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Introductory texts about composers and their works by students and emerging authors

Global Movement, Local Detail

The Music of Tim Hecker

Descriptive Analysis

The music of Tim Hecker is at once unmistakable and elusive. To describe his compositions as ambient harmony or transcendental noise misses a fundamental aspect of the work: the emotive power which lies just beyond these static portrayals. Each piece is a constant movement, a progression of moving masses which sometimes collide and peak into simple melodic structures only to be subsumed by degeneration and return to the underlying flux. This is the music of future archaeologists, coldly distant and, yet, distinctly human. The interaction between these two scales, the far-away and the here-and-now, moves us beyond the conceptual barriers that restrict our everyday sense of time and signals the large passages and eras that have passed up until this point. Hecker’s music is able to point toward what Curtis Roads calls the “Supra”, a time scale of music “beyond that of an individual composition and extending into months, years, decades, and centuries” (Roads, 3). Hecker’s use of sound objects such as radio noise, and techniques such as granular synthesis, both of which exist along axes just beyond instinctive comprehension, in part guide us through these diaphanous experiences. And yet, it is the quickest of related streams, that of simple melodies and harmony, that re-enforce the emotive within us, conjuring connections which are left unresolved and unknowable.

Tim Hecker
Tim Hecker. Photo © San Francisco Electronic Music Festival.

Tim Hecker is based in Montréal, but was born and grew up in Vancouver where he taught himself the guitar and later became involved in various rock bands. He began working on his own when his bands couldn’t form the cohesion he was looking for and begin experimenting with MIDI samplers and distortion (Macdonald). He has no formal music education, unless one counts the guitar tabs produced in popular rock magazines, but, according to Hecker, the languages of computers and MIDI “had little need for institutional training.” Autechre-style percussion and rhythm developed using these technologies and he produced three albums of this “broken-beat” style of music under the moniker Jetone (Macdonald). The leftover pieces of late night ambient recordings sparked Hecker to move past minimal techno and in 2001, he issued Haunt Me, Haunt Me, Do It Again under his own name. Since then he has released five other full-length albums and three EPs, toured extensively, and produced sound art installations. His latest album, An Imaginary Country, was completed while working on a doctorate on the history of noise in the Communications department at McGill University.

The noise in Hecker’s compositions has formal and textual qualities, but, unlike others who create similarly shaded music, his primary manipulation of texture lies outside of these concepts. Hecker’s work instead stresses the difference between using noise acousmatically and using it as a harmonic component of sound (Hecker). What interests Hecker is the exploration of affective qualities, the ever-moving influence in sound which has the power to affect. Affect takes shape in an artwork as a quality of sensation that is independent of a viewer/listener. It has no localized subjectivity, and moves through forces which lie outside of the body and personal experience. Hecker is interested in this resonance, the relationship that forms between moving intensities and abstract emotional content. Hecker approaches affect through melody, the relation of certain pitched elements to others which, in their intertwining, create content that is not present in either term alone. His inspirations come less from music or sound art, but from early abstract painters who first transformed the visual landscape from representation into purely affective forces.

Hecker’s approach is analogous to the abstract expressionists in that he constantly responds to and transforms the sound he generates. There are therefore no singular starting points from which pieces emerge. Hecker describes his sound practice as sculpting, “chiseling and smashing into shape,” and thus distinctly opposed to the plug-and-play, easy-to-use classification of digital audio technology. Hecker takes sounds and transforms them into simple melodies, or he starts with melodies and alters these using granular synthesis so that the origins of those relations no longer index their original context. Sounds are degenerated, saturated, and subtracted from, but are also added to using instrumental improvisations. A large library of recordings are created in this way. New sounds may undergo a process of transformation based on their relational qualities to previous recordings, and this combination is then put back into the archive for future use. During this exploration, certain recordings begin to have melodic possibilities and when this is recognized Hecker begins to develop a piece in a more intensive way by shaping the possibilities into actual forms (Hecker). Starting points are thus erased from literal and computer memory. When melody and structure arise from the geology of related sub-tracks which are themselves 10–15 layers of buried sound, origins are of little importance. The music instead conveys a global sensation, a richness that both references an origin yet is not in any way similar to it. This is a music with inherently formal qualities that are truly abstract and can thus manifest its own possibilities for connections with other sounds or with us.

Technical Analysis

The piece titled Spectral is a standout example of Hecker’s mechanics. The track appears on his 2003 album, Radio Amor, and uses radio noise, moving sound masses, harmonic relations, simple piano melody, and the large timescale sonic transformations which are Hecker’s signature. The piece has roughly seven sections which are characterized by an almost imperceptible introduction, attenuation, or re-emergence of the sound objects which form its vocabulary.

Section I (0:00–1:30) is characterized by the introduction of unpitched radio noise and indistinct vocal sound objects whose removal concludes the section. These objects persist with the same intensity throughout, but are joined at 0:30 by a granular version of the piano which will appear briefly in Section III and the “harmonic drone” sound object consisting of a pitched cluster of mid-range sounds which produce a slow rising and falling harmonic series or melody. This transition between pitches occurs throughout the piece even though the sound object itself is transformed into more or less distorted versions

In Section II (1:30–2:43) the noise has disappeared and the granular piano has been shifted down in pitch and smoothed to form a continuous tone. The harmonic drone repeats its melody in this section without distortion. There is also a slow rising and falling beat that occurs in lower frequency range which thickens the sound.

