The Lead Review: Rob Arcand On Tim Hecker’s Love Streams

Released this week on 4AD, Tim Hecker's latest album is inspired by 15th century avant-classical orchestration. Rob Arcand explores its themes of death, spirituality and its ecstasy of submission

Throughout the early 11th and 12th centuries, there was a thing called plainsong. One of the earliest forms of organised Western music, plainsong was an attempt to bring the heightened spiritual unity of communal music to Catholic masses everywhere, pairing Biblical text with the reverent, sonorous bellow of the human voice in song. Like its name suggests, plainsong was, well, plain; unadorned with melodic flourishes and harmonic beauty, pieces float with a free, monophonic reverence that we now still often associate with that certain feel of the somber spirituality of a monastery. Pieces were long, slow-moving meditations on Latin liturgical text that, because harmony hadn’t yet fully necessitated metered rhythm in full, resounded in a rhythm of implied togetherness, a slow-moving roll against the dark cloth of a cathedral tapestry.

But during the papal regime of St. Gregory, things began to change. The beginnings of shift towards harmony came to increasingly challenge plainsong’s dominant mode with the development of organum, a style would come to finally feature two vocal parts intertwined, laying the groundwork for Western harmony to come in its infancy. First in parallel octaves, where a lower organal voice would be added below the original, principal voice, and later expanding into complex intervals and irregular directional motion from note to note, the style sparked a revolution across Europe, with composers everywhere racing to develop more and more ornate liturgical harmony as time progressed.

By the time the Renaissance arrived, chorale harmony felt pretty well-established, with composers consciously writing to resolute endings called "clausula vera" ("true close"), built on dyadic intervals approaching what we now know as the cadence. Two such pioneers of the time, Guillaume Dufay and Josquin des Prez refined modes of tight harmonic motion that echo the restrained reverence many associate with contemporary Catholic liturgy. With the developed understanding of intervals and motion approaching a consensual, agreed-upon cultural outline, composers could refine the emotional impact of the work through solidified means, pilling on affect with their own restrained intentionality.

Throughout his rather astonishing trajectory, Tim Hecker has never been one to sit still. From Haunt Me, Haunt Me, Do It Again, where, even at his earliest, Hecker outright questioned the value of ambient composition in an early era of the “cultural overproduction" of DAWs and digital file sharing, to Ravedeath, 1972, where the composer found strident parallels between MIT’s infamous "piano drop" tradition, the heavy beats of digital rave culture, and the "false promise of smoothness" that defined so much mid-aughts club utopianism, Hecker has long been at work fleshing out chaos from the shifting motions of "live" and "digital" spaces, "warmth" beyond the concert hall, now duplicated indefinitely before the altar.

Inspired by the early intentionality of these modes of 15th century composition, Tim Hecker has approached his own work from a place of early proto-chordal motion on his latest, Love Streams. Growing out of sessions with the Icelandic Choir Ensemble in the same Reykjavik studio that birthed both Virgins and Ravedeath, 1972, the album channels this liturgical chorale music with a careful ear for the early doubled tones and parallel polyphony that have defined harmony throughout the ages. Taking from this early choral tradition, Hecker places voices from the Icelandic Choir Ensemble in a way very similar to the rolling nonmetrical time of early Catholic masses. At the same time, the album posits itself as a grasp at contemporaneity. Calling itself an "artificial intelligence-era language of digital resonance" that embraces the "liturgical aesthetics of Yeezus," Love Streams is a bold proclamation for a link between past and present, chorale polyphony in the time of autotune.

Like Virgins and most all of Hecker’s past work, Love Streams is, as a process, still a collage of ensemble music, reworked and re-edited through emotive electronics to pull sounds from the chordal intentionality of linear composition into a larger, more emotive gesture. In his past work, this emotive reworking has generally found footing in Hecker’s use of tension; tension between loud and soft, tension between processed and orchestral sounds, tension between his repetition in the style of minimalists composers like Riley and Reich — hammering away endlessly ‘In C’ — and the evolving sonority of ‘ambient’ music built in the traditions of Brian Eno’s ambient meditations, Harold Budd’s “soft pedal" and La Monte Young’s forays into early Indian and Indonesian gamelan traditions.

While firmly indebted to this past no doubt, Love Streams exchanges Hecker’s minimalism for something new. Born as much from the harmony of Guillaume Dufay’s ‘Ave Maris Stella’ as it is from the rattling rhythms and gospel elements of Yeezus and even The Life Of Pablo, Love Streams grasps at liturgical contemporaneity with the sobering bizarreness of synth strings over live woodwinds, overdriven guitars rattled into stiff samplers and animatronic drums spills flattened into a mould. Hecker fans out chorale voices with a stippled, post-human stutter that, while clearly nodding to early chorale music during the development of meter, still commands the cathedral with a ghostly, spiritual presence, a somber eulogy at the altar. Gone are the layered pianos of Virgins and Ravedeath, 1972, here replaced with the eerie spectre of a chorus in stereophonics, a ghostly glaze of an autotune that shakes through the speakers and rattles in seedy reverence.

There’s an underlying current to Hecker’s dizzying catalog that’s always felt spiritual. Present on Haunt Me, Haunt Me, Do It Again in the form of glitchy, slow-changing harmonics and present on Virgins in the collapsing pianos and overwhelming bass rattle of tracks like ‘Virginal I’ and ‘Live Room’, Hecker’s fascination with technology has always been a sort of surrogate spirituality to rival conventional religion. Where Samuel Henk Dames’ recognised the “duality" of the “mechanical and spiritual" on Virgins, Love Streams offers more of an ecstasy of submission.

The next logical step of this spirituality of Virgins, Love Streams is a reverent moment of innocuous tech sublime; ‘Castrati Stack’ swallows its lumpy conscience with extended access between man and machine, riding out death with indefinite organ. ‘Violet Monumental I’ climbs ever higher in tonal transparency, an Icarus in digital doxology, while ‘Violet Monumental II’ brings in rhythm, blowing though the mix with the sound of a locked iPhone screen and metered bassoon beneath. The drums have a strange digital nakedness to them, a reverb over what sounds like the natural texture of a hand gently running its fingers over the microphone. It’s a new sort of digital naturalness that I haven’t experience anywhere else but ASMR videos, but even that doesn’t begin to touch on the incredible bombast of this record. It’s an album of incredible feeling, a jarring digital womb decades in the making, knitting needles finally stretching out across all logic or reason.

In the back of all this, Hecker’s power as a master orchestrator working with both composition and sound design is remarkable. Beyond all order, Hecker and co. lean into expressive moments with heightening, heartbreaking, idiomatic sensitivity that leave even the strangest of things with a warm cerebral tingle. Love Streams is both a masterpiece of contemporary composition and of emotional sensitivity in a way still, even after scrambling all the chordal idiomatic anchors that des Prez and others had come to define explicitly, finds beauty without structure, realism without ignominy, tension without reprise. It’s an album’s worth of soaring gothic architecture, now parsed into digital infinities. It’s God in the hard drive, a ghost in the shadow of Big Data’s endless eternity forward. It’s a dramatised document of these strange, glorious times, forever teetering on the brink of oblivion.

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