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Left Field: Tim Hecker on Wrestling With Ambient Music, Plus Minimal Jazz, Analog Synthscapes, and More

Spin’s ‘Left Field’ column focuses on the latest in experimental music each month, featuring interviews with and capsule reviews of artists at the fringes of genre, sensibility, and commercial appeal. 

Two winters ago, Tim Hecker traveled to Japan with fellow composer Ben Frost to record what would become Konoyo, his ninth album. A far cry from the heady fog of 2016’s Love Streams, Konoyo plays with a lighter, more crystalline side of drone, in relatively uncrowded soundscapes. The music is informed by gagaku, a type of Japanese classical music relying heavily on the use of ancient instruments; the rigorous formalism of the style is undone over the album’s 59 minutes, thanks in large part to Hecker’s penchant for electronic manipulation. It’s a wholly anomalous take on gagaku, and on Hecker’s own sound, with instrumentation that constantly clashes and interlocks with itself in new and interesting ways.

In an interview with The Japan Times last September, Hecker hinted at the idea of doing a second record—less a companion piece than a new, “naturalist” approach to the material from the Konoyo recording sessions. Anoyo, released earlier this month, is just that. Doing away with much of the inscrutable electronics that characterized Konoyo, Anoyo keeps moments from the original recording sessions largely intact. When I spoke to him about the album last month, he told me about the cold November days spent on the floor of a temple on the outskirts of Tokyo, recording with Tokyo Gakuso ensemble and listening to the birds outside the sliding wooden doors. There’s an existential chill running throughout Anoyo that calcifies in the shivering strings of the opener, “That world.” Towards the middle of the track, individual instruments meld into something approximating the Arctic mist of Ravedeath, 1972 before eventually detangling, and reverting to a more natural state.

In telling me about his approach to the new work, Hecker detailed the specific engineering challenges inherent in musical translation, involving different tunings in Eastern and Western music. Bringing different tunings together without adjustment, he says, “just sounds like the worst dog screeching, and not in a good way.” He also discussed the Cube Earth aesthetic of Anoyo’s album art and its relationship to the sound, along with the relative emotional index of his new music. With Anoyo, Hecker pulls back on digital manipulation in favor of something starker, and often more momentous; with all the majesty of a freezing Japanese November, Anoyo feels like a bold new statement from an artist who, 15 years into his career, remains dead set on evolution. 

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

There feels like a lot of continuity between Anoyo and Konoyo — I’m interested in the transition from Love Streams to Konoyo, which seems a lot more stark. I’m curious how you transitioned in the past few years into a sound that would come to define both these new records.

Density of sound has been something I’ve quietly negotiated myself, like a kind of shadowboxing. With multitrack recording, it used to be a big ask to make four tracks, and then you had 16, and then there’s 72-track consoles, and the possibilities expanded over time to add layers to sound in recordings, and now it’s at the point where you can literally make thousands of layers of sound. It comes with that, the possibility of making this insanely dense and harmonically rich music.

And I’ve always gone pretty full deep into that world, almost like thinking about weaving fabric, ways of making intricate sound worlds. But I also realized I was at the point where I needed to pull back and work with things that were more skeletal, and things that were more fragile, and didn’t have this monumental bloat to it. It came about through talking with Jóhann Jóhannsson, who sent me a couple gagaku recordings and mentioned it was something he had been thinking about a lot. A few conversations with friends led me to this really beautiful music as a way to approach something different. And also harmonically and musically, tuning-wise, it’s a whole other set of challenges to deal with.

Did you shift your engineering or recording techniques to accommodate gagaku, and the music Jóhann put you on to?

No, I really had been using similar techniques, processes, and tools. I think the big challenge was tuning. You know, a lot of standard Western music—you open GarageBand or Ableton Live and everything’s ready to go in 440 Hz tuning. It’s the Western index of what A is, and what C is. It’s referenced mathematically to a frequency that can go up or down, even within Western music. And gagaku, and some traditional Japanese music, is all the way down to 430 Hz as the reference. So it’s literally almost half a note out of tune.

