Canadian ambient producer Tim Hecker has been criticised in the past for the lack of spectacle in his live shows and if fans anticipated a change of approach for his run of concerts this year- perhaps this time offering more visual appeal- last Wednesday’s performance surely came as a disappointment. The decision to perform completely in darkness should ideally allow the artist’s ego to retreat and the music to take over- but this artistic decision came across as arrogant and a cheap way of appearing profound.
Set in Summerhall’s Dissection Room, Edinburgh’s own dark ambient duo Super Inuit begin the evening. Their gravelly low bass is punctuated by beams of synth, samples of spoken-word and Fern Morris’ relaxed vocals (her voice occasionally reminiscent of Portishead’s Beth Gibbons’) which allows the audience to ease into the show. Ambient music is by no means easy-listening, and so Super Inuit serve as a suitable median between the uncomplicated music of everyday life and Tim Hecker’s experimental synth-driven fuzz which we are soon to experience.
As Hecker arrives onstage, the Dissection Room is plunged into near-total darkness- illuminated only by the blue emergency-exit sign. It remains this way for the rest of his 50 minute set.
Armed to the teeth with synths and drum pads, Hecker doesn’t play anything that is recognisably his. Since it has been well over a year following the release of his last album Love Streams, it would make sense if he has chosen to show us samples of some new projects. Even if this is the case, it appears as if he is making it up as he goes along. Rolling waves of feedback give way to dense droning bass which resonates in the floor and walls. Wailing peals of synth are interspersed with sporadic gargling sounds and long, drawn out thuds.
One could argue that ambient music is equally about what you don’t play as what you do- ambience is often formed from the absence of sound itself- and therefore, one might suggest that the decision to perform in a dark space could only serve to amplify the intricacies of the music. By removing the audience’s reliance on seeing in order to be entertained, Hecker forces them to focus on his experimental ambient and drone music that engulfs the room. This vision-depravation however also allows the audience to focus on the uncomfortable feeling of standing for a prolonged period of time and the familiar glow of phone screens indicate that after a while, some become restless.
Tim Hecker has said that he enjoys “inhabiting the tropes of religious music without that promise of angels at the end” and fans have in the past compared attending his performances to having a religious or spiritual experience. Hecker’s performance did indeed remind me of being in church as a child- but not for the grandeur of the music. Instead I listened, wondering for how long I would be required to stand while internally hoping it would be over soon. I would hardly call that a religious experience.