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Tim Hecker - Anoyo Music Album Reviews

The follow-up to last year’s Konoyo—recorded, like its predecessor, with a Japanese gagaku ensemble—functions as a counterbalance to that album: a kind of photo negative, more subdued but no less overwhelming.

Ambient music is having a moment, or so the algorithm would have you believe. Streaming apps are intent on offering the stressed-out masses the promise of the perfect mood-management tool, optimized to increase focus and settle nerves whether you’re coding, falling asleep, or writing music reviews. As I type these words I’m listening to a Spotify mix called Productive Morning that has 435,363 followers, many of whom, I assume, play the Album Leaf and Jon Brion as they down salt juice and stack nootropics. Amanda Petrusich, in a recent piece for the New Yorker, wrote about the wildly popular Chillhop YouTube channel, whose anodyne beats offer just enough oomph to push you from one Keynote slide to the next. There’s even a service called Focus@Will, which, for a subscription fee, “has been scientifically proven to increase attention span and increase your productivity by 400%.” Who can argue with science?


Tim Hecker, for one. Over nearly two decades the Canadian electronic composer has made a career of enmeshing the algorithmic and the analog, capturing cosmic infinity with buzzsaw synths. While playlists use science to refine our routines, Hecker’s machines dismantle them. “I feel that my role in the conversation of music is to, say, lapse and leave people to connect the dots in their own ways and meanings,” he said. At their best, Hecker’s compositions come alive as corporeal objects, sound made tangible as if shaped with clay. With his 2011 breakout record, Ravedeath, 1972, Hecker joined the ranks of Christian Fennesz, William Basinski, and the handful of avant-garde composers whose unapologetically out-there compositions are appreciated by a weirdly large audience. On 2016’s Love Streams he employed thrumming synths and mutated Icelandic choir to stunning effect, further blurring electronic and human elements to “interrogate the voice.”

Anoyo, Hecker’s exquisite new record, is the second of a pair of LPs, including 2018’s Konoyo, that Hecker created in collaboration with Japanese gagaku musicians. Gagaku (which means “elegant music” in modern Japanese) is the traditional ensemble of the imperial court; Hecker recorded these albums with Tokyo Gakuso, a collective assembled by the musician Motonori Miura. Together, along with other collaborators, they worked through a series of improvisational sessions at Jiunzan Mandala-Temple Kanzouin, a Buddhist temple in Tokyo. Though Hecker is often labeled an ambient producer, Anoyo fits this description only in a literal sense; Anoyo becomes your environment as it envelops your senses. In order to fully appreciate the album, one must actively probe its crevices, exploring the space between anguished reeds and thundering taiko. Brian Eno’s famous definition, that ambient music “must be as ignorable as it is interesting,” simply does not apply.

Because they were created from the same sessions, Anoyo is best viewed as a counterweight to Konoyo. Together, they are two parts of a singular whole. Konoyo translates to “this world” or “the world over here”—our world—while Anoyo represents “the world over there,” where the spirits reside. Though the two could have sensibly been released as a double album, the space between them is welcome. They represent distinct experiences: light and dark, yin and yang. Following this logic, Anoyo acts as a sort of photo negative of Konoyo, more subdued but no less overwhelming. Wind instruments—the hichiriki, shō, and ryūteki—and percussion punctuate the silence. “Into the void,” a particularly plaintive track, might evoke the doleful cries of whales separated by leagues of sea, siren calls from the abyss. Or perhaps you may be reminded of NASA’s recent image of a black hole, with its halo of doomed light. Strange, how sound can evoke emptiness better than actual silence.

Like Hecker’s other records, Anoyo lives in opposition to the sort of soundscape-as-wallpaper that has become a staple of the streaming economy. Rather than a soothing balm, Anoyo’s ambience is a carefully modulated anxiety attack. Inspired by a series of conversations with the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, Hecker’s friend and collaborator, Hecker became fascinated by the Japanese concept of ma, which translates roughly as “void” or “the space between two structural parts.” Anoyo is seemingly permeated by this notion, expressed as an uneasy thrum beneath ancient Japanese instruments (see the controlled clatter of “Not alone,” which uses spare percussion to excellent effect). This nothingness serves as connective tissue with notes emerging occasionally from the dusk. Anoyo could be described as a meditative album, but it’s not one you’d want to meditate to. What Hecker offers is a gateway to another world rather than a new filter for this one.

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With Anoyo and Konoyo, Hecker has further swapped studio plugins for human musicians. On Ravedeath, 1972 he built an album from an Icelandic chorus that was later processed to oblivion. But Anoyo mostly leaves its human players unadulterated. “I don’t want to set up a digital-analog divide because I find the most interesting things confuse the two, like hybridity or in-between,” he told FACT in 2016. With Anoyo and Konoyo Hecker takes another step toward erasing any distinction between the two approaches.

Hecker’s music is not easy, but it is worthwhile. As music becomes another palliative tool for sanding the edges from our daily grind, embracing art that makes us uncomfortable, that asks significant questions, becomes all the more important. On the six tracks and 35 minutes that make up Anoyo there is no purpose but to explore the shadows in which Hecker and his collaborators have blanketed themselves. Because they know what those life hackers do not: If you’re going to reach for the sublime, it’s going to take some work.


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