There must be a kind of Willy Wonka moment when an electronic performer first enters the EMPAC concert hall for a residency. The multichannel customization potential is a bit like the sonic equivalent of Wonka’s chocolate room, a place where anything is possible.
Over the course of a week, Tim Hecker, the Canadian musician known for busting ambient techniques out of the academy for marginally larger appeal in the art-rock world (namely last year’s celebrated Ravedeath, 1972 and a forthcoming record with Daniel Lopatin of Oneohtrix Point Never), was given run of the place to essentially transform the concert hall into a massive extension of the “headphone space” his music is known to explore. For maximum effect, there was no house or stage lighting for the entirety of his performance.
A simple piano loop was the first sound Hecker triggered, projected from one of two Fender guitar amps onstage. In minimalist fashion, the figure was doubled, tripled until the polyrythms blended into a complex drone. As the sound floated through the room, microphones stationed in the fabric ceiling collected the sound and directed the signal back into Hecker’s electronics, where he could further process and pan the sound around the room’s many (mostly hidden) speakers.
As sounds began to chime in from deep within the rafters or somewhere incomprehensibly far behind the audience, it was tempting to direct your gaze to wherever the sound seemed to be coming from. When pulses of sub-bass rumbled out from below the stage like seismic waves, they were almost more tactile, vibrating your legs and chest, than sonic. File this phenomenon as another probable fantasy of the producer with access to a bitchin’ PA.
As the piece progressed, elements of hiss and crunch were introduced to give the room a foggy feel, with helicopter whooshes ascending and descending. The textures could be a bit coarse at times, but their sources always seemed organic, with clear samples of trumpet, electric guitar and even an up-tempo kick drum at one point—more heart murmur than dance beat. At times the effect was that of a carillon, bells chiming from different belfries, as synthesizers washed from side to side. At others, it felt like someone slowly tuning a band radio between discernible stations. And when the sound bath seemed to have lapped every corner of the very large tub, Hecker seemed to draw the signal back into his electronics like a genie getting slowly recorked, until a single sample finally decayed in the one Fender amp.