A Portrait of Christian Fennesz

In addition to a stack of new releases, Austrian sound artist Christian Fennesz will be performing live in London on the 5th of December as part of the label Touch’s 30th anniversary festival – reason enough for us to devote an extensive portrait to this exceptional Austrian artist.

Serenity and euphoria – Christian Fennesz is Austria’s claim to fame in matters of advanced electronic music. His solo works cause a sensation internationally; his collaborations with Mike Patton or Ryuichi Sakamoto are the topic of much discussion.

If you visit Christian Fennesz in his studio on Vienna’s Neustiftgasse, you have to be prepared to stay a while: not that he leaves people waiting or that he talks too much, but simply that this native of Burgenland is involved in so many collaborations that it takes a while to listen to them. The room we’re sitting in is dark and totally soundproof. Current music magazines and albums lying on a table are ample proof that Christian Fennesz isn’t just interested in his own music, but also in the music of others. A freshly lit joss stick makes a pleasant smell. In short, the studio gives the impression of a place of peace and energy.

Fennesz is constantly commuting between Paris, Vienna, and Burgenland, and has little home studios in all his apartments where he collects material and composes, but he says he feels most at home here in the Amann Studios. Perhaps because this is the place where he often spends days and weeks deliberating on the sound quality of individual pieces and putting the finishing touches on his solo albums. But perhaps too because he finds the anonymity and quiet here that he would never find abroad, where he is definitely a celebrity, but that he so urgently needs to deliver quality work that conforms to his high standards.

The four-year intervals between Christian Fennesz’s solo albums suggest that producing them is a laborious process, that he is wresting something from himself that requires his utmost concentration and takes him to the limits of what is possible. Fennesz nods thoughtfully in agreement. “The reason it always takes so long is because of my personality,” he says. “Because I’m so hard to please.” Every piece has to be able to function as an individual statement, and also to hold its own in relation to my previous works, he explains. That’s why he finds collaborative efforts considerably easier. “Then I have significantly fewer scruples, because I can bounce my ideas off someone else, and my own uncertainty gives way to delight in experimentation.”

In fact, when Fennesz isn’t doing detailed work on his solo projects, which remain most important to him, and in which he invests the most time, he is always involved in a great variety of other projects: for example, he collaborated with sound artist Ryuichi Sakamoto for many years. Although Sakamoto’s entries always come in with his piano sound and therefore fulfill a clear function from the start, they are perhaps the closest to Fennesz’s own work in terms of tonal quality.

But his collaborations with Mike Patton and Burkhard Stangl should also be mentioned, as should his collaboration with the brilliant and eccentric British singer, David Sylvian, which is perhaps the most interesting at present from the Austrian standpoint. On Sylvian’s album “Blemish” (2003), they’ve created pieces of peculiarly disturbing, internationally recognized beauty, and his album, “Manafon,” continues in the same vein. “Opus Magnum” (September, 2009) has improvisational and compositional contributions by Burkhard Stangtl, Werner Dafeldecker, and Franz Hautzinger, in addition to Fennesz.

Songwriting at the Edge

His collaboration with Sparklehorse and his remixes for Nine Inch Nails, Bloc Party, and Renfro are more in the direction of pop. The self-confessed Beach Boys fan seems to have no fear at all of venturing into pop or mainstream. On the contrary, he says “I think it’s great when I’m allowed to be active in different areas.” For one thing, because he is always interested in building bridges back to his origins in pop and rock music. He played bass and guitar for years in a series of bands in Vienna, and he always lets some of their organic sound flow into his current compositions. For another thing, because he is always interested in what is being done with production technology in mainstream. “Justin Timberlake’s production, for example, is extremely state of the art. It’s enormously fascinating to see what direction someone else goes in who has the same means at his disposal as I do. When I listen to his music, I can hear a certain reactor-synthesizer or a granular synthesis, and I enjoy working out in my mind the exact details of how that was done.” He also had a lot of fun doing the hard-boiled remix of Bloc Party, which may admittedly have turned out to be rather too rough for the Dance Floor entry, although Fennesz did not push the music of the British musician as mercilessly as usual in his own direction, he just intensified the drums and distorted the instruments until they sounded like a mixture of MC5 and the Stooges.

