Review Summary: Tim Hecker crafts his finest work this decade
Of late, Tim Hecker’s music, perhaps more than any other ambient artist, has carried with it a sense of definite progression and purpose throughout each piece he’s released. Not content to meander aimlessly in gorgeous soundscapes, he meticulously builds his cathedrals of sound from minimal elements, working each piece into a clearly formed vision, his aural textures constantly developing and shifting with a clear sense of progression. It’s ambient music that, despite the reputation of the genre as backdrop music, demands your attention, and does so with an unambiguous vigor.
It’s on Konoyo that Hecker’s vision of late has been most fully realized. Working within his now-familiar framework of deconstruction and reconstruction of a certain form or medium to create an entirely new vision, he has rendered and molded his source material in a way that, in a sense, compliments, rather than buries his musical point of origin. In this case, that point of origin is Gagaku, an ancient form of Japanese court music, a source that, while not unique to Hecker, has probably never been re-molded and recontextualized as it has here, from deeply ritualistic, delicate formality into a kind of ephemeral spiritual vertigo that never really settles for long into one specific mood or framework. In doing so, Konoyo manages to carry with it, and even enhance the elegance and hypnotic grandeur of its austere source, but almost all extraneous sensibilities are mangled and drowned in haze and metastasized discord. This treatment, perhaps unlike any other Tim Hecker work before this, serves to delineate, rather than obscure, the ascetic grace of the original music.
To get a sense of Hecker’s vision for Konoyo, it’s probably best to pinpoint those moments when the original style of the music is allowed, perhaps for just a moment, to reveal itself. Among the standout moments are the sublime touches of koto found on “In Death Valley”, a momentary clarity that immediately warps and transforms itself into fuzzed out, clanging chimes, bending and shifting into new forms and colors. This constant aural mutation is a hallmark of the album, carrying with it not a sense of decay or growth, but of evolution. As in biological evolution, sometimes the structures Tim creates become more complex, other times they seem to degrade to their most simple elements, all according to the needs of the piece. So too is the evolution, familiar by now to Hecker listeners, of moods from sepulchral foreboding to soothing calm and back again, in shifts that are gorgeous in their subtlety. It’s an atmosphere that carries with it a subtle sense of desolation, of an emptiness that can only ever be filled with echoes and distortion, a sense that is most explicit on the beautifully mournful “Sodium Codec Haze”.
The sense of deconstruction and chaos seen on the cover, an image that is almost disconcertingly violent in its sense of active destructiveness, seems, at first listen, to be borne out by the treatment of the source material. But here, Hecker has done the unlikely by warping and twisting that source into a clearer vision of itself, like a chef adding ingredients that bring out the full expression of the base food, rather than obscuring it. In doing so, he’s made an almost imperceptible shift from changing his source material to fit his creative vision to allowing his creative vision to fit the fullest expression of his source material. In preserving and extending the ritualistic sense of mournfulness, of the negative space that extends into infinity from a single note, Hecker hearkens his music to an almost Buddhist sense of nonbeing. No doubt, any Emperor of 10th century Japan would probably be appalled at the treatment of a musical style so cloaked in formality and ceremony in such a seemingly iconoclastic manner. But maybe there would be a recognition, an understanding that the soul of the music, far from being obliterated, has not only been left intact, but allowed to flourish.