Tim Hecker on Interrogating the Voice

In this excerpt from his lecture at RBMA Montréal, the Canadian experimentalist unpacks the making of a song from his 2016 album Love Streams

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[The original recording of vocals for “Music of the Air”] is stacked. It’s two takes of Icelandic singers that I used from my last album. I used a lot of choir and wanted to deal with the voice. I wanted to deal with the voice in a way that was just interesting. It was a challenge for me to do that.

There is an underlying bass note that starts with this kind of thing floating over it. That’s something I wrote and jammed in advance, improvisation, and then I got this short piece together. Then I sent this to Jóhann Jóhannsson, who’s a composer and does a lot of film and record work. He wrote a short accompaniment for that. That was the starting point for this studio session. He sent a conductor, his assistant, to come to Iceland, and then we worked with an eight-person chorale ensemble. And I was quite hungover that morning. I was introduced to whale sashimi and ice cream, and I don’t recommend those in sequence. I stayed up all night: It was literally the worst I ever felt in my life. That recording session was only one day and it had to happen, and I was barely alive. I was recording with Ben [Frost] again in that session and we just took turns going into the room and giving them instructions, like, “This sounds really beautiful and you’re a trained singer, but what if you now have some terminal disease and you are actually a robot?” Or, “What if your voice can only sound like the most monotoned thing?” “Here’s auto-tune, what if you sing like auto-tune?” A bunch of different ways we asked them to improvise, following the score that Jóhann gave me, but also alternate takes where they started just singing off the things they were hearing.

Someone talked about Lady Gaga as being this drama student who just couldn’t stop doing vocal gymnastics, and I wanted the opposite.

We would play back the first take, which was probably the composed, arranged, official bit, and then we started asking them to do bubbling sounds or robotic burps or whatever. It started stacking up and they started improvising off their own work. By the third or fourth take, you get these very strange things that sound like people breathing or gasping or asphyxiating. I started to auto-tune that and treat it and mold it again with the original material, coming back to that bass jam at the beginning. And I just mixed a track down. It takes about four or five iterations, but becomes that in the end.

Auto-tune is just one of probably six things in a chain of treatment that the original material gets. Obviously, just the way of taking some variation and making it colder, making it less “expressive and exuberant drama student.” Someone talked about Lady Gaga as being this drama student who just couldn’t stop doing vocal gymnastics, and I wanted the opposite. I wanted absolute muted, weird, synthetic-restraint or something. Out of that, maybe some human aspect comes. It’s a different form of a deep restraint or something. I’m not sure.

It’s not like all my records have these strategic conceptual underpinnings. I don’t map it out in advance. It’s not helpful to be pinned in by some map you set out for yourself that’s like, “I have this concept, I’m going to execute it fully.” For me, I came at it like I wanted to interrogate the voice. I thought about taking medieval choral music that had ripped MP3s and turning them into MIDI files, and then started applying them towards synthesizers and transforming them. They came back into the voice, so it was almost an ouroboros, where the full cycle returned. That concept kind of emerged as I worked. Other times I’ve come at it in advance. They’re not all water-tight executions of some singular idea. I have a vague idea, but that clarity [comes] as you work through it.

Michael Jackson - Beat It (Demo)

Other people have the song in their head. Like Michael Jackson, if anyone’s ever heard his four-track recordings he did at home of “Beat It,” he just sang out every component in advance. It’s uncanny and shocking that he visualized every aspect of that song. For me, it’s a bit of a more vague, impressionistic sense of where I want to go, and then it just emerges through working and hammering it into something else.

By Tim Hecker on September 25, 2017

On a different note