Fennesz interview by Lawrence English
It appears as though music is clouded in a frenzied storm of overactivity right now.
Ease of access to creation and distribution has brought about a plethora of action at varying levels of competency and curiosity. The result of this gust of creativity is a decreased ability by critics, historians and other interested parties to reconcile contemporary music in any kind of meaningful way. Questions abound as to what albums will maintain interest and fascination 10 or more years from now. Which musicians will hold a place in the history of their given field? What is significant, what is merely a mirage?
In 20 years or at some future point, when the storm clouds surrounding music have settled (or shifted to another turbulent phase), hindsight will create hierarchies of relevance and influence, and amongst the musicians whose work is sure to have thrived and assumed greater relevance is Christian Fennesz. The Vienna-based musician unwittingly placed himself at the very heart of the laptop-based electronic music world in 2001 with the release of possibly the most significant record of its time, Endless Summer.
Endless Summer not only summarised the sketches of live processed laptop music that had dotted performance spaces and label release schedules since the mid-nineties, it also transformed what had for the most part been disparate noisy explorations into something unexpected. Not only did this new laptop-based music feature precise arrangement and melodic colour, but it also had a sense of play that transformed the material from “difficult’s into something wholly welcoming, even hummable.
Now, the better part of a decade later, Fennesz offers his latest vision of electronic drenched composition – Black Sea. It’s a markedly different affair from previous undertakings – where Endless Summer and Venice were punctuated with short bursts of song, Black Sea takes a decidedly long form and is perhaps the first record that fits together as an extended composition.
â€œIt’s been good that there’ so much interest in the record,â€ Fennesz comments from his studio space, â€œTo be honest I was a little bit worried this time because it’s a little bit different, but people seem to be excited about it. I’ve never really been one to compose longer pieces – the tracks are generally shorter on my records and I think with this one, there’ this sense that maybe the whole record could be heard as one long track. It could be heard as one as one big composition, sure you can hear pieces that function as single tracks, but for me it’s like this one large composition.â€
So how then did this long form work come about?
â€œThis process unfolded very naturally whilst I was making the record,â€ he explains, â€œI’ve been working on a great many ideas – a lot of them I’d work on for a while and then they’d just exhaust themselves and I’d throw them all away and start over. I did try to go in a song-oriented direction for this record initially, but honestly it was just not satisfying at all. I don’ know, maybe it wasn’ the right time for it, but I moved away from those ideas and what you hear on Black Sea is what I came to after that searching. I just let things go, I let some of the sounds extend which was great and also I allowed for silences to be in there.â€
When listening to Black Sea, the sense of exploration is ever-present. Though not radical in any way, the record plots out a considered path through territories that are unquestionably Fennesz, both in terms of aesthetics and harmony, but do suggest a more lateral approach to composition and arrangement.
â€œI have to try new ideas,â€ he explains, of the process behind the record. â€œThere has to be some challenge to the work, I mean I could do another Venice or Endless Summer all the time, but really why would I want to do that. It might not be as good as the originals, but it’d be easy to copy those ideas and make a record. But there’ nothing in that for me. Each time I try something for a record, I want it to be new, I want it to point in some direction that I hadn’ explored before. Of course, I have my limitations, the records always sound like me, but I am looking for that new terrain.
â€œActually some people have said that this record sounds very mature – maybe that’s just a nice way of saying ‘the guy’s getting old.’ But I do think there’ a certain harmonic, tonal world that I always use and that I’m in. There’ some chord progressions on this album that are the essence of many other things I’ve done before.â€
One of key elements that marks Black Sea as separate from previous Fennesz efforts is its juxtaposition of live instruments and processed/created instruments. Whereas these two elements have co-existed on other records previously, on Black Sea the relationship is re-considered. Acoustic instruments and physical spaces are offset against physically modelled environments and generated instruments. The results are both compelling and confounding, as the listener is drawn into uncertain states of listening – trying to hear the “real’ and the “artificial’.