So if you bring music, as I learned, to collaborate with musicians working with instruments that are sometimes hundreds of years old, it just sounds like the worst dog screeching, and not in a good way. It’s not gelling at all. So I did a bunch of things with that, I took some of my music that I wrote in 440 and took it to the studio and pitched the tape down almost half a step to get towards 430, so that it could introduce some of these pieces and improvise with musicians. Some of the pieces I then took and re-pitched back up to 440, because some of them sounded better in a Western tuning. Others I left in their native 430. It’s complicated but that was one of my big technical hurdles making that record.

Was that technical challenge part of what attracted you to gagaku?

It was the fact that I couldn’t wrap my head around the form, and that I’d studied a lot about it but it was still always evasive about its musical language. It’s something that’s just not intuitive to me or innate in my upbringing, or my Western suburban culture as a teenager. It’s really something fundamentally from another planet, and that was inspiring to me. How can I approach working on something that’s themed in this way, and is not exploitation of some orientalist or traditionalist work, that everyone comes together to create something different, that is dovetailed off both advanced technology and deep traditional approaches?

How do you see the relationship between Anoyo and Konoyo?

Konoyo was a kind of electronic-forward document, a lot of the instrumentation was transformed significantly, and there’s a lot of chiseling and funneling into a kind of hybrid form. I left a lot of the music more barren in Anoyo, intentionally so. It was to the point where I couldn’t really make one record, with all these approaches and aesthetics, one being a really naturalist way. To some people it must still sound crazy weird or alien, but for me I could hear koto, I could hear taiko drums. It was something that was left as it was, without too much effort to make it into its own existence, to transform it into something else.

You’ve mentioned Tōru Takemitsu as a reference point for Konoyo, but the naturalism of Anoyo feels almost more of a piece with that sort of composition. Were you consciously drawing from the Japanese avant-garde with this record?

I really don’t shadowbox with music history too much. I’m a trained historian, which is kind of ironic. But with my own music practice, there’s almost a sense of horse blinders with the depth of the infinity of the music catalogue that I don’t really fully engage with sometimes. It’s like a willed naiveté. I just did this work, in its own internal logic, more than a reference to Japanese 60s composition. I’m familiar with Takemitsu, but not that familiar. I have a 10-box set of Takemitsu’s composition work, it’s like monumental and I’ve barely bothered through it. I would love to talk to somebody that has, but that’s where I’m at.

There’s a lot of negative space on Anoyo, and moments where the sound just empties out. Was that a feature of your approach, or something that was borne out of the process?

I think that was the really cold November days, and we were in this temple with these sliding wood doors and there’s birds singing outside, and a couple times we were just like, wow, that’s crazy, I hope these microphones pick it up. And we didn’t really place the mics in the right way to catch a lot of that ambient nature sound of the temple. It’s just leaving some of this stuff sitting in a more gentle way, without this need to just slash and splice and multitrack and distort and pulverize and all the ways I’ve done in the past, and am accustomed to. One of the things I wanted to do was just let it sit in its relatively bare majesty.

Both albums, but especially Konoyo, feel very dynamic to me, emotionally. There are these moments of anxiety, of restfulness, and of something in between, that shine through even in the negative space. Do you feel a similar emotional tenor in Anoyo and Konoyo?

Generally Anoyo is not such a rollercoaster of affect or emotional index. And I think that that was intentionally so. Konoyo was a bit more of a forward statement, or something that was a bit more with the original piece, and Anoyo was some kind of complement. I think Konoyo mirrored the emotional states of gagaku, which is very mystical and very thunderous and sonorous, and demons are coming out of smoke, you know. Crazy. I don’t think I tried to mirror it, but just engaged with it.

Both albums sort of feel like their album art, too.

They’re both made by my friend [Tobias Spichtig] who’s a Swiss artist, and they both engage with the work in a different way. One’s like a block planet. Anoyo means afterlife, and it was just this weirdly fitting image of this square planet, almost like the one we’re destroying right now, when it passes into the other world. And Konoyo was just this dragon, this MIDI frankenstein, fire-breathing, urinating, lost, tired dragon that just didn’t make sense. And it made sense in terms of the music. It was a conversation that happened with my friend about, how do you represent this music in a visual way that makes sense, and we came into the dragon as one of the things that made sense.

