Left Field: Fennesz on Making His Most Ambitious Album Yet, Plus Blissful Ambient, Loopy Math Rock, and More
Spin’s ‘Left Field’ column focuses on the latest in experimental music each month, featuring interviews with and capsule reviews of artists at the fringes of genre, sensibility, and commercial appeal.
When I call up Christian Fennesz on Skype, the guitarist and composer is sitting in the bedroom of his apartment in Vienna. The walls are white, and bare, except for a stray chunk of something like soundproofing foam near the ceiling. It’s difficult to reconcile the cramped and hermetic look of the place with the music Fennesz created there recently, which evokes wide expanses, monumental structures, thunderstorms over rolling oceans. Fennesz’s seventh solo album, and first since 2014, is called Agora, a reference to the marketplaces of Ancient Greece, and to the idea of public space in general. He acknowledges the tension between the ambition of the work and the circumstances of its creation, which took place alone, in this room at home. “When you’re in more isolated circumstances, on headphones, you want to reach out for more,” he says. “You want to make it bigger.”
Agora is plenty big. Fennesz’s compositional process involves electronically manipulating the sounds of his guitar until they become luminescent and strangely tactile, often with little to no resemblance to the conventional timbre of plucked and strummed strings. On his best-known albums, 2001’s Endless Summer and 2004’s Venice, he arranged these abstractions into instrumental miniatures that were like hazy outlines of pop songs, appearing for just a few minutes before flickering away. Agora is more like a Romantic-era symphony, with four long movements that churn toward enormous peaks in the distance. Fennesz released a live album of remixed Mahler compositions in 2014, and his affinity for the great Romantic composer remains clear in Agora’s scale and sense of life-and-death drama.
“Rainfall,” the second track, initially sounds like a power plant melting down, or the world-crumbling scene at the end of Annihilation. Slowly, the layers of distortion peel away, until a telltale sound emerges—the creak of fingers sliding between chords across the strings of an acoustic guitar—to remind us of the humble real-world origins of these unearthly textures. When I ask Fennesz about this moment, he disappears offscreen and soon returns excitedly with the instrument that produced it: a black Fender Telecoustic—not exactly a wizard staff. With all due respect to Fennesz, it looks more like the sort of thing an aspiring country singer-songwriter should be playing at an open mic night. How does he make those sounds, with that thing? He describes the process only in the broadest possible strokes: “I’m a player, and I record it. And then I start composing, and then something happens.”
Later, we discuss his interest in jazz, which reveals a bit more about the “something” that happens when he sits down to compose. “It’s not about virtuosity,” he says. “It’s about how you play one tone.” A single note can convey something mysterious and true when it’s played well, in the right context. For a saxophonist or trumpeter, tone emerges instantaneously in the moment of playing, the product of many carefully controlled factors: the pressure of your lips on the mouthpiece, the tiny fluctuations in the column of air you’re pushing through the instrument. For Fennesz, it comes later, after the vibrations have already traveled through the air, hit the pickups of a guitar or the diaphragm of a microphone, after they’ve been converted into electricity, then again into the streams of ones and zeros that make up a digital audio file. That’s when the real work begins, at the computer: adding and subtracting, sculpting and layering, until the tone is right. Once you have one good sound, you’re on your way to a symphony.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
This is the first proper Fennesz solo album in five years, but you’re always making other collaborative music, or non-album music. At what point did you know that you were working on a Fennesz album? Did you decide at the outset, or does the material dictate the form?
Many things. The label was asking, of course. Manager was asking, of course. Family was asking. I just thought, it’s about the right time to go to the studio and do something. Which wasn’t really a studio. It was actually my bedroom. It just felt right. I think, maybe I’ve got something to say. And if I don’t have that feeling, I’m not doing anything. It’s pointless.
Your press materials mentioned that you ended up making Agora in your bedroom after losing access to your proper studio. What were the circumstances that led to you losing it?
I’ve been working there for over 10 years. It was a room in a proper professional recording studio that someone was renting. First of all, I needed a change. And it got more and more expensive. Prices have gone up here in Vienna. They wanted much more money, and I thought, I’d better go home.
