Tim Hecker on breaking down organic and artificial sounds recorded in Iceland and LA to build the hybridised vision of his new album
In the digital age of MP3 downloads, YouTube recordings and peer-to-peer access to full discographies, the fundamental structures of the music industry have been thoroughly shaken. While there may be talk of a vinyl renaissance emerging, the majority of music listened to in the modern world is encountered digitally, stored in the iTunes library on your laptop or played directly from larger databases such as Spotify or Soundcloud. Today, our music comes in streams. The latest album from Canadian composer Tim Hecker, Love Streams, takes this shift as its starting point, before moving beyond to explore the ubiquity of streaming in all aspects of life.
A strong sense of time – and of interconnected history – can be felt in Hecker’s layering of choral arrangements with the electronic processing and digital resonances that have become characteristic of his work over his 15-year long career. Sacred music is distorted, as if corrupted by encryption, while woodwind and piano tremble and groan beneath synths, making their presence strongly felt. Here, the past is channeled through the present. Hecker travelled to Iceland to record their Icelandic Choir Ensemble for Love Streams, although this is an album that transcends geography in a traditional sense. It instead inhabits an experience of space that is rooted in the personal connections that we form with each city, building a newly virtual map of our encounters and memories in the age of the internet.
An alternative belief system emerges, as the clear strain of choir voices melds with the noisy dissonance of synthetic sounds improvised into a dark maelstrom. Natural and artificial sounds become one and the same, dissolving the distinction between physical and digital instruments. Here, a laptop and synth is as richly evocative of a world beyond its own reality as an organ or assembly of voices. Electronic music is shown to be just as a capable of vulnerability and imperfection as a disintegrating tape; after all, in an age of data leaks and system breaches, the uncertainty of our technologies is more apparent than ever before. In Love Streams, Hecker weaves a tapestry of digital and physical sounds to allow a newly hybridised landscape to emerge, conjuring a world that is truly reflective of our own.
POSTmatter: Your titling of the new record ‘Love Streams’ is deeply embedded in today’s digital streaming culture. How has this transformation of the way that music is disseminated and consumed influenced your own approach to recording in this latest release?
Tim Hecker: We are now reconciling what used to be the labour and commerce of recorded sound into something that is kind of ephemeral. It used to be objects for sale, and that was the dream of the music industry, which has now shifted into something where you’re making data to be flowed into pipelines. That’s not the whole crux of the name of the record, it’s also the name of a John Cassavettes film, but it fit with a bunch of things that I was thinking about. The idea that this is just a stream, a leak, a flow of digital audio through a pipe, from my studio to your ears.
PM: There is a sense with the internet of at once having a solitary experience, but also of great connectivity with people from all around the world. Alone but together. How have you found this trickling into your experience of composing and recording?
TH: I work mostly alone, though I collaborate more now than ever before. I started making music as a solo project, out of the failure of bands and of communal musical expression. I started getting samplers, and started looping things, and started building up myself, and at one point these shitty computers that I’d built myself with all these parts could start to trigger this symphonic reality – with computers. Collectivity became to me as absurd as saying ‘Why don’t you paint with four people?’ I was militantly individualistic. But on the other hand, studio practice is solitary, which is not always great. And some of my distractions are internet-based. There’s a whole bunch of things that you negotiate on just trying to get work done, trying to create expression. You’re coming up against solitude, against the network. That’s a constant friction, it’s there, it’s always looming.
Electronic music is shown to be just as a capable of vulnerability and imperfection as a disintegrating tape; after all, in an age of data leaks and system breaches, the uncertainty of our technologies is more apparent than ever before.
PM: Speaking recently to Aisha Devi, we discussed the collective power of club culture and its parallels to a spiritual gathering. You have taken on elements of choral music in ‘Love Streams’, and you will soon be performing in a church in London. How do you approach a certain sense of religion in both the recording and live performance of your work?