A lot of people actually think the earth is a cube.

I’m not fully aware of the depth of Cube Earth. I’m kind of learning now. Yeah, conspiracies abound more than ever. You would think it would be the opposite in a time of relative ability to get facts together, but that it’s not the case.

You mention environmental decline — I think a hunch people seem to have about the recording sessions for Konoyo and Anoyo is that they were somehow a response to global change. Was there any direct reaction to political, social, or otherwise environmental forces, as opposed to something more oblique?

I guess it’s maybe 5% more political than it was. I’ve always been politically minded, but I’ve always also thought my own art practice is a refuge from the malaise of partisanship. Just endless, pointless strife. It’s a place to create something that’s outside of that space, and delineate another possibility for experience, like a lot of people do. That’s a tough question. I think yes, to a certain extent, because it’s just so unpalpable, the political climate that exists. And the fact that the world is heading towards an ecological catastrophe that people are sleepwalking through. But at the same time, I don’t like strident, pedantic [work] that really tells you how to think or feel, rather than creating a space of ambiguity that encourages connecting the dots in a certain way that only you could do yourself, through a process of self-discovery. Versus just being literally telegraphed moralistic codes, or political codes that are straightforward.

There’s a sense that Japanese ambient and environmental music is having a revival, whether through YouTube algorithms or dedicated reissues on small labels. I’m curious if you see your work as in some way engaging with that larger tradition of Japanese experimental music, or if you feel it exists on its own.

Yeah I’ve checked out a lot of those reissues, and I would say that they’re distinctly different, because the emotive spaces and the internal architecture of the music is almost like a Japanese variant of early ambient. I have a very loose understanding of that musical movement, but I’m not adhering to that school of musical expression at all. It’s vaguely ambient in a sense, but it’s the same relationship I’ve had with ambient over 15 years. It’s something I’ve always shadowboxed with, and had a fencing match with. I don’t feel like I personally want to adhere to Brian Eno’s concept. There’s a lot of more interesting questions to me than adhering to the original prescriptions or suggestions for what ambient music might be.

Yeah, I think the Eno definition can be limiting in some ways.

I think on a bunch of levels, for sure. And it served a certain purpose, like Muzak did. For me, I don’t think holding a chord for 20 minutes is where I’m at right now. There’s a lot of that out there. It’s just not my approach for the past little while.

New releases

Countless experimental releases arrive each month, on Soundcloud and Bandcamp, as self-released cassettes and LPs, and on any number of small labels. Here are a few of the most noteworthy and exciting from May. 

M. Geddes Gengras – I Am the Last of That Green and Warm-Hued World

The title of the latest album from prolific synth explorer M. Geddes Gengras brings climate change to mind: a lone explorer on a ravaged planet, navigating the remains of society, trudging past ruined bank buildings across crumbling highways covered in moss. The five long and unremittingly dense pieces convey a similar impression, of nature coming to reclaim the landscape after humanity has destroyed it. This is ambient music at its most mucky and tactile, bug-eyed and psychedelic, with rhythms that churn and sputter like dying machines and harmonies that mutate and expand like fungus. At 88 minutes in total, I Am the Last of That Green and Warm-Hued World is a lot to take in, and there may not be a single repeated measure anywhere in the album. Still, it’s easy to lose yourself—until a sudden expansion of the stereo field, or a new high frequency wriggling above the din, brings you back to reality. —ANDY CUSH

Loren Connors & Daniel Carter – The Departing of a Dream, Vol. VII

It might seem excessive to devote an entire seven albums worth of music to paying tribute to a single track that someone else released several decades ago. Less so when that track is “He Loved Him Madly,” the elegiac side-long opener to Miles Davis’s sprawling 1974 opus Get Up With It, whose 32 minutes of soft pulses and tidal organ harmony anticipated entire swaths of ambient and electronic music years ahead of time. Maverick guitarist Loren Connors first probed the mysteries of “He Loved Him Madly” with the release of his cult-favorite album The Departing of a Dream in 2002, carving caverns of negative space between softly plucked chords, using his wah pedal to twist the sound of his guitar into wildly expressive alien shapes, much the way Davis did with his trumpet and organ in the ‘70s. Connors has continued releasing records in the same since then. The latest, improvised in collaboration with veteran free jazz multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter, unfolds across two long tracks that alternate between woozy serenity and bracing noise. The Departing of a Dream, Vol. VII at first scans as a quiet album, but it has its greatest effect when turned up loud. —A.C.