â€œFor this one I was really interested in making recordings of acoustic instruments in these beautiful rooms. At the same time I was – I think for the first time – using physical modelling synthesis and that really fascinated me. So that was something I wanted to bring out in this new album. I was trying to build artificial instruments, I guess you could say, and trying to set them up with the other acoustic instruments so you get a sense of the two working for and against each other.
â€œIn “Grey Scale’ for example there’ one of these instruments I built using this synthesis technique and then the acoustic instrument as well. So combining that with the real room reverbs and the simulated rooms I was building with the modelling meant that there were so many possibilities, I didn’ tire of it at all. You never know what is real and what is artificial. So the effect is there’ more space in these recordings.
â€œThis interest for me came from a few different experiences I had recently – one of them was in preparing a piece for the Vienna Concert Hall with a string quartet. It suddenly struck me that these instruments sound just so incredible in these old classical performance spaces that I wanted to investigate this relationship within my own music and I found out so much about what I do – simple things like microphone placement kept me reading and studying all the way through the record.â€
Another source for this inspiration springs forth from recent collaborations with the likes of Ryuichi Sakamoto.
â€œThe work with Ryuichi has been influencing me this regard also – especially the Cendre sessions. When we recorded the piano for those sessions – Fernando Aponte, who has been Ryuichi’ sound engineer for many years, had amazing ideas about ways to mic the piano and other instruments.â€
Collaboration serves more than just a technical interest for Fennesz though. Like many electronic musicians, there’ a social aspect that is central to the ways in which collaborations unfold.
â€œIt’s tough, I live in this studio sometimes – I’m in here day after day, week after week, and it’s as though I have no social life anymore. So for me the process of collaboration is really a pleasure – it’s a chance to meet and work with people. I think as well as that I am a player, I love to play music and to do that there’ something about playing with other people that’s really enjoyable. I have to keep this player alive, it’s important for me to communicate by improvising with other people, that just gives me such energy. I think working with people in a completely different field is a great process, it pushes you into areas you otherwise might not explore. You can learn so much and I think it’s always difficult to explain to journalists about this thing of playing with someone like Ryuichi or Keith Rowe, but for us, the musicians, it’s totally natural – it makes sense and we enjoy doing it, even if we play completely different music, we feel connected and we want to work together and learn from each other.â€
As enjoyable as collaboration may be, it is perhaps ultimately a blessing and a curse. After all it does bear a toll on the creation of new solo work. An example of this can be seen in the lead up to Black Sea. Some four years after the release of the previous solo from Fennesz, Venice, this latest LP’s completion stuttered due to a severe lack of consolidated time in the studio.
â€œI’ve been working on so many smaller projects in the past few years – film works, collaborations and other things – that really there wasn’ that much time to work on the album. There was simply not enough time to sit in the studio for three or four months and work on something new. That was part of the reason things took a while this time. Also I have to admit another factor was that I really like doing smaller projects and executing smaller ideas. For example, I really like the single format – the A/B format is something I really like to work with.
â€œPartly as well I didn’ have this feeling like I wanted to make a record. I mean there’ so much stuff out there – really so much, that I didn’ feel I had something to contribute to that mass of music. So I have to be confident enough to release an album and this time it took 4 years.â€
But even with the lost time, Fennesz is quick to point out that it would be unlikely for him to be creating more than he presently is. Partly due to this sense of “glut’s in the music being released.
â€œIt’s crazy,â€ he sighs, â€œI just can’ follow new music, I have completely lost track. I need someone to filter things for me and present just a selection of things for me. I don’ have the time to go through all this stuff, there’ so much electronic music. I keep on listening to my friend’ music, because that’s all that I can follow. So I think that now sometimes is on my mind when I am writing. There’ always got to be value in the music, something there that can hold people when they come across it.â€
Fennesz’ Black Sea is available through Touch.