“What is the function of music?”, asks the Canadian sound artist and composer Tim Hecker in a recent New York Times profile. “Is it to serve as a background for a WeWork, efficiency world, for someone who just wants to code? Or is it for driving down a foggy road at night, wanting that experience amplified?”
Here we have one of the defining artists of the Ambient genre, a man who can easily be credited with popularizing and refining its characteristic sounds via seminal works such as Harmony in Ultraviolet (2006), Ravedeath, 1972 (2011), and Virgins (2013), questioning the sonic phenomenon he has helped to redefine for a new age: background music. “Ambient music is the great wellspring — but also the bane of my existence,” Hecker tells the Times. “It’s this superficial form of panacea weaponized by digital platforms, shortcuts for the stress of our world. They serve a simple function: to ‘chill out.’ How does it differ from Muzak 2.0, from elevator music?”
Hecker is well aware that his newest project, No Highs, will have the weight of the current Ambient trend on its shoulders, a weight that may threaten to bury and obscure the celebrated aspects of Hecker’s work which continue to occasionally shine through on this newest project: an ear for form and musical pacing that rivals that of your average composition professor, a sense of emotional ambiguity that allows for distortion, harmony, ecstasy, and melancholy to coexist in an often cinematic, grandiose, and swirling mass. Layers upon layers of reverb-laden riffs combine into a soundtrack for looking out over your balcony and romanticizing the past, walking through a gray town to another monotonous day at work, or yes, driving down a foggy back road in the middle of the night.
Is this background music? Could it be played comfortably in your average corporate elevator? Not really. I was drawn into No Highs by its opener “Monotony”, an appropriately repetitive yet oddly tense cycle of slow, siren-like laments, doom-laden synth-pad bass tones, and the distorted background flutterings so characteristic of both Hecker and his imitators. I felt like a character in a Murakami story in which a mysterious woman fails to show up for an unexpected reunion, or like one of the many melancholy and grief-stricken stage actors in Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car (2021). Yet as I listened through the rest of the record a few more times — while cooking, while driving, while writing this review — I felt less and less drawn to it, and less and less excited to translate it into words. I am not, after all, a character in a film.
Perhaps I am suffering from what we experts like to call “Ambient overload”, a condition liable to produce cynicism, apathy, and lack of focus in even the most hardened of critics. Embittered as I am, the addition of “modal” saxophone improvisations from none other than Colin Stetson only serves to reinforce my suspicion that another dose of cycling, breathy, reverbed saxophone arpeggios might not be what we need right now. I say all of this while acknowledging the dirge-like beauty of a track like “Total Garbage” and the subtlety of a track like “Lotus Light”.
Tim Hecker is self-aware. Tim Hecker knows what he has done, and while he continues to show great ingenuity in recombining the pieces of Ambient in fresh yet familiar ways, a cynic like me may not be able to allow No Highs to serve as the experience amplifier it so obviously strives to be. Maybe you’ll have better luck.