I vividly remember the first time I listened to the set of Tim Hecker tracks called “Hatred of Music,” or rather, the first time I read the name. I muttered it over and over, letting it repeat across my tongue until it etched itself in my brain. There was a sense of absoluteness to its utterance, a feeling that whatever emotions existed in the music itself would be at their apotheosis. The song conjured a terrible anticipation. And then I actually listened to it. Pain, glory, rage, beauty, isolation and an endless amount of other emotions I couldn’t even begin to list ripped apart any fringe of myself until all that was left was an exposed core. I felt naked and vulnerable listening to it, and yet paradoxically invisible to the rest of the world. I was in a reality where only I existed and that was still too much to bear.
My first thought, which took a substantial amount of time to formulate, was not Why would anyone ever want to experience that? but Why can’t I get that more often? Just like a kid all too ready to get back in line to ride the roller coaster he just went on, the urge I felt to experience that brutal exhilaration again was palpable to my core.
Why, though? Why was I so perked up and ready to go melt my mind and soul again? The music itself was intense and coarse, experimentally abstract and definitely not like anything else I had ever heard before, so it’s not as though I had any experience I could reliably connect this to. With the ever-consistent apparatus of retrospection now on my side, I can say that there were two reasons. The first: It so perfectly captures the Gordian concept that the title suggests. Every facet of what Hecker’s — and by extension our — hatred of music sounds like occupies the piece. From this, I learned the second reason: Music can be a weapon. It is a punishment created by ourselves and inflicted onto us.
I’m not asserting that humans have this subconscious sado-masochistic tendency (though if the last seven months are anything to go by, we definitely are well versed in the act of cutting off our nose to spite our face). However, I think it’s safe to say that pain is a very common element in the lexicon of art. In terms of music, it’s pretty easy to find examples of this. Genres like industrial, noise and some categories of metal have their entire ethos built around punishing the listener. Why would they exist if we didn’t find some merit in the act of punishment? Sound and style are not the only ways in which punishment can be performed musically — context and atmosphere are just as capable of breaking us down as well. Nick Drake doesn’t destroy people’s spirits because the sound is so foreign or jarring, it’s because the emotions he pours out of his words are so deeply poignant. In fact, the relative pleasantness of the sound actually makes the music more dissonant as it introduces a dichotomy between the artist’s sentiments and the music’s.
Music is inarguably a profound method of catharsis. We often transmute our own attitudes into what we listen to, allowing it to soundtrack our mental state. This includes our failures, of which punishing music is simply a self-reflection.
It wasn’t until much later in my life that I finally did figure out one of the emotions I couldn’t quite piece together the first time I listened to “Hatred of Music”: longing. I was a bit incredulous at first about my discovery. The connection between hatred and longing wasn’t quite obvious to me. I wasn’t sure what Tim Hecker was longing for, and then I realized that it wasn’t about Hecker at all. Just as much as “Hatred of Music” was about humanity’s own tumultuous relationship with music, it was also about music’s hatred of us.
We use music when simple human-to-human interaction breaks down. It becomes just another tool in our arsenal. The longing refers to the desire for us to move past our own failures. It punishes us because we can’t understand ourselves or each other. There is a beautiful irony in the fact that music, one of the forms we most glorify for its ability to transcend simple language, is also a reminder of how poor we are at conveying meaning to each other. Art is just one perpetual grasp at something, and it punishes us for not holding on.
Daily Arts Writer Drew Gadbois can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.