Few in the field of explorative ambient music have remained as questing and unclassifiable as Canadian composer Tim Hecker. Across his 15-year career he has moved through shades of reflective electronic noise, experiential sound design, and modern composition with a deft and distinguished touch. Even so, the past few years have seen a minor renaissance in his discography – time seems to be fortifying his palette, rather than fossilising it.
Hecker’s newest opus, Love Streams, takes as its cue from the avant-classical orchestration and extreme electronic processing of his previous full-length, 2013’s Virgins, but shaped into more melancholic, ultraviolet hues. Its power accrues as it unfolds. Inspired by notions of 15th century choral scores transposed to an artificial intelligence-era language of digital resonance and bright synths, the album was assembled gradually, with layers of studio-tracked keyboards, choir and woodwinds being woven into the mix, then molded and disfigured through complex programming. The effect is similar to hearing some ancient strain of sacred music corrupted by encryption. Hecker admits to thinking about ideas like “liturgical aesthetics after Yeezus” and the “transcendental voice in the age of auto-tune” during its creation.
Opening with the somber, stained glass reverie of “Obsidian Counterpoint,” the record immediately draws the listener into its haunted, harrowing mood. “Music Of The Air” realises the vision that permeates Love Streams even more potently: polyphonic choral voices swim through an ether of oscillating drones and spectral textures, like a high mass beamed from an alien shortwave numbers station. As always in Hecker’s recent pieces, the balance of introspection and intensity is masterfully unpredictable. “Live Leak Instrumental” and “Castrati Stack” both seethe with a muted sense of dread, punctuated by moments of tension and dissonance, without ever fully spilling over into the cacophony lurking just beneath the surface. What you don’t hear can, in the right hands, serve to be almost as riveting as what you do.
Hecker’s decision to continue working with many of the same collaborators that he teamed with on Virgins proved an astute move – this particular corps clearly understands his methods, and performs accordingly. Kara-Lis Coverdale’s keyboard work here is, if anything, even more fractured and dazzling, simultaneously emotional and oblique. Grímur Helgason’s woodwind arrangements were a defining facet of Virgins but his contributions to Love Streams are equally elegant and enigmatic, wisps of dissipating melody within frayed, keening tapestries. Hecker’s ability to maximize the viscera and drama of potentially amorphous source material is professionally unparalleled.
Convening once again in Reykjavik – where parts of both Virgins and Ravedeath, 1972 were tracked – the Love Streams sessions took place across 2014 and 2015, bolstered by the Icelandic Choir Ensemble. Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson scored several choral accompaniments that appear here, including the closing track “Black Phase.” The presence of the voice, even when heavily processed, infuses the music with a lofty, sacramental feeling. On “Violet Monumental I” Hecker splices their voices into a surreal smear of heavenly aspiration, while a low tone plods an elliptical, heartbreaking bassline; the contrast of elements sounds fantastical, and devastating.
The title can be interpreted any number of ways – erotic, technological, spiritual – although Hecker’s own conception is appropriately vast, calling it “a riff on the ubiquity and nihilism of streaming of all forms of life.” There is certainly a sense of love in Love Streams, but also of loss, refusal and retreat. “Voice Crack” serves as a microcosm of these multitudes: synthetic strings sparkle against mournfully minimal drops of piano before being subsumed within a knotty maelstrom of distorted metal improv, which then dissolves into fragile, levitating rainbows of choral singing. The track lasts just over three minutes but is packed denser with risks and revelations than entire albums by other artists.
As is true of most of Hecker’s work, Love Streams is a decidedly opaque creation, offering itself as a mutable vessel of meaning. The tangible clues are few. Beyond the titles, there is also the artwork: a gauzy screengrab of a video of an 80-strong Chinese choir collapsing beneath the stage during in an event last summer. There were no casualties, fortunately, but the image of a congregation united in utopian song suddenly plummeting into the depths is richly metaphorical: no matter how real the Dream, we all feel the Fall.
A small handful of the 15th century choral works by Josquin des Prez birthed the foundations of Love Streams. The musical tradition of cyclic, sacred composition developed and thrived for centuries before eroding under the grinding impatience of modernity. Now we stream more than we love. The current reality is that music too frequently resembles a product, or white noise. Tim Hecker belongs to a select camp actively resisting this undertow, this reduction in significance. His albums are personal statements and gestures of devotion. They are attempts to elevate – even with the stage poised to collapse.
Front Porch Productions