His score for the TV series ‘The North Water’ is a high point in an already impressive career. Canadian ambient maestro Tim Hecker extols the joys of the cello, outlines the perils of the soundtrack composer, and explains why he prefers to make music in the winter

A small rowing boat edges its way through fragmented islands of ice and the flotsam and jetsam of a sunken English whaler ship far into the savage waters of Lancaster Sound in Nunavut, Canada. Petrified bodies, shattered wood and barrels poke out of the dense, black ocean. The boat’s passengers – the remaining crew of another stricken whaler, hoping to seek salvation on the ship they’ve realised has met the same fate as their own – are frozen and fraught. Their breath hangs heavily as they face another bitter night of despondency. “We’ll winter over,” insists the captain, the determined tone of his voice barely masking his rising desperation.

In the prow of the boat, the ship’s surgeon lies twisted in agony. Addicted to laudanum, he is going through brutal opiate withdrawal. His eyes alight on a small patch of ice, upon which lies the corpse of the crewmate who had attempted to haul his medicinal supplies to the safety of the other ship. As a sense of futility and hopelessness descends upon him, we become acutely aware of a growing, querulous sound – mournful cello, criss-crossing shards of swelling then dissipating noise, powerful drones, splintered electronics and mounting despair.

The drama unfolding on screen is ‘The North Water’, Andrew Haigh’s adaptation of a novel by Ian McGuire. Its harrowing, visceral score was written by Vancouver musician and sound artist Tim Hecker who, like the crew of the Volunteer in the story, has sailed far from his port of origin. He now divides his time between Montreal and Los Angeles, where he is currently escaping the onset of the Quebec winter.

Tim Hecker’s earliest musical output appeared in 2000 under the alias Jetone.

“One of my first releases was on the Frankfurt techno label Force Inc,” he tells me. “My starting point was like that of anyone in their early 20s – I was throwing a lot of stuff at the wall. I was really inspired by Autechre and Warp, and I was going to a lot of raves and clubs.”

Being part of the techno scene ultimately wasn’t very gratifying for Hecker, though.

“I wasn’t at all satisfied by the drug-fuelled push of some of the more metronomic stuff I was listening to,” he recalls. “It was the after-hours music with mood and texture and elegance and weirdness I was drawn to, and I wasn’t getting that in dance music. I tried to put some of that energy into the dance music I made, but it wasn’t where my heart was. I was more interested in the interstitial and the interludes and in the unbound textures.”

Hecker found a better outlet for the sounds he favoured through Mille Plateaux, the sister label to Force Inc, then home to the likes of Thomas Köner, Terre Thaemlitz and Vladislav Delay – all artists who, like Hecker, had sought an easement from dance music’s rigid strictures.

“In some ways, techno is a reflection of the motor of industrialism,” reflects Hecker. “Capitalism has enough of a grip on us, and I wanted refuge from that. I was more into making music that was unchained from, or at least had a different relationship with, rhythm. For me, the quantised grid of composition had almost a kind of totalitarianism to it. I just wanted to blow it up.”

Over the following decade or so, Hecker’s releases distanced him ever further from that inflexible rhythmic prison. His 2011 album for Kranky, ‘Ravedeath, 1972’, found him on an axis between Steve Reich minimalism and Charlemagne Palestine’s organ drone fixations. Around the same time, he also began collaborating with other musicians, most notably Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never.

“I like the separateness of writing music with your own name, but I also like other people,” he explains. “My best work has come from ricocheting off those with strong opinions and gifted talents. I used to defend the painterly aspect of writing solo. Like, ‘Why would I share a canvas?’. Electronic music was a refuge from the historical period of the band. I was both against and in support of the solitude of music. But I enjoy collaborating with others on a more intimate one-on-one basis or in small groups, where we can talk about the music and how it’s unfolding together. There’s an energy from that, which leaves you alive, awake and vibrating.”

Hecker is no stranger to writing for movies. In 2006, he provided the score for the short film ‘Between Life And Death’, thereafter becoming a go-to composer for independent filmmakers looking for intricate, complex musical accompaniments to on-screen activity. The five-part BBC drama ‘The North Water’, by the acclaimed director Andrew Haigh, is arguably Hecker’s most significant score to date. In keeping with his collaborative ethos, ‘The North Water’ would have been impossible without the involvement of cellist Thomas Beard, pianist Pietro Amato and percussionists Liam O’Neill and Stefan Schneider.

“I think what’s key is the point at which you’re brought in and where the project is,” reflects Hecker on his experience of film and television. “It’s often the case that you’re the third composer behind two who have already been fired, the picture is done, and you’re given two weeks to do it in. You’re fighting against Arvo Pärt strings as a temporary score, and you’re up against the director and the editor’s expectations of what the music should be. Well, good luck with that.

