Writing about music, for the most part, is a pretty easy thing to do: the vast majority of the planet’s population know what drums sound like, what a guitar or piano sounds like, what a human voice singing sounds like and so forth, meaning that when inspiration deserts you completely you can always resort to just describing what is happening in a song and be reasonably confident the reader will be able to form a fairly accurate mental image. This notion unravels fairly quickly, however, when it comes to discussing the work of artists like Tim Hecker and Oneohtrix Point Never’s Daniel Lopatin, who operate so far outside of traditional music-making boundaries – in terms of the instruments and processes involved as well as preconceived ideas of structure, melody etc. – that it must all seem as alien to most people as quantum physics surely does to my cat. Instrumental Tourist, the inaugural entry in the “SSStudios” series of collaborative albums set for release on Lopatin and Joel Ford’s Software label, seems to acknowledge this whilst attempting, in its own way, to humanise the concept of “electronic composition”: its centrepiece is a track called “Whole Earth Tascam”, whose title refers to the late-’60s campaign for NASA to release the first satellite photo of the Earth’s sphere as seen from space, and it’s easy to hear this meeting of old hand Hecker’s classically-inspired electroacoustic drones and young buck Lopatin’s jittery, electronic sample collages as the sound of another civilisation monitoring the various urban and natural landscapes of our world through the swirling gases of our atmosphere and transmitting their findings back to their own. At times it’s obvious who is taking the lead – Hecker on the serene “Scene From A French Zoo” or “Vaccination For Thomas Mann”, Lopatin on the more raucous “Intrusions” or “Uptown Psychedelia” (below) – but this dance is at its most graceful on tracks like “Grey Geisha”, “Racist Drone” and “Ritual Consumption” where the pair share the heavy lifting more equally, blending soothing tones and more industrial sonics to wondrous effect. It may be impossible for those of us not familiar with the theory or technology involved to tell what some of these sounds are – I hear (or at least I think I hear) synths, strings, pan-pipes, radio static, Japanese kora and choral chanting – or how they have been manipulated, but to Hecker and Lopatin, this isn’t a foreign language: it’s their native tongue, and to hear it spoken so fluently is mesmerising.
Instrumental Tourist is out November 20 via Software Recording Co./ Mexican Summer; stream the whole thing over at NPR.