Ambient

Tim Hecker, Konoyo

Tim Hecker_Konoyo

Tim Hecker, Konoyo

By no means I am a knowledgeable expert on electronic music. In fact, I often think to myself I might have been missing out on important music in the last decade or so by disregarding the genre. Luckily, being a jazz nerd and musician, I am used to getting my ears pulled in the unlikeliest directions. And that’s exactly what happened when Tim Hecker’s new album Konoyo popped up on my radar. I’ve been sort of keeping track of the electronic music composer since I discovered his iconic Ravedeath album a couple of years ago. In many ways, this new opus is a confirmation of all the sonic qualities that have appealed to me in this music. A gritty soundscape of rough edges, full of fuzzy overtones, echoing blasts of seemingly abyss-born organisms, and most intriguingly, an orchestrated conflation of ancient traditional instruments and modern-day synthesizers.

Here again Hecker pulls off the difficult feat of making digitally processed music feel somewhat natural, and well, “acoustic”. His is an eerie world full of mystery and unidentifiable ghosts blasting in from the deep recesses of the ocean, earth, space, you name it. Whatever Hecker is looking for in his sonic excavations, there is certainly an elemental drive guiding the process, a sonic quest for music beyond music. Titles like “In Mother Earth phase mode” or “Death Valley” point to the deeper strata of our planet and whatever rumbling manifestations may inhabit them.

As on his previous offerings, Hecker seems to straddle an aesthetic divide that leaves the listener wondering what kind of musical world he or she can relate to. If you could imagine a symphony orchestra somehow performing on the ocean’s floor, you may be able to hear remnants of violin and brass sections oozing out through the murk. In fact, Hecker convened Gagaku musicians for this project, an ancient Japanese ensemble consisting of multiple flutes, drums and a pipe organ improvising to Hecker’s bandleader instructions and synthetic inputs. In contrast to the previous albums, the results seem a little more stark, as if all the multilayering process that defines the composer’s previous albums has been pared down to the elemental.

The opener “This Life” sets the tone for the ensuing variations around one major theme. On this faux-LAPD police siren choir, a skeletal melody surfaces and soon blends into a clangorous chorus of metallic drones and washes of synthetic static fading in and out. Every time anything remotely resembling a theme is offered, the composer undermines it, canceling any risk of singable catchiness.

On “Death Valley”, ancient Japan seems to drift by on a timeless American road trip gone wrong. Instruments feel like they literally drop from the sky against Hecker’s enveloping ether.

“Keyed Out” seems to have a kind of double bass tuned twenty octaves lower than its range and then explores a mesh of percussive strings, harp-like harmonics and reverberating flutes.

“Across to Onoyo” brings the album full circle. Here a whale song morphs into a sawmill-like ambiance in freeze mode. Of course, there is something ethereal and perhaps indulgingly dark at times about this music but repeated listens will always unlock new sounds to listen for and uncharted destinations to let the listener’s mind wander in.

There is something unpredictably poetic in how the tracks string together apparently unmatchable sound sources, as on “Mother earth phase”, where a cello drone naturally emerges from the preceding synthesizer buildup only to fade back into the abyss. Or consider this, the track called “Is a rose petal of the dying crimson light?”, arguably a good title for a song teetering on the edge of disappearance.

To be honest, I found myself drifting out several times at first – this is not your average I’m going to have this song stuck in my head all day kind of music – but I guess it’s the point of good ambient electronic music. When you’re about to give up, something unusual and heartwarming draws you back in.

Tim Hecker, Konoyo (Kranky, 2018)

Tim Hecker, Ravedeath 1972

CD_cover_mechV1

Tim Hecker, Ravedeath 1972

How I stumbled on this album at my local library and sidetracked out of my jazz compulsive browsing remains a mystery. At the end of the day, I’m glad I took the time to give it a listen and expand my rudimentary knowledge of electronic music.

So, my neophyte self would place this album somewhere in between the ambient and drone genre, for lack of more advanced categorization. For starters, there’s this ominous cover and this evocative title, Ravedeath. Oh Edgar, “T’ is the wind and nothing more!”. A quick Wikipedia search reveals Mr Hecker reused a photograph from the MIT archive showing students pushing a piano off a roof of a campus building. As for Ravedeath, Hecker came up with the phrase at a rave, a title he impishly described as “the wrongest and the most right title ever”. With a processed pipe organ as the main instrument, this music is spacious and ethereal, a stark soundscape full of reverb and bleached-out washes of sound. With self-explanatory titles like “In the Fog” , “No Drums”, “In the Air” ”, the power of this music lies in its consistency, its takes you into dream mode and never really takes you out. This would be boring if it wasn’t for the compelling work on textures and dynamics here. Mr Hecker explores the grainy edge of music while steering clear of a noise-driven agenda. That’s the point, the storm has blown over and what we are listening to is the scattershot mix of sonic shards it left in its wake. Imagine a distant lawnmower inadvertently left unattended and somehow sounding inviting and harmonious. The resonant quality of these sounds makes the instrumentation hard to detect at first. On “Analog Paralysis” for example, percussive stabs of electric guitar poke through at 2:50 reminding you they were there from the beginning but you just weren’t paying attention. On the provocative, if not provoking “Hatred of Music”, the music swirls and builds, but the organ pushes through again, enveloping the music, locking it into the ether. That may be Ambient’s defining characteristic, that it seems to be headed somewhere but never really gets there. These songs seem to want to take off at some point but remain anchored in a paralyzing shroud. At the end of Hatred of Music II, human voices are heard but soon vanish into thin air. The piano loops that run through the proceedings are here to lift the music out of the doom it seems to inhabit and into a gripping and melancholic light. Are these angels calling at the end of “In the Air III”, the album’s closer? There is something overtly spiritual in this endeavor, an unrelenting attempt to explore the afterlife of music, what would happen if the destruction of our world would first translate into the total disappearance of sound, the erasure of all music. Scary huh? This act of destruction, like the ritual of dropping a piano off a rooftop embodied on the cover, is arguably at the core of this musical offering. Consider the funereal “Studio Suicide” and my point seems to stand up. Here the studio is a gothic cathedral where the organ pipes sound as if tuned to one continuous note. By featuring instruments in their distorted usage – that rumbling bass is sick! – Hecker doesn’t merely twiddle with knobs, he interrogates the survival of music, he celebrates its timeless appeal. The static enveloping the instruments is proof that music can and will survive, for all attempts to degrade it, if we are willing to listen to its implicit beat.

 

Postscriptum: Wow, it appears this album was very popular upon it release in 2011. Check out the abundant reviews online.