Having made his first forays into Renaissance music with 2013’s “Virgins” (the title of the album announcing the use of virginals, a common late-Renaissance keyboard instrument), Tim Hecker drinks even more deeply from this well for his new album “Love Streams”. Drawing inspiration from the melodies of the Franco-Flemish composer Josquin des Prez (c.1450-1521), audio-transcribed and arranged for the Icelandic Choir Ensemble, the Canadian electronic musician sets out to explore the “transcendental voice in the age of auto-tune”. The melodic forms of another time and place are fed through a battery of effects and electronic processing techniques, before being welded into a dense mesh of bass and sculpted noise.
“Love Streams” is far from being simply a Renaissance songbook arranged for keyboards and fuzz pedals, however. Hecker draws on Renaissance melodies and instrumentation, but he pushes the material’s counterpoint to such a degree that it shatters into a thousand fragments. The flowing continuity of the source melodies is subject to constant interruption by means of cutting, splicing, smearing, fuzzing, delaying, repeating, and scattering across the aural field. Moments of pitch and tone are frozen, cut off abruptly, severed and isolated from the flow. This often allows sounds and phrases more commonly associated with melody to become drivers of rhythm, as with the pitched thumps on “Live Leak Instrumental” or the frantic vocals of “Violet Monumental I”. Fragmentation, atomisation, disintegration: these are the tropes of a thoroughly modern musical aesthetic.
What’s interesting is that this aesthetic isn’t simply an effect or by-product of the use of digital tools — the auto-tunes, sampling, and so on. In the final piece ‘Black Phase’, the choir sings out without obvious effects or editing, yet the stiltedness of their phrasing belies the same fragmentation as the heavily edited vocals heard earlier in the album. My feeling is that what Hecker and his collaborators (including Kara-Lis Coverdale, Grímur Helgason, Ben Frost, and Jóhann Jóhannsson) have created does more than simply demonstrate the transformative effects of digital technology, giving form and voice to a more general aspect of modern experience in the same way that counterpoint auralised the growing fissure between soul and body that characterised Renaissance life and thought.
While the nods made in the direction of earlier musical forms are big and frequent, then, “Love Streams” nonetheless feels very much like a work of its time. Still, there are moments on the album where the contrasts between the 21st and 16th centuries don’t feel quite so sharp, and the music reaches a place that perhaps Mr. des Prez would recognise, if he heard it. On ‘Voice Crack’, for example, as the choir’s voices sail upwards towards the distant ceiling, I feel a sense of yearning that I suspect is as close as music gets to being timeless.