Caterina Barbieri – Ecstatic Computation

Since her breakthrough album Patterns of Consciousness, Barbieri has explored the relationship between man and machine through complex synth tessellations. The music is all about patterning—measured blasts of electronic sound, with an idea of order over disorder. Nothing’s ever out of place, or unaccounted for. Barbieri draws distinctly human emotions from an artificial instrumental palette, and grapples with those emotions through sequenced rhythms and sublime longtones. Ecstatic Computation mostly retains the conceptual sensibilities established on Patterns of Consciousness, but factors a refreshing looseness into the equation. “Fantas” is dominated by glimmering, ascendent mountains of synthetic sound, and glossy metallic valleys. But the slow creep of entropy invites chaos toward the end, with new synth arrangements defined by fragmentation and discord; the sounds eventually crumble, rather than restructuring. At other points, sylphlike vocals offer a welcome contrast to the harshness of Barbieri’s electronics. The sheer diversity of patterns in defined arpeggios, oscillating dynamics, and fluid ambient production marks a radical turn away from the rigidity of past compositions. It’s an audacious look at new sonics, and a prismatic reinterpretation of established formulas. —WILL GOTTSEGEN

Qasim Naqvi – Teenages

Qasim Naqvi is the drummer in Dawn of Midi, a Brooklyn-based instrumental group whose 2013 album Dysnomia remains in a class of its own, at some steely midpoint between techno, jazz, and classical minimalism. His debut solo album Teenages is in a different mode, but not entirely. Naqvi created it entirely with a home-built modular synthesizer, and though the timbres diverge considerably from Dawn of Midi’s all-acoustic piano trio setup, the preoccupations are similar: subtly complex polyrhythms, harmonies that shift very slowly, or not at all. The title refers in part to the synthesizer, which Naqvi says has become a sort of unruly adolescent as he’s added more components over time, less likely to respond directly to his commands, more interested in following its own inscrutable impulses. Teenages itself follows a similar trajectory across its six tracks. Each of the first five presents a relatively simple musical idea, gently probes at its possibilities, and bows out. Then there’s the monumental album-closing title track, which synthesizes everything we’ve heard so far, stretching it across the proportions of a symphonic movement: rhythms become textures become rhythms again; chords freeze and hover in mid-air. By the end, the preceding music begins to feel like a series of mere sketches, documenting Naqvi and his instrument’s growth toward this gorgeous intricacy and sweeping scale. —A.C.

Organ Tapes – Hunger In Me Living

Producer and experimental vocalist Tim Zha isn’t concerned with genre. As Organ Tapes, he makes mercurial, wholly indefinable tracks at the intersection of music and sound art, with vocals at the fore. It’s Zha’s delivery—half-mumbled, dripping with autotune—that defines his sound. Organ Tapes’ 2017 opus Into One Name took cues from minimal pop, dancehall, and old school R&B for something entirely its own (“All Night,” a highlight from that album, is an emo classic rivaling Yung Lean’s “Agony”). On Hunger In Me Living, Zha’s production is eclectic as ever, with hints of lo-fi and sharp-edged electronics. The writing is poppier, though the emotional register is similarly melancholic. The muffled guitars of “Ugly” make for some of the album’s richest, most resonant moments. And the album’s closer, “Sunset In E5,” is a stunner: slippery, earthen music, with entire worlds in simple turns of phrase. Musical influences abound, though no one style ever seems to take hold. Trying to pin it down is ultimately a useless exercise; Hunger In Me Living is for feeling more than understanding. —W.G.