Styles: ambient, modern composition, minimalism, electronica, noise
Others: Ben Frost, Brian Eno, Infinite Body, Xela, Terry Riley, Gavin Bryars, Jetone
Seeing as Tim Hecker has observed that “the album isn’t such a revered artform as it used to be,” and that many an early comment has been made about this album’s striking artwork, and that the album’s name and track titles are such an enigmatic provocation to investigation, we’ll begin — reverently — by judging this piece of art by its cover. It’s a grainy photo of a printout of a photo from MIT’s image library, showing a group of engineering students in the final stages of levering a scrawled sacrificial upright piano off a campus rooftop. This odd ritual, dreamed up in the 1970s, has become a venerable prank (or ‘hack,’ in MIT parlance), an annual event known as The Piano Drop and whose name Tim Hacker, er, Hecker appropriates for the first track of Ravedeath, 1972.
Reminiscent of album favorite “Chimeras” from 2006’s acclaimed Harmony In Ultraviolet, “The Piano Drop” surges in like an estuarine tide and quickly establishes itself. While Hecker explored landscaped musical metaphors in his last full-length An Imaginary Country, attributing the architecture of landscape to this track doesn’t hold fast for long. Like a sudden breach in the dam, the sanded, saturated grains of noise that are a familiar presence in Hecker’s palette soon break up and make way for a rapid, strobed passage of shimmering, synthetic-sounding melody that bears more resemblance to the break in a trance anthem than the electric majesty of earth evoked by An Imaginary Country. If “The Piano Drop” bears any Eno-esque gesture toward a sense of ‘place’ in its ambience, it is predominantly to the ecstasy of a crumbling rave arena rather than the ecstasy of an internally reimagined and sonically mapped geography of seas and shores, ponds and peninsulas.
This of course plugs neatly into the idea that the album is a comment on the Death of Rave, an attempt to crack the concept we’re just sure must animate this enigmatic nugget of an album. It’s an attempt made all the more desperate by the seemingly anachronistic datestamp of 1972, not to mention the fact that 1972 is simply the date a bunch of smart college kids decided to start throwing pianos off a roof at a university famed for its odd feats of puckish public sphere interventions, a sight Hecker stumbled across while Googling for a cover concept.
However, though Hecker admits that the album art was thought up and completed after finishing the album, it was during a period, post facto, where he became obsessed with “digital garbage,” indeed the “mountains of digital garbage” produced by piracy, or rather the efforts to stem the flow of pirated CDs and DVDs by confiscation and destruction. Such an endeavor is undoubtedly an attempt on the life of the many-headed Hydra, and indeed Hecker has commented elsewhere on the internet as a vast, self-perpetuating and perpetually growing “cemetery for images.” Perhaps, then, this after-the-fact realization of a coherent concept to frame this collection of music is a kind of whimsical myth creation on Hecker’s behalf, but I’d like to think otherwise.
Hecker talks about the “super vague” but “interesting” connection between “computerized engineering that led to the codification of MP3s and music’s denigration as an object and thus a viable means of economic survival.” This is far too eloquent and fertile a statement to put down as mere whimsy. Rather, it’s a whimsy from one very thoughtful practitioner of what gets called, somewhat redundantly, “structured ambient” or, with a tad more resonance, “cathedral electronic music.” This latter seems to speak to Hecker’s sensibilities, inasmuch as he condescends to agree that, yeah I guess, it’s okay to tag what he produces as “fake church music” in that it “mimics the form of sacred music” without the “God associations.” Is there some link between Hecker’s statements on technology, economics, the object (if not objective) of music, the fact that he was driven to base this album in the context of an Icelandic church, and the substance of these musical pieces and suites?
I think so, though I’m not going to cover all these bases here. But to begin, Hecker himself embodies a kind of rave death in departing the dubbed-out techno of his Jetone alias for beatless ambient pastures. Secondly, there’s a venerable tradition, far and beyond the MIT tradition, of busting up objects (or setting up objects that bust themselves) in the name of art, music, science, or the intersection of the three. Thirdly, if contrarily, some of the early touchstones for Hecker’s kind of music — Reich, Riley, Glass — are practitioners situated at, really, the birth of rave: minimalism and repetition in music, embodiments of process vs. performance, happenings, all-night-flights, and phase music, accompanied by an ever-expanding constellation of recorded music. Further — and though I’m loathe to look too hard at names as concrete signs, especially in light of Hecker’s evidently playful irreverence — “The Piano Drop,” with its collapsing bridge of rave melody, is suggestive of the drop in musical terms: that point, that petite mort in music that occurs (often after a break) when the track thunders in and rinses out, full, cathartic.
