Music

Electronic artist Tim Hecker delves into ancient Japanese court music and negative space on ‘Konoyo’

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

For the first decade of his career, the Canadian composer and sound artist Tim Hecker specialized in transmuting digital audio into thick miasmas of sound that combined orchestral richness with the sensory assault of noise music. But after reaching an apotheosis — and his largest audience to date — with his 2011 album “Ravedeath, 1972,” he decided to dial things down.

“That’s like a life project for me: just to make less,” he says, speaking by phone from Montreal. “When every aspect of EDM or pop music is so harmonically saturated now, why — what does that mean? Does that inherently mean it has teeth now? I’m not sure.”

Rather than commit to a sonic arms race, Hecker chose restraint. His latest album, “Konoyo,” is possibly the most understated thing he has produced to date, and certainly the most unexpected. It’s based on recordings he made in Tokyo last year, working with a small group of musicians specializing in gagaku, Japan’s ancient court music.

Hecker discovered the music via a friend, composer Johann Johannsson, who died earlier this year.

“It was kind of the opposite of what I was doing — at some points — which was like super-dense, kind of affect-laden music,” he says. “There was so much restraint in the music of gagaku, and just this kind of power.”

He traces the album’s origins back to conversations he had with Johannsson a few years ago, exploring notions of negative space and what the press release for “Konoyo” describes as the “increasingly banal density” of modern music.

Gagaku was a source of inspiration for 20th-century composers including Olivier Messiaen and Benjamin Britten, but it’s hardly a common reference point for today’s laptop producers. As Hecker discovered, his digital instruments — tuned to 440 Hz, the standard pitch used in Western music — weren’t designed to accommodate the distinctive timbres and tunings of the shō, hichiriki and ryūteki, gagaku’s core wind instruments.

“The intonation’s off, everything’s strange,” he explains. “It took me two or three recordings to make sense of how to work with it, and how to make (things) mesh.”

He ended up recording at a temple in Tokyo’s western Nerima Ward, with regular collaborator Ben Frost on hand to lend additional engineering support. While he had also worked with musicians on his previous two albums, “Virgins” and “Love Streams,” he says his approach with “Konoyo” was much more open-ended.

“There was very little advice or direction given,” he says. “We started talking about things like, ‘This sounds like dark smoke clouds,’ and we would just riff on that for 15 minutes.” As he worked with the recordings, he would feed his treatments back to the musicians, “and we just kept playing over things in an iterative way.”

“We tried various different approaches,” says Motonori Miura, who convened the gagaku ensemble and plays hichiriki on the album. “We tried some classical gagaku repertoire but, in the end, an improvisational method seemed like the best fit for Tim’s music.”

Although the context was radically different, Miura says the musicians stuck to what he calls a “gagaku policy”: A specific conception of tone and phrasing, informed by millennium-old pieces as well as more recent works by composers such as Toru Takemitsu.

“It’s old, but also futuristic,” he says of gagaku, noting how the music is genuinely cosmic in inspiration. He also sees points of convergence with contemporary electronica: The way the shō (a 17-pipe mouth organ) maintains a constant stream of tone clusters is “very close to drone music.”

“I think it was probably natural for Tim to choose gagaku,” he concludes.

“Konoyo” still has some of the enveloping swells and surges that fans of Hecker’s previous work would expect, but the overall sound is more crepuscular than crushing, like mists descending on a valley at dusk. While synthesizers dominate as often as reed instruments, the ornate detail and layering that characterized much of his earlier work is absent. He contrasts it with the “ADHD power-pop ambience” of 2013’s “Virgins,” ostensibly his first attempt at reining in the largesse.

“These aren’t ambient pieces, but they are sloppier than I’ve been in the past, in the sense that I just let things go,” he says. “There’s not such a franticness to the pace of the music.”

Court is in session: Canadian composer and sound artist Tim Hecker has created an album inspired by gagaku, a type of Japanese Imperial court music that dates back to the eighth century.
Court is in session: Canadian composer and sound artist Tim Hecker has created an album inspired by gagaku, a type of Japanese Imperial court music that dates back to the eighth century. | EMILY BERL

The album also gave Hecker an opportunity to explore his interest in ma, or negative space, a key concept in Japanese aesthetics that doesn’t have a direct corollary in the West. While it’s easy to understand in visual terms — think of the famous rock garden at Kyoto’s Ryoanji Temple or the evocative emptiness of traditional scroll paintings — it can be harder to grasp when applied to music.

“It’s much richer than just silence,” he says. “It can be inversions, it can be a bunch of things — it can be pauses, it can be related to velocity. I think about it in terms of shadows, in the architectural sense of it — empty rooms, the way light crests on certain angles and things like that — more than I think of silence.

He explains that the album went through various permutations. At one point, he was considering working with American gagaku musicians in an outdoor setting that satisfied his fascination with the 20th century land art movement — “some kind of weird, Pink-Floyd-in-Pompeii style recording” — but “it evolved into something else.”

“That journey is the interesting part,” he continues. “I feel like sometimes music seems like the strategics are so transparent. It’s like: ‘This album is about these eight things, I’m going to exploit them and stick to my brand and stick to my identity I’ve constructed’ — and I’ve tried to not do that so much.”

In the same way that he released a companion EP to “Ravedeath, 1972,” consisting of sketches for that album, Hecker suggests there’s more where “Konoyo” came from.

“It’s not like I’m trying to make this a ‘gagaku record,'” he says. “I’ll probably do another release that will be a lot more naturalist and a lot more open, and not as kind of — you know, this is a bit crystallized.”

Given the malleability of digital audio, it’s tempting to question the need to fly halfway across the world to capture sounds that could theoretically be created from scratch. Hecker talks about how “you can literally do anything with sound now,” yet his recent work has placed increasing importance on getting other people — and places — involved in the process.

“I was reading these two painters in conversation recently, talking about the intensity of just going into their empty studio every day and looking at that canvas, and just that feeling of being alone and being isolated,” he says. “I think music can yield a similar thing if you’re not careful. Leaving the house and meeting people and doing things in space means a lot, and it affects the work inherently. I could do all this on my own, in my room, but I chose not to.”

He’ll be heading on tour with the musicians who played on the record, starting with a show at Tokyo’s WWW X next week, in what he says will be a departure from “my normal onslaught-style performance.” But Hecker has decided to forego the publicity blitz that typically surrounds an album launch — even the rollout has gone minimal.

“I’m doing no press for this album — you’ll be one of two people I’ll probably talk to about it,” he says. “I’m not interested in making videos right now. I put a lot of work into the album, and I think you can still feel proud about something you do, and make it a traditional release in some ways, but I’m not doing any internet bait related to the music.”

There is, however, the eye-catching artwork for the album: a sculpture by Hecker’s close friend, Tobias Spichtig, of a fire-breathing dragon constructed from scrap metal and a mangled MIDI keyboard. It’s enough to dispel any “Tim Hecker goes Buddhist” misconceptions that might have surrounded “Konoyo.”

“Because I didn’t go Buddhist,” he says. “I try to meditate, but I get short-circuited.”

“Konoyo” is released on Friday. Tim Hecker plays with the Konoyo Ensemble at WWW X in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on Oct. 2 (8 p.m. start; ¥5,000 in advance; 03-5458-7688). For more information, visit www.sunblind.net.