I was struck by the fact that you were recording on a smaller scale than you have in the past, and yet the album feels quite large-scale: four long pieces, ten to fifteen minutes each. I wondered if the latter aspect was a product of the former somehow, if changing your working environment inspired you to work on these larger canvases.
Actually, I think we’ve been a little bit overdoing this in the press text. It’s not so different from what I’ve done before. I’ve done bedroom records before. The only difference was that it was completely made “in the box.” I didn’t use any of my outboard gear. It was mainly made on headphones, because of the neighbors. But in the end, I was using the same tools, same techniques, everything. It was made in a different place. Maybe that changed a few things. When you’re in more isolated circumstances, on headphones, you want to reach out for more. You want to make it bigger.
You said you wouldn’t make an album if you didn’t have something to say. What did you want to say with this album?
It’s a lot about: agora… agoraphobia. Agora is the old Greek marketplace. What is agora today? It’s actually social media. That’s the marketplace where everybody meets. And there’s also the phobia of that. Being isolated. Not sure if I want to be part of the world, you know? It’s really difficult to describe what brought me there, and why it’s sounding like that. It just happens. But these were the initial thoughts. Agoraphobia, where you just don’t want to leave your place anymore. And then the first track, “In My Room,” is describing this, of course.
The title, and the fact that you’re making it in your bedroom, made me think of the tension between public and private space.
Yes. That’s all it was. That’s what I was trying to explore. Also, I’ve always been a big Beach Boys and Brian Wilson fan, and “In My Room” already exists as one of their track titles. So it’s a bit of a reference. I think he was suffering from agoraphobia as well. He didn’t want to leave his room.
I was reading a recent interview where you talked about various jazz musicians of the ‘60s. Does that interest in jazz manifest itself somehow in the way you work? Is there an improvisational element?
What I’m trying to listen to is jazz players who really found a certain tone. For instance, Wes Montgomery, he had a really special tone on the guitar. It takes a long time to get that. It’s not about virtuosity, it’s about how you play one tone. Miles Davis, for instance, he would play three notes on the trumpet, but they were fantastic.
The new album demands close attention from listeners, over long periods of time. Do you have ideal circumstances in which people might listen?
The most perfect way would be in the same way that I make the record. And this was made on headphones, mostly. I would say try it like that. Play it loud.
I listened on my home stereo for the first time this morning, turned up very loud, and found that I enjoyed it more that way than on headphones.
That’s great, because I can’t do this here. There’s a policeman living just above me, and he doesn’t like me very much.
Countless experimental releases arrive each month, on Soundcloud and Bandcamp, as self-released cassettes and LPs, and on any number of small labels. Here are a few of the most noteworthy and exciting from April.
Amnesia Scanner & Bill Kouligas – Lexachast
Lexachast is the coming together of glitch-club artisans Amnesia Scanner and Bill Kouligas, the mastermind behind tastemaking electronic label PAN. More than an album, it’s the score for Harm van den Dorpel’s 15-minute web-hosted slideshow of the same name, covering everything from images of marine fauna and New Orleans voodoo shops to distorted club photography. The visuals are algorithmically generated from databases at DeviantArt and Flickr, “with a bias towards the NSFW, extreme banality, and ornamental melancholia.” The sonics are a perfect companion to an overarching post-internet aesthetic, which feels a little like Charlie in the death tunnel at Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, or Ken Burns-ing through a hyper-referential hellscape. Lexachast is more controlled than a typical Amnesia Scanner release but no less engaging, with motes of noise that expand and contract according to their own internal logic. The album benefits from Kouligas’ experience as a curator and DJ, which serves to temper the typically explosive Amnesia Scanner m.o. It also almost crashed my aging laptop, but it was probably supposed to do that.—WILL GOTTSEGEN
Suso Sáiz – Nothing Is Objective
With Nothing Is Objective, Music From Memory completes a trilogy of releases from Spanish ambient musician Suso Sáiz. In late 2016, the label condensed Sáiz’s early solo work into a compilation titled Odisea, and followed that up with Rainworks, a collection of entirely new material from the veteran composer. Nothing Is Objective is decidedly more calmative than Rainworks. On “Anti-stress For Babies and Families,” Sáiz conjures an almost womb-like environment—subtle beauty in submerged, warping electronic textures. “Dulce,” a collaboration with Fennesz, marks a moment of disruption, with the sort of sinister drone that also characterizes Agora. But as a whole, Nothing Is Objective gestures toward stasis, and toward soft, immediate sounds. This is gentle, often emotional composition, with a welcoming disposition.—W.G.