Here, the opening track functions as a prelude to the rest of the album. Imagine “The Piano Drop” as the anthemic, if corroded, breakdown of a rave choon. Imagine this figured in the image of a piano falling through the air, suspended in the gaze (hardly disinterested even with hands in the air like they just don’t care), a mass in motion arrested by the ground. Imagine all the splintered resonant shards, fragments of Hecker’s reliquary of the ‘musical object,’ scattered in slow motion — like the gorgeous closing sequences of slo-mo consumer-good explosives in Antonioni’s Pink Floyd-soundtracked film Zabriskie Point. Now imagine these parts, asymmetrical and variously spinning, traced across the course of a handful of cataloged suites and pieces, the elements constituting Ravedeath, 1972. That’s my attempt to discern the concept, if not strictly the ‘structure,’ of the album. For any MIT students listening, this album is like taking a known quantity (music), annihilating it in a particle accelerator (an Icelandic church organ and sundry sources crossed and multiplied by the recording studio), and tracing the trajectories of the debris in sonic terms. The results are beautiful, ignorable in the best sense that ambient can afford, and finally too majestic not to confront.
After the piano drops, and without a singing fat lady in sight, the suite “In The Fog” unfolds and billows. Creeping from a subdued, machinic, perhaps field-recorded clatter (perhaps the awakening bellows, pedalboards, and keys of the central pipe organ), grander and grander pianos feud with the beginning breath of the pipe organ whose stately march smears itself across the album. In its midst, it sounds like a flattened, less modulated swipe from Terry Riley’s “Poppy Nogood,” wrapped about with the same razor guitar fuzz that bit through collaborator Ben Frost’s By The Throat.
Although it’s really no contest, Hecker sinks Gavin Bryars’ battleship when he takes the interlude “No Drums” to a watery, peaceful grave beneath the iceshelf. It’s a notably less buoyant point in the album, but is soon lifted by the annunciation of clearer keys and yet another suite: the difficult-to-agree-with “Hatred of Music.” Though I suppose an act of violence (against a piano or any other body) slowed way down (perceived out of joint or out of time) might easily be confused for an act of grace or, let’s face it, tender fucking, there is no direct antipathy to be detected here, although the second movement of the suite finally lets the wooden-church-bound pipe organ fly in all its foreboding Nordic gloom. Far from hatred, I like it — though, if we’re to play name games, I’d like to call it something better, perhaps “Køyaanisqåtsi.”
“Analog Paralysis,” dated — yes, cryptically — 1978, brings strings to the fore, ending on a reverberating, frank, Fahey-like plucked guitar figure: a saving grace. At this point, we are on a timeless sea, and just as well, because with “Studio Suicide, 1980,” Hecker-as-composer becomes casualty to his own gimmick and falls a little flat. Even if we are by now blissed beyond judgment, this track, like “No Drums,” is sub-par. Tensions sustained by the standout suites slacken at these points; though less imposing, they represent the heavier isotopes produced in the cascading fallout from the piano drop.
Thankfully, the final suite “In The Air” is a marvel of an outro, far more the image of Hecker’s dropped dismembered piano achieving slow escape velocity and the weightlessness of space than any denouement that brings the album down to ground. Piano, organ, and well-worn glazed textures are orbited by foghorns (probably from the organ too) that pierce the night, the fog, the ostensible violence here served to music. It’s dramatic and unsettling, and most welcome.
Hecker says he makes this music to preserve his sanity, a “kind of antidepressant in a practice.” In his work, there is an insistence and grit that scuppers and reanimates other tired sounds, such as those sculpted by Stars of the Lid. This is by no mean an offense to the latter; their music is astonishing. Hecker’s work in his studio, his “sculptural workshop,” and the work of any such artists at the bleeding edges of sound, sometimes comes across as anemic or a touch too lazy. But perhaps hypothermic is a better description; there’s a sense clinging to the beautiful barbs of Hecker and Ben Frost, stately seers Stars of the Lid, and these groups’ peers that their music sustains a concern with staticity — here, obviously, death as a figure — the blue lips of music. Through this concern runs an attempt to navigate an impasse, to thus revivify the body of music. Funnily enough, a lot of this good work happens in Iceland, as if in this cryogenic clime there lived the chance for some kind of thaw and springtide understanding, if not the arrogance of a suggested cure, for music’s death, its long and unstirring — incredibly moving — persistence. Hecker’s freshest exploration of the life of rave death comes thoroughly recommended.
01. The Piano Drop
02. In the Fog: I-III
03. No Drums
04. Hatred of Music: I-II
05. Analog Paralysis, 1978
06. Studio Suicide, 1980
07. In the Air: I-III