review: Tim Hecker, St. Giles-in-the-fields church, London, 6th February 2012

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Tim Hecker's most recent full length album, Ravedeath, 1972, has been one of my most listened-to albums of the last year.  It is based around a single day's recordings when Hecker played the organ in the free church in Reykjavik, so when it was announced that he would be playing the pipe organ in St Giles-in-the-fields I jumped at the chance to go along.  A bit of research into the organ at St Giles reveals that it is as old as the church itself (1734) and some of the existing pipework pre-dates this. An ideal setting to hear the battles between ancient sounds and modern digital processing that make Ravedeath, 1972 such a rewarding listen.
Due to demand Tim Hecker played two shows tonight and I went to the earlier one. In keeping with the previous times I have seen him, there were no lights at all and a no photography rule, hence my hasty snap of the church chandeliers as I walked in. Just before we heard the first breaths of the pipe organ, these lights were turned off and we sat in darkness for the entire performance.

This show must have been a challenge for the PA company. Obviously a church organ is loud enough to fill the church but it is at the back of the audience, and they needed to balance Hecker's own processed sounds through a PA which faced the crowd. I sat at the centre near the back, pretty much underneath the organ, and I was impressed at how well the sound enveloped me.

In terms of running order, this is pretty much the Ravedeath we know and love, and although I was aware at the beginning of the difference between the organic organ sounds and the electronic treatments, as the set progresses it blends so well that you stop noticing. The music gradually grows into a warm over-powering noise. I shut my eyes for a lot of the set, and when I opened them occasionally, I was reminded about the contrasts between ancient and modern as flashing lights from the street outside streaked across the large stained-glass window.
The music underlined this contrast too, as this wasn't a case of someone making pleasant ambient sounds and treating an ancient instrument with reverence. There were times when the layered distortion became so powerful it was almost like the ancient sounds were being attacked. It is fascinating to hear an old instrument being manipulated like this, as vintage instruments are often thought of in terms of old crackly recordings or decaying tape. Here, the eighteenth century organ sounds were being pulled and shaped into something new.

The lack of light and the extreme volume created a heightened sensory experience for the audience. Much like the first time I saw My Bloody Valentine overwhelm me with their wall of noise, I lost all track of time when Hecker was performing and I was stunned to find that he had played for 50 minutes. I wasn't surprised near the end to find a lot of people around me had their heads bowed. Some of us had had a religious experience; how fitting that we were in a church at the time.

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