“The ideal situation is where you’re brought in early. Where you’re literally writing music to a script or following a call with the director, and you’re trying to absorb some of the energy and the mood and context the producers want to convey in the project. Early dailies – unedited video of the day’s shooting – give you a lot, and that’s where I start.”

Hecker describes his approach as one of feeling out ideas until a language and instrumentation begin to take shape. As multiple ideas form, he then sends those to the director and editor to cut into the project as it’s evolving – something that’s only possible when he’s brought on board early, as was the case with ‘The North Water’.

“From there, it’s revision and expansion,” continues Hecker. “It’s also a process of deepening the electronic instruments with strings. That could be either sampled strings or, if you have the budget or time, involve bringing musicians in. You can’t imitate a solo cello very well, for example, so if you need that, you have to try to work with someone at the earliest point you can.”

The soundtrack took over a year to complete due to the pandemic, giving Hecker plenty of time to get his score into the right shape.

“I work quite iteratively,” he says. “I don’t just sit in front of a computer and write strings and a bassline and then print it and it’s gone. I tend to edit then hammer and chisel things till they take on a weird life of their own. I have an innate sense of when a piece is being cooked to death. If you’re mutating or transforming things too much, you risk losing something important that was there. I think I’ve always been decent at sensing that and editing my own work, but it’s not always easy.”

Though Hecker’s score is undeniably electronic, it also features copious amounts of what he describes as “cold, legato percussion”, its bleak scarcity of production the polar opposite of soundtracks that rely on heavy blocks of noise to evoke fear and panic. The most prominent contribution, though, comes from Thomas Beard’s cello. His strings either cling mournfully to cues or appear, heavily processed, as effects designed to suggest the call of the whales that the ship’s crew had gone to hunt before disaster struck.

“It was one of the main conceits of the project,” explains Hecker. “A kind of elegy for the whales. Thomas and I worked on almost sonar cello pings to create those sounds. I took a lot of that and processed it, finding the dominant harmonic and then pitch-tracking it into sine waves I could manipulate. My idea was to have the spirit of the whales sonically haunting the vessel.

“The cello is a fantastic instrument. It has a range the violin doesn’t have. It gets to the guts of the frequencies, where they drop low enough to serve like a kind of bass, and it can also express a lot of very high frequency pitches. The show charts a fraught journey of doom and despair, which doesn’t end well for the characters. It’s a really dark tale about them going to places where they don’t belong. Bad things happen repeatedly. And then it just gets worse. The cello was perfect for this project.”

The press release describes Hecker making ‘The North Water’ in “rich live spaces as well as suffocating dead ones”. When I ask what this means, his initial response is to ask me what I take from it, before admitting he prefers not to offer detailed explanations of his music’s context so as not to limit the listener’s imagination or interpretation. He becomes more open when he hears I did most of my listening to ‘The North Water’ in the gym, a setting perhaps better suited to his Jetone work.

“It was recorded in a couple of different places in Montreal, including my own studio, which is just across the street from where I live,” he says. “We also did a session in a really large cathedral, Église du Très-Saint-Nom-de-Jésus. That idea of a ‘suffocating dead space’, refers to the reverb of the room where I normally work, which is a highly-treated, non-reverberant room with no liveliness to it. A small cello in a small room that’s heavily insulated, which has no reverb other than the one you create and which doesn’t bounce back, forces you to use post-effects, which is also great. It’s just different. There’s an anechoic chamber style of intimacy, like clean and dry. And there’s the cathedral, where you get this lush, infinite kind of black hole reverb that seems to bloom out forever.”

The score for ‘The North Water’ was completed during last year’s bitterly cold Montreal winter – fitting for a story set in ice-filled waters. Most of us would want to hibernate in such conditions, but winter has the opposite effect on Hecker.

“I don’t want to be outside cycling or whatever – for me, this is music-writing season,” he enthuses. “The cold definitely affects my work. I don’t write as much in the summer and have tended to respond better to the winter environment over the last 20 years. I’ve lived in LA for seven years and I find it’s really difficult to write music here compared to Montreal. It simply doesn’t work for me. There’s an almost oppressiveness to the weather and the health-conscious culture here that means I’d rather do something else than write music.”

Although the creation of ‘The North Water’ soundtrack spanned the pandemic, Tim Hecker hasn’t felt the same urge as some of his contemporaries to flood the market with aural sketches or lockdown musings. Instead, he exudes the patient stillness that can often be found in his compositions, preferring to wait until he can restart the collaborations he savours.

“I think there has to be a time to become energised again about the practice of making music,” he reflects. “I’m trying to find that myself, but I think it still needs more time. I’ve put out a soundtrack, but I only have 11 or 12 albums in my discography, you know, and I’m not in a rush to put anything else out any time soon.”

‘The North Water’ is released by Invada/Lakeshore

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