Doesn’t he also feel like a classical songwriter sometimes? “Not primarily, although that can work sometimes too…” he says. But then, after thinking for a while, he adds: “Although I don’t want to compare myself with a great composer like Brian Eno. He has also written classical songs, and he makes sound collages on the side, like I do. Is he a songwriter now?” “Probably,” I answer. To which Fennesz replies: “If the two can be combined, than I’m a pop composer on the edge of…” Pause. “…of… something else.”

Fennesz’s publication strategy can be summed up by saying that it follows an unconscious plan: He devotes a lot of time and energy to collaborating with people in all kinds of styles, they have a mutually stimulating exchange of ideas, and from that he gains the strength for his solo work, with which he then makes a clear, artistically original statement every four years.

Hidden Melodies

For Fennesz, composing is partly an improvisatory search that consists of playing around for hours, finding and refining things, and partly the attempt to reconstruct a melody line or a certain sound he hears in his head. The music he has written with Sparklehorse, for example, is classically composed. “We’re playing songs there.” And then there is also this other side to his composing, the experimental sound design. “There should be both.”

No matter how you approach it, the music on Fennesz’s classical tracks requires active listening, you have to listen through layer after layer before you hear the hidden melody that is always present, but lurking somewhere in the background. He nods thoughtfully again. “It’s important for me that all the elements function as an organic whole. I don’t separate the music into rhythm, bass line, melody track, or harmony background. Of course I can do that too if I want, that option exists, but it’s not my way of doing things,” he explains. “I want to create a world of sound, which contains everything organic automatically: also the rhythm, even if the music does not contain any superficially drums.” The influence of nature, in the form of field recordings, is far less significant in his music than it is generally assumed. “Those are usually sounds that sound natural, but aren’t natural. Rhythm, bass line, one sound among hundreds of sounds, or every hundredth sound—everything is equal, it should breathe and be able to change constantly. That is the most difficult aspect of my work, and it is always a tremendous challenge, in every piece. In that regard, I’m still searching.”

Powerful, but peaceful

It’s always difficult for a musician to place his own work. You don’t have the necessary distance for an objective judgment until some time after the production. Nevertheless, at my request, Fennesz does try to talk about his most recent solo work, “Black Sea.” Thoughtfully, as if he has to weigh the pros and cons again, he takes his time before answering. In the end, he says “I’m actually very satisfied with it,” because even if the music may seem abstract, which it actually isn’t, the album became very personal. In its own way, “like old photos that you look at,” it reflects the time when he was working on it. Each album by this Burgenland-born composer has its own prevailing mood. “It was important to me to express a certain calmness. But at the same time, the memory of past euphoria is also present, always.” The last piece, “Saffron Revolution,” that refers thematically to the revolution of the monks in Myanmar, reflects this duality particularly well: “It’s extremely powerful, but peaceful. Dark, but not without hope.”

So there are always two equal forces. In that regard, people may get the wrong impression from the dark, even hopeless visual impression of the cover. And it wasn’t planned that way, he explains. The original version, chosen by Art Director John Wozencroft in keeping with Touch’s internal label policies, had stronger colors, but had to be rejected because of technological limitations at the printers. Then there was a discussion that seemed to go on forever, and the end result was the current cover. “I’m still not entirely happy with it, because it’s too unambiguous; it states one direction too clearly.” As the reviewer, I’m a little embarrassed now at having written about “dark drones,” and having called the album a type of “Where the Streets Have No Name of Art Music.” But then it makes me feel better that Fennesz himself calls the album considerably more abstract than “Endless Summer,” that in his opinion was already experimental pop. Even though, for his tastes, both “Black Sea” and “Endless Summer” turned out to be very concrete.