Section III (2:43–3:55) introduces the untreated piano sound object. This sound has a high gestural quality as keys are pressed sharply and repeated often. Though this section quickly evolves back into an undifferentiated sound mass, this gesture as an object-in-itself makes a return and is echoed by a similar gesture in the harmonic drone.

Section IV (3:55–4:50) re-establishes the noise of Section I and pairs it with the melody of the harmonic drone.

In Section V (4:50–7:17) the noise of the previous section abruptly ends and the bass fluctuation is evident. However, a new radio noise object is heard building in intensity. This progression finally gives way to clarity as the voice and musical elements which make up this object are recognized before they are again lost to the obscurity of the underlying sound mass. Toward the end of this section organ-like noise pulsations are initiated, but become more prominent in the next section.

Section VI (7:17–7:52) is composed of the organ-noise pulsations which increase in speed and vary in rhythm as the section progresses. Underlying this is a droning sound mass with radio noise.

Lastly, Section VII (7:52–8:09) removes all pitched and drone components and layers several radio noise components on top of each other to create a diffuse sound. The section does not fade out but abruptly ends.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Spectral by Tim Hecker, waveform of entire work. [Click to enlarge image.]

The first impression that comes from viewing the waveform display of this piece (Fig. 1) is that its channel information is highly asymmetrical, meaning that sound objects have been panned in order to give them spatial separation. For example, the build up in amplitude which occurs on the left channel at approximately 1:22, does not occur in the right. Another baffling example occurs between 2:30 and 3:20 when envelope curves are almost exactly inverted. It is thus difficult to ascertain exact sectional differences from this view alone. Moments of quiet or loud which should signal a transition to a new section occur constantly in one channel and not another.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Spectral by Tim Hecker, spectogram of part of section II of the work, 2:12–2:35. [Click to enlarge image.]

The spectrogram of this piece relates a slightly clearer understanding of the differing sections. In listening to Spectral there is a constant movement between noise, sustained pitched elements, and harmony. This is clearly visible, for example, from 2:12 to 2:35 (Fig. 2) where frequencies above 2 kHz turn on and off in relation to the harmonic bands at approximately 500 Hz, 700 Hz, and 1 kHz. When looking at the upper part of the frequency band, it is also clear to see the ending of the first section of this piece which occurs at 1:30 (Figure 3): as the noise of the opening fades away, so we see the upper spectral components attenuated. These re-appear in the last two sections of the piece, once as a reprise of the first and, in the last section, as a rhythmic pulsation which marks the ending of the track.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Spectral by Tim Hecker, spectogram of the transition between sections I and II of the work. [Click to enlarge image.]

Hecker’s melodies are often foreshadowed before they are fully developed as an object of study. Buried under layers of sound they slightly peak through the sonic texture allowing the listener to be familiarized with the harmonic relations before they have actually appeared in the piece. What remains constant throughout the piece is a low frequency tone which moves in parallel with the overall melodic structure of the frequencies above it. This tone fluctuates most in the 100–200Hz band. During the melodic portions of the piece this tone either foreshadows the harmonic changes which occur in higher frequencies by smoothly gliding to match an on-coming pitch (as in 2:10–2:12), or emphasizes the introduction of new sonic elements by sharply jumping from a continuously droning pitch to another (2:20–2:22). This drone also signals the entering of Section IV as the bass tone jumps to a higher pitch momentarily to allow for the introduction of the piano sound object, and then re-signals the entering of the harmonic drone sound object by jumping back to its original frequency and then emulating the gesture of the drone (2:40–2:50). Notice that at 2:47 the piano sustains and waivers between two pitches as the drone re-enters, and yet because the bass tone mimics the drone we tend to focus more on this second element than the far familiar sound of the piano. These types of movement have the effect of sharpening our attention toward the sounds which Hecker wants us to consider front elements. This is the auditory slight of hand which he uses to hide, and then develop, new melodies and other aural content so that our familiarity with the emotional tone of his work is directly tied to an undefined, pre-cognitive background flux.

Bibliography

Hecker, Tim. Telephone Interview. 16 April 2008.

Macdonald, Cameron. “Tim Hecker Interview.” Stylus Magazine, 27 September 2006. http://www.stylusmagazine.com/articles/interview/tim-hecker.htm Last accessed 16 April 2008.

Roads, Curtis. “Time Scales of Music.” Microsound. MIT Press, 2004.

Biography

Brett Bergmann is an emerging video artist living in Montréal. Sound is often more revelatory than images in his work, and so his migration over to electroacoustic modes of thought and production has also shifted what one sees in his videos.  He hopes to figure out what that means soon.

eContact! 11.2 — Figures canadiennes (2) / Canadian Figures (2). Montréal: Communauté électroacoustique canadienne / Canadian Electroacoustic Community, July 2009.

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