Tim Hecker & The Konoyo Ensemble at The Barbican

  • The revered experimental artist brings his new album to life onstage.
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  • Last Saturday, The Barbican hosted an evening with Tim Hecker and the gagaku court ensemble, who featured on his latest LP, Konoyo. The performance, a faithful representation of the album, fused Hecker's signature sound with an eclectic arrangement of traditional Japanese instruments, including the shō, ryūteki and hichiriki. Gagaku, the oldest classical music in Japan, shares a lot in common with contemporary ambient music. Like ambient, the purpose of gagaku is to engender a particular atmosphere, one that's serious, thoughtful and reflective. No wonder Hecker likes it. Hecker's marriage of electronics to traditional Eastern music makes a cultural loop back to the origins of ambient. The minimalism of '60s America—Steve Reich, Philip Glass, La Monte Young—to which contemporary ambient music is so indebted is itself rooted in the defining principles of Eastern music. Repetition, reference, restraint—all concepts that were once inseparable from religious music of the East, before being applied to orchestras of the West in the trendy art schools of New York. The evening began with a performance from the Canadian composer Kara-Lis Coverdale, who was also the keyboardist for Hecker's Konoyo ensemble. Simple organ drones overlapped into weird modal configurations. As the set unfurled, thick clouds of fog bellowed across the stage and into the audience, giving the room a misty cloak. Next came Hecker. His stripped-back use of live visual effects has always impressed me. The idea is to allow the music to "speak for itself," to allow the free-flow of thought without the distraction of set design or individual performers. But this wasn't the best strategy when the gagaku instrumentalists were the main attraction. It became difficult to determine each player's specific contribution, or even who was onstage at any given moment. There were only a few moments where the gagaku trademark was clearly audible. On "Across To Anoyo," what sounded like a taiko drum punctuated a delicate refrain of electric piano. On "A Sodium Codec Haze," a pack of woodwinds formed a dense lattice of whistles. But were these performed live or were they samples triggered from Hecker's laptop? The concert concluded with a puzzling dramatic performance. A clearing in the smoke revealed two dancers in a shallow pool of water, who formed a scarecrow pose centre-stage. This was meant to be the closing image, a crowning emblem of the evening. But I can't work out what purpose it served. It's almost as if Hecker was afraid his own music wouldn't be enough, that it would be insufficient to impress the audience. I admire Hecker's attempt to do something new with his sound. But I wish he would go about it with more confidence. Photo credit / Marilyn Kingwill / Barbican