New Track: Tim Hecker – “Live Room”

Tim Hecker - "Virgins"
Tim Hecker – “Virgins”

Tim Hecker is set to release the follow up to 2011’s “Ravedeath 1972.” On October 14, 2013 “Virgins” will be released on Kranky.

If you aren’t familiar with Hecker’s work, you should head to any streaming service and listen to “Ravedeath 1972” immediately. Rarely does such a hauntingly beautiful, curious, moving and exquisitely crafted album of electronic music such as “Ravedeath 1972” come out. It’s a must hear for any music fan.

The forthcoming album, from what I have heard so far (which isn’t much), is coming at things from a bit of a different direction. When I first heard the track “Live Room” on NPR’s “All Songs Considered” podcast something immediately struck me. As someone that is deeply interested in the boundaries between “classical” and “popular” music and all of the labels within each (a topic that I am going to cover in greater detail in the coming days) I was drawn in by the piano line in this song.

Perhaps this was most shocking because of how clearly the piano attacks are on this track, and how persistent the pattern is. The piano line creates a distant, jerky backbone that interestingly enough places the more ambient sounds in the foreground. Sure, these things are interesting in that they allow me to describe a bit of the sound to you (you can also listen below) but what I really want to direct your attention to are the specific pitches in that piano line.

One of the touchstone pieces of the early minimalist movement is Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase.” The premise of that work is that two pianos (or marimbas, or harps or pretty much anything) play identical lines but one of the instruments slowly speeds up while the other remains perfectly steady. As the line speeds up in the one instrument the simple pattern eventually “phases,” due to the tempo variation, such that the first pitch now lines up with the 2nd in the steady instrument. This process repeats several times until cycled all the way back to the beginning before another section begins.

Steve Reich – Piano Phase
To me the most fascinating aspect of minimalist music is the way that through sheer repetition the listener is given the chance to hear the music in a new way. As one listens they are able to simultaneously consider what it is that they are hearing, and the amazing thing is that the more one listens the more things that pop out of the texture. It’s a hypnotic meditation. Sure, the music is repetitive on the surface but if one learns to focus, listening between the notes, one will start to hear things that were not readily apparent before. In a way it’s like an aural hallucination, except it is no hallucination at all, those sounds are all there. Listening to minimalism of this style really teaches you to concentrate and listen in a deeper sense of the word. It’s deceptively simple.

Anyway, that is a long way away from my point. My point is, after listening to both tracks can you hear the very clear similarity between the piano lines in both? Could this be a commentary on Hecker’s part? If so, what could we imagine that this could be? How can we hear this music the way that it seems he wants us to hear it?

It seems fairly obvious that Hecker wants to make a comment on Reich’s piece, and he is sending out this signal to his listeners in the form of a musical quote (though Hecker’s piano line is presented at a different pitch level, but that hardly disqualifies it). The piano line in “Live Room” takes shape over the course of a few “failed” attempts at the beginning of the track, which stands in direct opposition to that of Reich’s pianos that are up and running straight out of the gate and don’t let up for ~20 minutes.

I like to think of Tim Hecker drawing a direct line from Steve Reich to himself with the use of this quote. Reich could also be considered one of the first “classical” composers to embrace electronics as an instrument. His early works were tape loops played at varying speeds, giving him the idea for phase works (a happy accident that occurred while trying to edit the tape for “It’s Gonna Rain” with one of the tape machines playing ever so slightly faster than the other). If it wasn’t for electronics perhaps Reich wouldn’t have become quite the important musical figure that he is considered today.

The way that Hecker’s piano eventually accumulates into a melodic line – jittery, uneven, unsteady, erratic – basically when Hecker’s piano line materializes it has all the pitches in the same order as Reich’s piano line with none of the other characteristics that make Reich’s piece what it is. Hecker completely strips it down and makes it his own. The simple gesture has taken on a new life, it has grown legs and staggered off into the distance. The room sounds are made to dominate; it’s the room that is the actual instrument here while everything else that occurs does so as a means of manipulating that room sound.

Thought provoking as it is, perhaps it is best to enjoy the track on its own, if that is all possible (it’s probably not possible anymore after reading this, sorry. Well, to me at least, I’m going to forever ponder these implications whenever I hear “Live Room” or “Piano Phase” from now on).

There is another track from “Virgins” available on Kranky’s soundcloud page. “Virginal II” can be heard below:

“Virgins” is out October 14th on Kranky. You can head to their site right now to pick up a copy of “Ravedeath 1972” on vinyl (2xLP), CD or mp3.