To Work in Peace

And that brings us to the matter of taste. In this regard, using Fennesz as an example, we simply have to talk about the difference between the way he is received here and the way he is received abroad, because that has been typical of Austrian pop music and its marketability—if it sells at all—since the very beginning. And so I tell him that in the museum shop of the PS1 in New York, I saw exactly three Austrian albums for sale, all three by him. And a week later, here in the Museumsquartier (Museums Quarter) of Vienna, I was taken aback to see that the emphasis is still on electronic music of the 1990s by familiar Viennese musicians. For me, I tell him, that was it in a nutshell, a pars pro toto, because the fact is that there is hardly another Austrian artist who is as successful internationally as he is. Sadly, it is also a fact that his new album was hardly noticed by the media—aside from two or three short reviews and one article.

Of course, Fennesz himself can only speculate as to why people aren’t more aware of him in this country. Maybe it’s the general feeling that anyone who comes from here can’t possibly be that successful, he says. Or it could have to do with the ineffable separation between serious music (E) and popular music (U), what he finds is still a major problem. That guess makes sense: It just so happens that the countries where Fennesz from the very beginning has had the least success—Austria, Germany, and the German-speaking part of Switzerland—are also those that draw a sharp dividing line between serious music (E) and popular music (U). And it’s also that dividing line that prevents people from noticing that Fennesz’s music “isn’t all that abstract.”

Whereas in England he plays almost everywhere, from opera houses to clubs, the context of his performances in this country is always much more rigidly defined. “The most conservative listener is still the Indie Man,” he laughs.

But Fennesz says it has long since ceased to bother him that he is received differently here than in the countries where he is particularly successful, or even that people take no notice of him here at all. When he’s on the way to a performance in Austria and the taxi driver proudly mentions all the people performing before and after him, but doesn’t know him from Adam, it just makes him smile. All the more so when the others are people he knows from collaborating with them. But does it make him angry? No, when it comes down to it, it’s nice to be able to work here in peace.

“The more famous you are, the more obligations you have.” And he’s not at all interested in having to hang around with people. “My work is outside of Austria. That’s where it takes place. That’s not about to change fast.” And that’s fine with him.

An E for a U?

Getting back to the huge divide between serious music (E) and popular music (U). What really links Fennesz with current trends in New Music is his glowing enthusiasm for different surround sounds. He is particularly impressed by the combination of classical microphone recordings, made in special rooms, with synthesized sounds, and he says that will influence his next solo album.

“I’m going to look for special rooms, and have acoustic instruments recorded there by sound technicians who usually work with orchestra. At the same time, though, they will also record electronic instruments in the room and then record them again when played through the microphone. I’m interested in artificial rooms, created by software, and in sampling.” It’s the symbiosis that appeals to him: to combine synthesized, virtual instruments, created by physical modeling, with the pre-existing recordings. As with everything that Christian Fennesz sets his mind to, the output should be interesting.

How should I best summarize everything that Christian Fennesz said in a long interview with interspersed intensive listening sessions? Perhaps like this: Here is an artist who pays no attention to unimportant political events, but lets important political events (as in Saffron Revolution) flow into his work, and he isn’t at all interested in the talk about the change or decline in the music industry. “Everything’s OK with us. Touch is doing better than ever before. And I think the people who do artistic work will do well too, because it has nothing to do with the music industry and its status quo. People who like to listen to Touch buy CDs, vinyl, DVDs, and even prints. There are discerning collectors all over the world.”

What he has in common with David Sylvian, is that he is always picking up new styles and using them to his advantage. But it’s quite probable that not even this sensational collaboration will catch anyone’s attention here in this country, it will be just another chapter in the history of Austria’s musical ignorance.

Markus Deisenberger
translated from  German by Jean M. Snook
Photo Credits: Maria Ziegelboeck