Fox-Millions Duo – Biting Through
Biting Through is the second collaborative album by Greg Fox and Kid Millions, either one of whom could make a reasonable claim to being the most exciting drummer in New York, and possibly also the world. Both are relentlessly physical and intense, using their virtuosic chops as tools for breaking musical boundaries rather than excuses for flashy solos. Both are serial collaborators: Fox with avant-metal groups Liturgy and Ex Eye, noise-minimalist composer Ben Frost, long-running improv troupe Zs, and his own shamanic psych collective Guardian Alien; Millions with the out-punk institution Oneida, Japanese cosmic rock legends Boredoms, and the newly formed instrumental trio Charnel Ground. Fox is punchy and precise, offering subdivisions of the beat that seem to warp time itself, like a hypertechnical metal virtuoso imitating a broken drum machine. Millions (born John Colpitts) is looser and more expressionistic, combining the flailing fluidity of free jazz with the unending grooves of krautrock.
On Biting Through, Fox and Millions are freed from the responsibility to anchor a band, an opportunity they relish. The album abandons regular repeating rhythms almost entirely, focusing instead on gesture and abstraction. The pair augment their kits with a bevy of electronic sounds that closely track their playing: a snare hit triggers a slab of queasy synth; beats seem to compete with backwards-processed clones of themselves in real time. The music is harsh and dense, but not alienating. You get the sense that for these two, nothing could be more fun than lobbing jagged fills and grenades of distortion at each other from across the room, seeing what it sounds like when everything blows up at once. Biting Through sometimes feels unfocused, and it’s not a defining work in either drummer’s catalog. But Fox and Millions have earned the right to let loose a bit. If you’re a fan of either or both, you’ll find something to enjoy in these sprawling electroacoustic jams.—A.C.
Thee Reps – Minimal Surface
True to their name, NYC ensemble Thee Reps are all about repetition: of simple musical phrases, layered together with others of varying lengths and rhythmic configurations, all cycling at different rates and interlocking in new ways with each go-round. The results are like Tetris formations, agglomerating over time as each new irregularly shaped piece falls from the sky and finds its nook in the ever-expanding structure. Thee Reps have the instrumentation of a slightly augmented rock band—guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, viola—but their patient approach has as much to do with the minimalist tradition. More than any particular composer, their debut full-length Minimal Surface reminds me of Sol Lewitt, whose strictly systematized line drawings with splashes of vibrant color find an echo in the rigorous-but-playful vibe of this music.
The group’s good humor is evident in the title of one of the album’s most ambitious pieces: “Music To Watch ‘97 Flyers Highlights To,” in which two- and three-note figures pile up over a dubby bassline, building tension to a climax that seems like it will never arrive. Multiple Thee Reps members have backgrounds in improvised music, but there are few flights of wild expression on Minimal Surface. Instead they hunker down and play without ornamentation, humbly offering building blocks to the larger whole. In Thee Reps’ best moments, their affectlessness becomes its own sort of heightened style, reaching the quietly absurd pitch of a good comedy straight man. Plenty of contemporary musicians compose in loops; few make them sound this loopy.—A.C.
Ex Confusion – I Remember When
The latest project from Japanese experimentalist Atsuhito Omori of Ex Confusion is a worn, faded postcard from the recesses of our collective memory. Even beyond its title, there’s something overwhelmingly nostalgic about its particular blend of ambient and lo-fi sounds, and something explicitly happy. While a lot of great ambient music tends to verge on the sad and the lonely, I Remember When embraces a brilliant palette of warm, expressionist hues. Benoît Pioulard makes a welcome appearance on “I Owe The Earth a Body,” and contributes a slightly mottled sheen to the surface of the sound. It’s blissful ambient that frames reflection as imperative.—W.G.