October 2010 Archives

Duck & Goose Call Club

Soundscaping at the Southern: Tim Hecker Pilots a Voyage in Ambient Music

The following is my review of Tim Hecker's concert held at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis on Sept. 18, 2010.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then one of Tim Hecker's compositions is worth a thousand images. Unlike most rock or pop concerts, Hecker's featured performance Saturday night at the Southern Theater offered a solid hour of listening. No one sang along, no one danced. As his set began, Hecker motioned the stage manager to cut the Twilight Zone light effects and to just leave the audience in complete dark. All ears were trained on the electric emissions of the speakers. And what came out of the speakers let the mind's eye take flight.

The opportunity to hear Hecker perform live was a rare treat. The Canadian ambient musician teamed up with critically acclaimed Ben Frost to bring their unique sound to the Twin Cities. While each musician had their own showcase performances, each assisted the other during the respective shows. Frost appeared, barefoot, at the beginning and end of Hecker's show to add his own incidental phrases on guitar and piano to Hecker's larger compositions. While mixing and compiling their sounds, the two musicians moved like silent wraiths among their myriad wires, synthesizers, sound boards, and computers set upon a table propped up with paint cans.

But although the two musicians worked together with ease, their approaches to ambient music could not be more different. Frost, with his mentorship under renowned musician Brian Eno, has been known to create his pieces with a tortured meticulousness, wrapped in layers of compositional theory. Hecker, on the other hand, has admitted in interviews his penchant for improvisation. The music played was thus whatever Hecker felt like putting together. By no means did this lend a sloppy quality to Hecker's work, but rather, there was a sense of no-holds-barred, open imagination that made the listening experience more magical.

Opening with the same musical themes as his most recent album, An Imaginary Country, Hecker slowly built his onstage composition with sweeping crescendos that required earplugs in order to appreciate without physical pain. In the same way a jazz band will begin a song with a simple melody, only to layer it with improvised solos and variations, Hecker built his compositions centered on a simple theme--such as a repetitive beat or rising arpeggio. And although many themes came directly from tracks in Hecker's discography ("100 Years Ago" and "Borderlands" come to mind), the execution on stage was vastly different. Hecker constantly moved from laptop to MIDI keyboard to sound board creating new sounds out of only a few electrical elements.

The sound throbbed, it groaned, it rose to levels and volumes that cannot be reached by a dinky set of headphones when listening to Hecker's work at home. The bass reverberated so strongly that it could be felt pulsing inside the body. Evoking the outer space panoramas from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey while using electric distortion more commonly found in some albums by The Klaxons or Radiohead, Hecker wove the rush of airplane engines with percussive sounds similar to a hand hitting a microphone that never failed to evoke brilliant mental pictures.

Images of waterfalls and supernovas, of vaulted cathedrals and crashing waves would flash through the mind while Hecker's chords progressed through a sea of dissonant drones. There was a moment where the electric tones ascended, and with each step the sound rang out like a bell. The ascent was slow, almost reverent, as if marching upwards toward some sort of paradise. Just as the volume and the tones were at the top of the scale, Hecker replaced the metallic, electric buzz with the exultant phrases of an organ--thus completing the heavenly image.

Although the performance lasted little more than an hour, it felt as if the music had been played outside of space and time. Hecker's style and great capacity as a musician made for a captivating experience. Not only does he make music with his sound, Hecker paints pictures with it.

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