Bring the noise

McGill PhD student works with sound culture, in the classroom and out

Tim Hecker is a Montreal based  electronic musician and sound artist. Over the last decade, he has produced and recorded over a dozen albums, both under the moniker Jetone and under his own name. His most recent album, Ravedeath, 1972, was released in February. He has also collaborated with other Canadian experimental musicians such Christof Migone, Martin Tetreault, and Aidan Baker. At the same time, Hecker is currently working on a PhD at McGill, as well as lecturing in the Art History and Communications Department on “sound culture.” He recently gave an interview with The McGill Daily in which he described his research, his musical career, and relations between the two.

The McGill Daily: Your research began in 2006 with Media@McGill, is that correct?
Tim Hecker: Yeah, I’m a student in the department of Art History and Communication Studies. Media@McGill is kind of a research cluster but really I’m actually just a student in the department in general.
MD: Your research project is on “urban noise.” Can you describe it?
TH: It’s changed a lot since you might have found it online. I’m writing a history of loud sound at the turn of the 20th century. I’m looking at ways that volume or sound intensity was seen as a productive or generative force in society. That’s to look at sound in a way that’s different than most common historical works have been done, which is to look at sound as a form of irritation and annoyance – noise – against classical and conventional sounds. Most of those historians have focused on ways in which noise has been abated or controlled, or the attempts to control it. So I’m looking at ways in which noise was seen, or loudness in a more general sense, as positive or productive in a different way. So I’m looking at things like fog horns, that were invented by people who also invented musical devices. I’m looking at the linkage with monster pipe organs, and things like that.
MD: Is your music career completely separate from your research, or does your research sometimes influence your work?
TH: I would say there’s mild cross-pollination, but they’re really quite distinct things. I have no association whatsoever with the music department, for whatever reason. I work here [in the Art History and Communications Department]. But I do them in discrete avenues. I don’t use music in my thesis – it has nothing to do with that. I’m interested in broader historical questions. But you could ask “are they related?” and I think it’s a fair question. I’m interested in sound in music generally, so there are some sympathies there but they’re really quite distinct. Not hermetically separated, but quite different.
MD: How has your new album Ravedeath, 1972 signalled a shift in your sound? As I’m sure you know, it’s received a lot of critical acclaim. Pitchfork recently placed it under their “best new music heading,” which can definitely do a lot for an artist’s career.
TH: Yeah, that’s the second or third one of those that I’ve gotten in my time. Whatever value you put on that is nice, for sure.  I think that reviews like that help, but they’re not the panacea to being a successful musician. It’s a brutal, long, hard challenge that very few bear.
MD: Has the critical success of this album distracted you from your research here at McGill? Has it brought you more concert spaces, tour dates, et cetera?
TH: I have no shortage of opportunities to perform, for sure. That definitely helps. There’s a demand for playing concerts, and I don’t have difficulty booking a tour, for example. Those things help, and I’m really thankful that it’s being well received, but it’s not something I intentionally seek out to do. I try to do music that satisfies me spiritually and artistically.
MD: Do you have immediate plans for the future? Are you  going to work on a new album, or maybe concentrate more on your research right now?
TH: Things will slow down on all fronts. It’s the spring, so I’m going on tour in late April, once I wrap up teaching my class. I’ll probably release more material in the fall; I’ll tour pretty extensively in the fall, and probably try to finish my thesis. That’s my main focus for now.

For more information on Tim Hecker and his tour dates, visit