Tim Hecker & The Konoyo Ensemble

Conversation: Friday, Apr. 26, 2 p.m.

Performance: Friday, Apr. 26, 11 p.m.

The Carolina Theatre, Durham

Tim Hecker has been very quiet about Konoyo—quiet enough that we were pleasantly surprised when, Moogfest-bound, he agreed to speak with us about it. Though an internet search returns plenty of glowing reviews, the only readily available interview was in The Japan Times upon the album’s release in September. At first, Hecker’s reticence and its exception both seem like unusual choices for a North American musician more often found in FACT or FADER than in Japanese English-language dailies. But both are apt of an album on which an artist of volume and density wades deep into Japanese music history and the airy hush of negative space.

Of course, beyond outright silence, what counts as negative space in music is highly subjective. To one person, a rampaging synthesizer arpeggio or a hazy drone might fill up the room; to another, it might outline what isn’t there. In any case, it’s not a property that critics have strongly associated with Hecker before. He’s often called an ambient musician, and—like The Disintegration Loops creator William Basinski, who performs Moogfest’s nightlong “sleep concert” this year—he is about as well-known and widely acclaimed as an ambient musician can be. But the term might give a wrong impression of soft-centered tone clouds and lapping synthesizers. Instead, Hecker digitally processes instruments such as guitars, pianos, and pipe organs, often beyond recognition, into sheer, forbidding structures that jut into the foreground.

You might call this “loud ambient,” a beautiful borderland fouled with runoff from the electronic-noise factories upriver. Clangorous and concussive, with heft and brawn, it roars secrets instead of whispering them. In a Konoyo rave that dubbed Hecker “ambient music’s willowy pope,” NPR Music was stirred to invoke crushing, smothering, plummeting, hell, Paradise Lost, Francis Bacon paintings, and thunderstorms, all in just two paragraphs, to approximate his discography’s force. We’re a long way from the dulcet piano intervals of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports. Yet ambient music’s insistence on evoking natural phenomena remains intact. 

As we speak with Hecker, a tornado is supposedly heading for Durham, and when it turns out he’s interested in storm-chasers, we can’t help but wonder if the urge to drive into the heart of a tornado’s awesome, implacable natural violence might be related to the forms of his music.  

“It’s not a compositional thing—I don’t make tornadoes,” he says, allowing, “I’m really more interested in the eerie negative space you’re talking about living in right now, before the tornado hits, when all the air pressure sucks out of a space.” 

This is the feeling that pervades Konoyo, where the tension and unease that once blared now hisses and breathes. Gone is the jackhammering distortion of Ravedeath, 1972, the floodlit sandstorm of Harmony in Ultraviolet, giving way the kind of Eastern tonality that sounds so eerie to Western ears and the sinuous, sharply etched gestures of live musicians. Hecker’s electronics usually sound like they could devour anything in their path, especially acoustic music, but Konoyo cultivates the impression that they’re being absorbed by the musicians instead. The most significant negative space opens between Hecker and the ensemble together in a room, and it fills with a kind of reverent presence. 

This isn’t the first time Hecker has plumbed antiquity for inspirationLove Streams was rooted in medieval and Renaissance choral music by the likes of Josquin des Prez—but it might be the first time he has assimilated to the form he’s exploring instead of assimilating it. Konoyo is a collaboration with Motonori Miura, Fumiya Otonashi, and other members of Tokyo Gakuso. The ensemble is steeped in the tradition and innovation of gagaku, an ancient form of Japanese classical music associated with Kyoto’s Imperial Court. It’s played on a battery of stringed, wind, and percussion instruments; Hecker focuses on the ryūteki (a flute), the hichiriki (oboe-like), and the shō (a mouth organ), all mortared together with a bit of European cello. It wasn’t the only distance between East and West that he had to figure out how to bridge. 

The gagaku instruments seem like an obvious match for Hecker’s richly clustered electronic drones, but when he and the ensemble began to play together, they realized that the Western synthesizers were tuned almost half a step higher than the gagaku instruments. To get an idea of how that sounds, Google Van Halen’s infamous out-of-tune performance of “Jump” in Greensboro. 

“That would give you a sense of my first attempt to play 440 Hz [synths] with 430 Hz [instruments],” Hecker says. “It sounds like dogs howling, in the worst way. I took a lot of the material to Stones Throw Studios here in LA, put it on tape, and pitched it down, and then bounced it back to digital. You can also do digital techniques to pitch shift. But it’s a puzzle piece that didn’t make sense immediately, and it was challenging. You think you can just bring your synthesizers and improvise, but it takes a while to figure out what’s going on with tonality and harmony.”

Hecker says his interest in gagaku came into focus a few years ago, when he started to find “really good recordings, made in the seventies, with beautiful microphones. The room just sounded like clank, clank—this absolutely otherworldly clanging sound.” Intrigued by the timbres, phrasings, and tonal relationships, he delved deeper at the urging of his Love Streams collaborator, the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, who told Hecker that gagaku influenced his Sicario score. 

“Gagaku has a repertoire of standards, just like jazz standards, and it has deep meaning and reverence,” Hecker says. “It set my mind off, and I thought about ways to interact with this music that’s not a cliché exoticism, but some kind of deeper conversation between musicians who are interested in expanding their respective crafts into different places.”

Hecker could have sampled some gagaku recordings or found a North American new-music ensemble capable in the form. Instead, he traveled to Japan multiple times to develop a relationship with the Tokyo Gakuso musicians, and they ended up recording together in a Buddhist temple in Tokyo, with themes begetting improvisations, improvisations begetting samples, samples begetting new explorations.

As a result of this intimate process, a sound artist known for posthuman grandeur has created a strikingly human album. But while Konoyo pays deference to an ancient cultural form, it also repudiates a modern one—the sonic density Hecker hears everywhere around him, and, perhaps, the density critics have often inferred in his music. While the consensus is that Konoyo is the culmination of a trend toward fewer layers and decibels in Hecker’s music, he sees it as more of a pendulum he’s on.

“Digital technology has made it so easy,” he says. “You can increasingly just stack four hundred layers. What does that make the value of that? It feels like every commercial has post-EDM filter sweep sound design. Harmonic saturation is almost ubiquitous in our world, so what does that mean for writing music as an art practice or for making peace with your existence? It may not be to amplify that trajectory. I think I bounce back and forth between those positions, and I think that’s OK.”

Hecker has been at both Moogfest and Hopscotch before, and the sets were visceral and monumental. This time, he’ll have to make space for an ensemble of live musicians, and the impending release of Anoyo, a companion EP with more naturalistic sketches from the Konoyo sessions, isn’t likely to dispel the narrative that a loud-ambient icon has mellowed out. But Konoyo, while spacious and quiet, isn’t so much mellow as coiled, like something about to strike. Remember, a pendulum always seems to halt before it swings back the other way.

“When I play with an ensemble I generally go for a lighter touch, but still, force and volume and intensity is something I enjoy very much playing live,” Hecker says. “Don’t think I’m in my twilight era where I’m going to start twinkling into negative space as much as possible. I’m not there yet.”