Ordinarily we’re not keen on gigs in churches. There’s something naff about the automatic gravitas any bozo with a ballad is gifted with just cos they’re performing in a sacred space. Take the beards away and you might as well be on a school outing. Besides which, wooden pews give us arse-ache.
We’ve made an exception for Canadian sound artist Tim Hecker though, mainly cos we know sub-Bon Iver soul-baring won’t be on tonight’s order of service. Hecker’s last solo album, ‘Ravedeath, 1972’, featured location recordings of a pipe organ in an Icelandic church, its tones drawn out and treated into a suite of abstract digital ambience. He’s got a deep understanding of the resonant qualities of church organs and the acoustic space of the buildings that house them, so the grand red brickwork of St Mary’s is an entirely appropriate place to hear him.
But not see him. Hecker only plays shows where he can perform in very low or entirely absent light conditions, so all the bulbs in St Mary’s are extinguished before he walks on. The only illumination comes from the tiny purple worklamps on Hecker’s desk and a single red LED on the monitor amp behind him. It’s 8.30pm and, even with a near-full moon, there’s only a faint evening light fading through the stained glass windows, slowly replaced by distant pools of streetlight sodium.
As Hecker sets to work on his laptop, our muscles relax and our ears become accustomed to the minimal organ waves. Getting underway at a comfortably low volume, it’s as the layers thicken and the noise builds that we begin to become unsettled. The mind starts to play tricks, the headlight flicker of a passing car flashing ghost images high in the eaves. The windows jump and glitch.
More volume, the chest flutter of sustained bass notes, descending metallic clangs. Involuntary shivers make the hair on our arms prickle. Melodies of bell and piano float through. A judder of sharp, static-filled edits brings vertiginous feelings, standing on the edge of a precipice, staring down into Kubrick’s Star Gate.
Hecker fades the sound and ceases. It’s been a strange set to submit to, an education in how church buildings can be ‘played’ for both religious and secular ends. Not a religious experience, more an architectural one. The lights come on and burn our eyes.
St Mary’s Church, Wednesday 18th September 2013