hecker does. Bands seem to get a little more coverage, especially those with experimental takes on more popular genres (see: These New Puritans boundary-pushing orchestral indie/rock/whatever you want to call it, or Pitchfork’s predilection for cutting edge black metal), but those working roughly in the environs of electro-acoustic drone, soundscape, ambient are harder to come by. This is not to begrudge the theft of one of ‘our’ bands, or indeed that more haven’t been stolen. More, it is interesting to wonder why Hecker and his fellow crossover artists make it when others don’t. The reason can’t just be because they’re good, otherwise more would make the jump. Money, label-backing and not a small amount of luck must play a part, sure, but that can’t be all either…
A possible connecting thread is that they all treat mainstream concerns in unmainstream ways. William Basinski’s ubiquitous Disintegration Loops deal with one of the most significant historical events of modern times; The Caretaker’s rise to prominence taps into a current cultural interest in memory, and coincides with a specific scientific interest in Alzheimer’s; Fennesz revolutionised guitar music, which, despite what some people may tell you, is very much alive; similarly, the loopy, psychedelic output of the Editions Mego label dovetails with a resurgence in kosmische-inspired and psychedelic music across the spectrum. Hecker’s music, especially Virgins, fits into this pattern both on the theoretical side and on the sonic.
The dominant global narrative of today is one of cultural transfer, dialogue and conflict. Peoples move across the world, either forcibly or by choice. The internet allows you to encounter and consume a thousand art forms from a thousand places and times with minimal effort. In effect, there isn’t one dominant narrative at all, but the intermingling of many. It is at this intersection of cultural turbulence that Hecker exists. The main reference of Virgins is to European classical religious music. The percussive, tumbling sounds of the piano in “Virginal I and II” are distinctly reminiscent of church bells, the repetition of motifs recall early symphonies or early religious incidental music and then there is the artwork, of a shrouded figure on a pedestal in a church. Hecker’s treatment of these references, however, is unique. It is not as reverential as the ‘holy’ minimalism of Arvo Pärt – whose tintinnabuli, bell-like style is an important influence on Virgins – and others. Nor is it irreverent; it doesn’t twist religious signifiers into something ritualistic, dark and irreligious (although the atmosphere can at times be oppressive).
Rather, Hecker seems concerned with the possibilities of these sounds in a modern, experimental setting. The first sounds on Virgins are of the chiming pianos deconstructed and churned into roiling drone for opener “Prism”. The percussive qualities that the instrument acquires in “Virginal I” are flattened and drawn out. Across the album, Hecker takes the sound through the aggression at the close of “Virginal II”, to the meditative calm of “Black Refraction”, to the violently euphoric “Stab Variation”. He revitalises his religious reference points by throwing them in with all of his other influences and his distinct working processes. The religious notes are vital to Virgins’ soundworld – to the cathedral sized, heavenward-looking drone of “Radiance”, or the thunderous, clanging announcements of the “Virginal” pair, or the puncturing staccato of “Stab Variation” that conjures images of crucifixion – but for Hecker’s collision of old and new, of varying traditions and narratives, other historical references would suffice.
This is the most obvious of the cultural transfers in Hecker’s work, between history and contemporaneity. His music relies on the manipulation of acoustic source material through digital processing, but without ever losing that original organic sound. The piano, which is the main acoustic source of Virgins (various woodwind also appear), comes with a tradition of hundreds of years, but the music here is as much a part of a tradition of mid-twentieth century electro-acoustic experimentation, or of modern drone as it is of ‘piano music’. Even within that loose bracket, Virgins references classical piano and, in its hard, hammering strikes, Schoenberg-esque prepared piano. “Live Room” showcases the vibrant, chaotic possibilities of Hecker’s stylistic union. The opening is probably the most bell-like the piano ever gets on the album, and then it is like hearing the very process of it being chewed up by the computer until it’s notes seem fragmented, jittering in speed and overcome by bursts of noise. A stunning wash of ambience and a softer piano also make an appearance, and this only in the first half of the song. In the final half, all of these elements begin to cohere as a more stable drone takes over, relegating the acoustic instruments and noise stabs to textural detail. The track soars with the dense grace that Hecker has mastered over his many years as a musician. The coda, “Live Room Out”, pares that lingering drone down and coats it in slow, rich chords of woodwind. The attention to detail is astonishing; no corner of atmosphere is left unattended to. The piece is those multifarious narrative interactions made manifest in music.
For all this theorising, however, Virgins is not a self-consciously intellectual album. A writer for the Quietus recently expressed some consternation at finding chairs laid out for Hecker’s gig at St John at Hackney. It’s easy to sympathise, since his albums have always struck first at the gut, not the head. Virgins is no different. “Stigmata I”, if it was played loud enough and late enough, could even just about find a home at a (quite experimental) club. The dance music influences, yet another of Hecker’s musical precursors, are not as prominent as they were on Ravedeath, 1972, but Virgins is still remarkably visceral. The shifts in volume and sudden incursions of bass link to electronic music, even if they are in no way dance friendly. “Stigmata II” confounds expectations somewhat by dropping the intensity and club-bothering drive, but the track still has an anxious energy in its Reichian pulse. The album is also, by Hecker’s standards, surprisingly clear and unabstract. The source sounds are much more visible through the clouds of drone, with defined piano melodies and rhythms coming through repeatedly. It’s probably his most accessible album yet; it wouldn’t even be much of a stretch to nod and hum along at times.
This is Tim Hecker at his best, capturing an original, modern sound at the confluence of so many genres, traditions and reference points that is far more than the sum of its parts. It’s reminiscent of Ben Frost’s compelling live show, in which he samples musicians around him, whose original playing is inaudible, and moulds it into a barrage of experimental noise. Hecker does a similar thing, but rather than single instruments and instrumentalists, his sound is built with larger cultural signifiers – religion, whole instrumental histories, genres from across the spectrum. The transfer, dialogue and, yes, conflict of these is not always pretty but it is sublime, frequently beautiful and it is unmistakably, vitally the sound of now. This idea of describing a cultural space has a long history in Hecker’s work. An Imaginary Country exemplifies it best, in that the album sought to create a fictional place with sound, a place with history and culture – it probably sounded more like the modern world than most albums that actually try and describe real countries. So does Virgins. Perhaps this is why Tim Hecker has endured in the mainstream consciousness then: his music taps into the most mainstream of concerns, the shape of our times.