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Freak Scene: Tim Hecker's Sleep Music

The year that I lived in a ground floor apartment on Grand Street in Brooklyn was not the best. The apartment, while new, was flimsy. My bedroom sprouted black mold from a leak in the apartment above, and there was once an entire week where I didn't have hot water, so I took showers by filling every pot I could find and then heating the water on the stove—standing in the tub in a particularly frigid February, dumping pots of water on myself was not exactly a high point in my adult life. When summer came, I, for reasons that are still a mystery to me, decided not to get an air conditioner. What followed was three-and-a-half months of never sleeping under the covers, staring out a permanently barred window, listening to rats shuffle around directly beneath it, trying to squeeze through the bars when the window was open, and scratching at the glass when it was shut. The super, who lived across the hall, had a bizarre habit of staying up all night, watching Family Guy at the most unbelievably loud volume I have ever heard a television reach. He never turned it down. To say that I was always tired that year would be an understatement. I realize this is an incredibly bleak picture I'm painting here: me, alternately freezing cold or boiling hot, sprawled on my bed after showers of hot water I had to boil myself, lazily clicking at YouTubes of miraculous animals (seriously, I've talked about this before but there is a penguin that just wanders around with a backpack on)—but it wasn't all bad. At least in the sense that I can already look back on it as a bummer of a year, laugh about it and move on. But at the time I was not happy.

That year was also the year that I started engaging deeply and directly with ambient music. It'd always existed on the periphery of my listening habits, but it became vital for me when I needed something to drown out Family Guy just so I could get a couple hours sleep. I've always struggled with writing about ambient music, mostly because much of my listening ends up happening in the context of that just-before-sleep drift. Is that insulting to the artist or is it what they would want? So much of my enjoyment of ambient comes from the way my mind fills in the gaps between what I'm hearing and what I'm feeling. Which, not so coincidentally, is why I find Montreal's Tim Hecker so fascinating. On the surface, Hecker makes ambient music, but it requires a direct engagement from the listener. There's a lot going on! Where a lot of artists would be content to just layer guitar delay on top of drone, Hecker creates music that sounds like icebergs melting and moving. Time slows down, and his songs become entire lonely worlds. Listening to Tim Hecker is like wandering through an abandoned city.

Last year, Hecker released two records: Ravedeath, 1972 and its companion, Dropped Pianos, which was a series of stripped down sketches that formed the basis for Ravedeath. Both records were great, heavy and complex pieces of work, but they didn't connect with me on the same level that 2009's In an Imaginary Country and 2006's Harmony in Ultraviolet did. I'm not exactly sure why that is. Each release is gorgeous and fully formed, and more or less without flaw. The only answer I can come up with, really, is that I didn't get to sleep to Ravedeath, so it didn't carve out a space in my brain like those other albums.

I always think it's a little over the top when someone claims that music saved their lives. Did it really? Or did it just help you forget about the shit that was ruining you? In that bleak cold winter, and that stifling hot summer, Tim Hecker didn't save my life, but his music did help me figure plenty of things out.

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Freak Scene: Tim Hecker's Sleep Music