Gone with the wind
Tim Hecker and Ben Frost at Sydney Festival 2015

Tim Hecker and Ben Frost
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
11 January 2015, Sydney Festival

Tim Hecker and Ben Frost make loud music, very loud, the sort of loud that obliges an usher to offer you earplugs at the door. The sheer heft of these two musicians’ respective practices – Hecker, a Canadian, and Frost, an Australian living in Iceland – is not easily conveyed by flimsy headphones or laptop speakers. Both men create vast, billowing swathes of sound, beautiful and unrelenting – music made from field recordings, sampled instruments and electronic processing – that require the capabilities of a venue like the Opera House to reveal their full majesty.

Hecker is first on stage, though you wouldn’t know it from looking: he plays in crepuscular dimness, a vague outline of arms moving across equipment. He begins with a repeating melody that grows from murmurous to resounding – the mood is closest to his work on Ravedeath, 1972 (2011), an album produced with the help of Ben Frost, and based on recordings of a church pipe organ in Reykjavik. Hecker’s music unfolds as if subject only to natural forces: wind, rain, the movement of tectonic plates, free of time signatures and recognisable song structures. Yet he foregrounds distortion, loops and digital editing, and so his music comes to sound like a vast machine through which the Earth is moving, its labours amplified.

The lazy word for music like Hecker’s is apocalyptic – what he reaches for, more particularly, is the sublime. Listening tonight, as low frequencies judder through the floorboards and skittering patterns of distortion mimic a strong wind, I picture the moors of Yorkshire, where I recently walked: the remote eeriness of the landscape, its slippage between somewhere inhabited and somewhere haunted, where noises manifest on the air that sound like human voices but are not. The Brontës would have understood music like Hecker’s – they would have loved it.

Ben Frost appears after the interval, bringing with him an electric guitar – he launches into a short, nasty solo that bears little relation to the set that follows, but which does establish him in a closer lineage than Hecker to what we might call popular music. Even then, it’s a long stretch – what connects Frost’s music to popular forms is mostly his rhythms, which pound and repeat like a particularly harsh version of techno. It’s enough to tap your foot to, at the very least.

Frost’s music, like Hecker’s, resists the categorisations and the rationalities of language, even when it comes freighted with heavy conceptual apparatus. Aurora (2014), his most recent album, is the result of Frost’s travels and collaborations with the Irish documentary filmmaker and photographer Richard Mosse, who has photographed the Democratic Republic of Congo using infra-red film originally designed for aerial military surveys. Mosse’s large-format photographs are rendered in hot pinks and icy blues; as a title like Aurora might suggest, Frost’s music is similarly spectacular and strange.

Frost plays his machines to the insistent pulse of strobe lights: if Hecker invites you to close your eyes, Frost forces you to. His aesthetic borders on the punishing, and then moves away from it. The heavy sound collapses into delicate, melancholy synthesiser tones – Frost has previously cited The Cure as a key influence – before these are overwritten with animalistic growls. Are the wolves we hear real? Are we dreaming them? The very building seems to quake.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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