TH: Sometimes I feel like I’m a pagan dancing on the ashes of a burnt down church. I’m inhabiting the forms of Christian emancipatory chord structures in songs, but these are also completely gutted of their transcendental promises. In terms of how that’s done live, you bring these masses of people together to experience some form of this loss of self, and the emptying out of the mind. I don’t try to create an experience that’s curated and predetermined. I just set up the conditions upon which people can have a variety of experiences. Right now I fill rooms with intense amounts of haze and bright lights, and what people do in that haze, when they’re lost or by themselves or with their lover, are really different. It’s a space where you drift with your own shadows, whether you are together or alone.
PM: How do you work with visuals more broadly? What’s the story behind the cover of Love Streams?
TH: I’ve always done most of the covers myself. This last one I collaborated on to develop an idea that came out of hearing about numerous choirs in China celebrating the ‘Chinese Dream’ who had their stages collapse. People fell down simultaneously and momentarily disappeared. Stage collapse after stage collapse of these choirs celebrating this dream; it was really potent to me as an image and a metaphor, and it was also tied into the choral basis of this record.
PM: I’m very interested in how the online world has broken down much of the geographic restrictions that previously existed: we can now Skype instantaneously, we can explore through Google Maps and through satellites. Your music is deeply embedded in an awareness of the landscape, so how has this altered that sense of place?
TH: I’m very sensitive to where I work and what I’m doing, and the feeling that comes from that. I’m really sensitive to light, and the mood that’s created by certain intensities of brightness. I think I’m also sensitive to geography. I’ve been going to Iceland for three or four albums, partly because my friends are there, partly because it’s a place where I can work. When you travel somewhere to work on a project, it funnels into a greater focus. You can’t separate that from geography. For me, travelling – leaving your home to work – is important. Iceland for me is a cute home in the suburbs of Reykjavik, that’s close to the pool, by a nice coffee shop, and with snow falling on the trees. It’s not about the tundra and volcanoes. It’s the smell of the tap when you turn on the hot water – it smells like rotten eggs – it’s things like that which are evocative for me.
We live in a hybridised, half false, half virtual, space of flesh and non-existence.
It’s a very strong feeling when you get off the aeroplane and take the bus into the city. It’s a very profound thing, and that’s probably the journey, that vista, before you get into your work pattern, of where you are staying and working. I think it’s easy to over-essentialise the landscape in an idealised sense of informing the work. I mean, most of this album was made in Los Angeles, and I just spent a couple of crucial days working on it in Iceland. This could easily be an LA record, and I don’t want to contextualise it because what is an LA record? It’s bright golden sun-kissed billowing palms. No, it’s not that. It’s an internal life of someone’s mind, just working it out to make it a real, to make it an object. It is partly informed by geography, but also totally not. There are goths who live in Malibu, and really tropical people who go to tanning salons that live in Reykjavik. We live in a hybridised, half false, half virtual, space of flesh and non-existence. I’m more interested in those confusions than I am some postcard vista of volcanoes.
PM: The similarity to nature of your digitally processed sounds has often been noted, and the crackle of wind, sand, fog can all be heard in this new record. What are your thoughts on the supposed duality between 'natural' and 'unnatural' in relation to analogue and digital? How do you find a sense of the organic and the human within technology?
TH: I really appreciate hybridised indiscernibility between digital and organic. That needs to be worked through. For me, digital audio is the ability to turn sound into plastic, to be sculpted from this great flow and stream that can be hammered down, can be flattened, can be extended, can be enlarged, can be shrunken. Methods of abstraction mess with reality and with documentation; a saxophone could be someone hitting a glass on a table, or maybe not at all… maybe it comes from a computer simulating those things.
I like taking the most sterile, clinical forms and have them work with wood and leather and glass and fabric. It’s like fabric weaving; it becomes tapestry, it becomes making braids of golden threads. It gives you a chance to think differently.
PM: Holly Herndon has spoken of 'digital detritus', meaning the mess of files and data that we find ourselves surrounded with today - the digital shift doesn't necessarily equal a newly clinical outlook. How do you feel about this, and how important is this sense of digital ephemera, uncertainty, mess for your creative production?
TH: I’m not so much so student of the John Cage school of thought of chance and error, and more into contamination, confusion, indiscernibility. I’m into collage aesthetics. What if you confuse Xerox copy with hyper-colour? How do neon splashes interact in a sonic version? It’s much, much more than just technology.