Pete Swanson and Tim Hecker - Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, 20 Sept 2013
Two leading proponents of contemporary ambient electronic noise
The billing of Pete Swanson, the New York-based former Yellow Swans member known for his experimental noise/techno fusion, and Tim Hecker, the Canadian ambient musician behind some of the most significant and lauded releases in this field over the last few years, ensured that this evening at Glasgow's Old Fruitmarket would be a special one.
Inside the venue, a table piled with hardware and shrouded in cables – not a laptop in sight – sits at the head of a hall laid out with cabaret-style tables and seating. When Swanson unassumingly approaches his equipment the entire venue descends into complete darkness, with only a single white light on the table to enable Swanson to see his modular synthesisers. The intention is clear: to focus the audience’s attention on the music, creating an introspective and intense listening experience without any external stimuli to distract.
From this darkness emerges a wall of static, pulsating sustained notes forming in the background, and artillery-esque syncopation developing seamlessly from this. Many of the audience, eyes closed, lie on the floor. One man moves to the side of the room and begins dancing, eyes closed. Mental pictures suggested by the intense sound include strange sinking ships, twisting metal and the pressure of hundreds of tonnes of water bearing down on us through a wall of rhythmic noise.
Later, Swanson explains to me that his equipment gives him complete freedom when playing live. 'I’ve designed this instrument to provide a lot of flexibility. Generally, what I’m doing is improvising, but I’m improvising using a sort of set vocabulary. I use a modular synthesiser, which is comprised of all these individual elements,' he continued. 'When people think of synthesisers, it's a keyboard with everything organised in a set manner. With a modular synthesiser, you buy each individual element and you patch things together as you want. It enables me to craft a very specific instrument, so I’m able to have flexible rhythms.'
Structurally, Swanson’s sound utilises a set, or vocabulary, of percussive sounds with only a few elements present providing more melodic content. 'A lot of what I’m dealing with is interruption,' he explains, 'Sounds competing with each other to take precedence in the next sequence. A lot of what I’m playing with is error, and enhancement of error.'
By comparison, Hecker’s set is a completely different entity. In a similarly pitch black environment, he lulls the over-stimulated audience with the sweeping granular soundscapes he is best-known for, layering each phase with new depth and texture, tonal shifts and intricate, softly-reverberating melodies.
Although operating in similar spheres, the two artists claim not to influence each other’s work, despite forging a friendship following an unusual encounter in Calgary last year when floods led to the cancellation of a festival they were both due to perform at. Finding themselves in a dark and empty hotel without electricity, they began talking and formulating ideas. It is easy to imagine that this otherworldly performance witnessed at the Old Fruitmarket was in some way influenced by that original, strange meeting.