Tim Hecker with the Konoyo Ensemble at Barbican CentreSupport: Kara-Lis Coverdale
October 6, 2018 at Barbican Centre
Promoter: Bird on the Wire
A fantastically ambitious, powerful, yet mysterious and understated performance, something far beyond the excellent, delicate Konoyo album, this felt like the live setting was in itself a major work from Tim Hecker, in collaboration with Konoyo Ensemble, comprising musicians Kara-Lis Coverdale, Motonori Miura, Fumiya Otonashi and Manami Sato, as well as dancers Yuka Negoro and Yumino Seki, and stunning stage design and choreography by Darren Johnston.
As well as being greeted by signs warning of extensive strobe lighting and “large amounts of haze and smoke effects”, we’re also told that the performances will move one into another with no intermission in the nearly two-hour presentation. So we start with Kara-Lis Coverdale on stage alone, an experimental organist and previous collaborator with Hecker on the Virgins album amongst other things. The lights go down and we start with an ambient burbling of synthetic churchiness and reconstituted, breathy medium-low flute piping (or pipe fluting?) sounds, over time joined by a few rushing bass power stabs (sadly shortlived), and winding twirls of hard, glittery high-pitched diamond tones, like glass-coated kite strings. The transitions gradually get more energetic, as well as incorporating more dramatic heavy low hoooms here and there. Some thick analog synthy sounds putting me in mind of 80s’ sci-fi movies, the family ones with some kid whisked off to another dimension or making friends with tiny UFOs. In a similar way, the shiny angles and unfolding tones of this noise are high concept but accessible enough, flight-of-the-navigator shapeshifting, silver spaceships hovering over the Barbican’s concrete retrofuturetopia.
There’s a sense of patterns and calculations and devices, but it does seem rather random, sometimes the shifting-around experimentalism feeling a bit restless, impatient even, as abrupt scene changes or ideas abandoned mean that bits never quite build from the ingredients. While some helicopter rotations and ventilation fan whums create a forward motion, escalating from small peeps to an impressive sonic world of beautiful sounds that work together, overall the effect is a bit dissipated and fragmentary, like brief studies to see what the set-up can do, rather than purposeful use of the tools and materials to articulate a strong idea.
Anyway, still in near total darkness there’s a shuffling around on stage and suddenly a warm wall goes up of faint sound, like a rustling of scratchy blankets, or rain on glass above you, flat but a bit staticky, smooth but embedded with pins and needles of attention. Then some unmistakably Tim Hecker sounds: electronics made organic, somehow austere but warm, his signature element of repeated and overlapping curves of heavy but swiftly moving grey electronic sweeps, gentle on record and ominously powerful in live presence. From the ninth row I can’t make out much of what’s going on in the dark and smoke, so I imagine those further back are blissfully abandoned to the abstract lights and absorbing sound.
There’s definite connections to the music on the Konoyo record, and not just in the ensemble and instrumentation. The inward spiral beat of Japanese drum rhythm, which prompts faint echoes of Aphex Twin’s bouncing ball, is in the background of album opener ‘In Death Valley’, while a beautifully tranquil section in the middle derives from the delicate jangle of ‘Keyed Out’, acoustic tings and the waves of electronic tone meeting perfectly after a tentative approach. In concert though, Hecker tends to go way beyond mere “live versions”, even of a record that interestingly experiments with a palette of sound from the instruments of formal Japanese court music. Here it’s a truly impressive scope that’s still intimate, drawing on that sonic tradition while creating something new, considered, and deeply, thoughtfully integrated enough to avoid cliched exoticism. It’s a revelation of how well this has been constructed to realise after a bit that you don’t know what sound is coming from where, testament to the careful consideration with which the ensemble have worked together, it’s as if the electronic sounds have carefully listened to the traditional ones and each form has respectfully accommodated and understood the other.
Suddenly the misty light disappears, and we’re in a glowing red-crystal cave with screaming swallow-dives of sound, while a couple more musicans join in the murky gloom: a drum, a flute, the odd bamboolike cluster of the sho it seems. The shifting woven tones drop out gradually, and there’s another slight sense of uncertainty with hesitating string-plucking, but the swirling grey layers quickly spread and rise, gently but powerfully adding layers to the building sound, powerful sonic vapours quickly becoming an enveloping mass.
The lighting is spectacular, “‘visual provocations” as the flyer has it, in combination with the smoke providing a moving yet never overly prescriptive accompaniment to the sonic abstractions. Like the music, its built from high quality but not overly complicated components, and the design patiently explores their possibilities to startling effect. There’s smoke billowing through spotlights looking like cooled columns of floating chalk dust, a flat wide laser beam that slowly scans up and down illuminating vast skylines of shifting clouds, and towards the end, a strikingly sharp-edged pyramid of sombre pale light over the stage. The design, severely abstract but floweringly imaginative is an extremely well-judged complement to Hecker’s blooming monochrome psychedelia.
There’s some jagged electronic lightning, then a bell ringing in an empty sky dwindling lightly to quiet, until a blue light swells to piercing brightness. It points straight at the audience, making several listeners shield their eyes while smoke barrels along the stage, the effect seeming like a hazy blue sun in an alien sandstorm, while the droniest passage of the music unfurls with a hint of a pulse. A train whistle or folorn bird keens, and there’s the dizzying revelatory strangeness of realising that all along there’s been a massive pool of water covering a huge area of the stage. Two dark blobs in the middle which could have been stage monitors unfold into gracefully slow dancers, who inch meditatively around and towards each other amidst the calm silence of the drowning noise and the shallow ripples. As my scrawled-in-the-dark notes poetically describe, “wtf giant pool of water + dancers?”, it’s a genuinely weird thing to notice ninety minutes into a show, and I can only assume it could easily have escaped the notice of many attendees altogether. In a world of over-showing and spelling things out, it’s quite the oblique, opaque non-statement to make, an impressive conjuring of shadowy, ritual mystery in powerfully minimalist sound, light and movement.
It’s interesting to think of this music as a sort of highbrow avant-garde with its roots in clubs and the wild anarchic power of sound systems in squats and raves… the programme is right to highlight Hecker’s abilities mobilising “the too-often shunned power of electronic ambience as a genre to tap into something profoundly human”. Not just experimental ambition to create something original and special, the performance also displayed a painstaking care for sounds and their relations and settings. I left the show already impressed, but continuing to reflect days later, the sense grows that this really was something extraordinary to have witnessed.
Photos: Marilyn Kingwill / Barbican.