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Tim Hecker - Konoyo Music Album Reviews

On the least dense and most inquisitive album of his career, the experimental musician creates a fascinating dialogue between his technology and some of the world’s most ancient instruments.

For the last decade, Tim Hecker has been on a quest to unite musician and machine, to blur the border between the sources of his sounds and the output he renders. During the two-part “Hatred of Music” suite from 2011’s Ravedeath, 1972, piano sparkled through a wall of noise and ran like water into the synthesizers beneath it. Two years later, Virgins made a pointillist chamber ensemble sound like Steve Reich trapped inside an electric storm. And on the exhilarating Love Streams, Hecker morphed loping woodwind lines and seraphic choirs arranged by Jóhann Jóhannsson into ad hoc beat machines and chord organs. Still, the source material from instrumentalists and singers felt like exactly that—fodder being fed into Hecker’s finished electronic product, data he mined for updated textures. The hierarchy between the composer and his components was clear.

At least until now: On the least dense and most inquisitive album of his career, Konoyo, Hecker puts his synthesizers, sequencers, and software on the same level as his source material, so that the original music he’s manipulating feels every bit as important as the music he is in turn creating. Encouraged by the late Jóhannsson to consider pulling back both volume and layers, Hecker creates a fascinating dialogue between his technology and some of the world’s most ancient instruments. Where one begins and the other ends often remains a mystery, as when a pair of Japanese flutes (the hichiriki and ryūteki) float into harmony with a soft keyboard line or a cello merges with a piercing ray of noise. In the tradition of Harold Budd’s piano-and-electronics daydreams, Christian Fennesz’s electroacoustic invocations, or frequent collaborator Kara-Lis Coverdale’s own choral wonders, Hecker stands at the center of two worlds and puts them in knowing conversation.

Late in 2017, Hecker enlisted Tokyo musician Motonori Miura to assemble a gagaku group whose members would improvise around nontraditional concepts. Gagaku is the imperial court soundtrack of Japan, a mesmerizing mix of curling flute melodies, drums, strings, and the spectacularly droning 17-pipe horn called the shō. They convened for several days in a Buddhist temple in Tokyo, built on the site of an ancient place of worship.

Rather than guide the gagaku ensemble, record their results, and simply return to a traditional studio to sculpt their sounds, Hecker became a de facto bandleader, offering thoughts about a mood and then joining the group as they improvised around the idea. He’d play back his results, and they’d respond in kind, building a sort of call-and-response repartee between their ritualistic instruments and his command center of synthesizers. During “A Sodium Codec Haze,” Hecker’s sequencers sing in harmony with gagaku flutes and percussion, a chorus of wonderment. For “In Death Valley,” those same instruments fall in and out of focus, moving through Hecker’s hum like a digital latticework.

At its best, Hecker’s radiant drone has been a nest of hidden feelings, with moods and emotions meant to be teased out after the music’s initial sense of unapologetic bluster has passed. But Konoyo is immediately vulnerable, its vacillation between the dense and diaphanous framing a sense of deep longing and worry. When these sessions began, Hecker’s equipment didn’t cooperate with the gagaku instruments, as they were designed with different standard pitches in mind (430 Hz, as opposed to 440). You can sense those traces of uncertainty and the quest to overcome that hesitation from start to finish here. In the literal sense, Konoyo sounds experimental, the stuff of trial and error.

“This Life,” for instance, is an endless cycle of baseline anxiety, where washes of worry and hints of relief are interwoven components along the same Mobius strip. Every time a melody starts to twinkle, Hecker undercuts it; just as the piece begins to grow into hellish miasma, Hecker backlights it with keyboards that beckon like shooting stars and safety beacons. It’s a seesaw of emotional unrest, never letting you land on just how you feel. “Keyed Out” is a score of quiet exasperation and creeping desperation, as a droning metallic tone slowly sloughs off its weight. Gagaku percussion clangs and patters in the distance, as if tracing the walls of some dark room in search of the way out. By using fewer strata of sound, Hecker leaves his impulses exposed, the skeleton now as prominent as the nervous system that operates it.

In the past, Hecker has tended to flood any space, to fill even a room’s hidden recesses with the glow of his sound. Harmony in Ultraviolet feels like some imposing orb, its transmission as inescapable as walking into La Monte Young’s magenta-bathed Dream House. Ravedeath, 1972 is a winter wind churning along some exposed ridgeline, whipping and subsiding only to return with increased conviction. But Konoyo is always mindful of the space it occupies. Hecker listens, responds, and keeps listening for the ways others respond to his actions—a cycle of dialogue that is, if not obsequious to the whims of the world, at least observant of his impacts on others.

This self-awareness is timely, of a piece with the social tides that rightfully demand the voices of white men need not be the only or loudest ones in the room. Konoyo’s other musicians are either Japanese gagaku experts or classically trained women with their own compelling experimental visions, Kara-Lis Coverdale and Mariel Roberts. If Konoyo is not a direct reflection of slowly shifting worldviews, it is at least a righteous affirmation of them, a pointed reflection on the value in listening to new perspectives. By stepping out of focus and receding into his assembled ranks, Hecker has found a renewed compositional approach. And on the most fascinating album of his career, he has, at last, expressed an idea he has pursued for a decade.

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