‘I’m a musician, not a computer scientist – I want to write music, not code.’
(2003 Discorder interview with Christian Fennesz)
Electronica has come a long way in a relatively short time. The irresistible rise of ‘laptop’ in the last five or six years – exponentially proportionate to an increasing ease of access both to the hardware and the software – has swamped the genre with an impossibly indistinguishable multitude of similar-sounding albums. A few artists, however, have managed to elevate their work up above the amorphous canopy of glitch and drone, notably the Icelanders – Kitchen Motors, Biogen, Auxpan – an honourable smattering of natives – Boards of Canada, Bronnt Industries Kapital, The Caretaker – and Herr Christian Fennesz of Vienna. Common to all these has been the re-introduction into the electronic mix of some recognisably humanising element – beit a simple sense of humour (exceeding rare in this chin-stroking world), or a recognisable voice or non-electronic instrument. Christian Fennesz’s instrument, of course, is the guitar, and as others have noted, no-one does neo-shoegaze laprock as well as he. I don’t know if he’s still using the Fender Stratocaster he started off with, but it sure still sounds like it. However, amidst the plethora of adulatory hype emergent on his last album – 2001’s Endless Summer (in part a digital-minimalist homage to The Beach Boys) – there has been a critical failure of understanding as to the nature of ’emotional’ in the laptop arena.
This is music with practically zero emotional content, but which is capable, like hypnosis and certain pharmaceuticals (and which is probably similarly explicable in terms of the way it messes with our heads), of nudging us into a receptive state in which we surrender to the non-musical suggestions of, for example, the titles and the artwork. Personally, I have yet to be moved to tears by anything by Fennesz (and I’m a bit of a lip-trembler where music’s concerned), although I enjoy his manipulations enormously. There’s a track on Venice, for example, called Laguna (a little atypical of the rest of the album in that it’s just a bit of lazy guitar-noodling, really – a duet with a frequent collaborator called Burkhard Stangl – virtually untreated – pleasant enough – something that someone like Kevin Shields might have improvised as a filler between sets whilst waiting for someone to fix the amp) which, although it evidently refers to the eponymous Venetian lake, might just as well be ‘about’ my car, which happens to have the same name, but hasn’t been painted (and therefore invested with cultural significance) by Canaletto or Pietro Longhi. There could be an ironic paradox in entitling a cutting-edge electronic album as if it were an Impressionist painting, but I fear that no irony is intended here – this album is meant to ‘invoke’ Venice – and, frankly, it no more succeeds in that than would a concert of car-alarms. We’ve just moved on far too far from the world in which Debussy (whose experiments with musical ‘atmosphere’ Fennesz’s remind me of) could credibly entitle a piece, ‘La Mer’ – and succeed.
However, Venice is undeniably beautiful – in the very particular sense that, say, the weather can be beautiful, or discovering the Fibonnacci series in the Golden Section is beautiful, or, indeed, that Venice is beautiful. Can one be moved to tears by the beauty of a sudden summer storm, or a mathematical progression, or a city? (Beethoven? did I hear you say? Bach? Mozart? Agreed, I say. But Fennesz, for all that he’s good, isn’t really quite in that league yet.)
I’ve often wondered if there’s ever been an airport where the dead acoustic spaces between the announcements of delays and cancellations have actually been occupied by that prototype of the electro-ambient – Brian Eno’s 1978 Music for Airports. A pretty conceit, but the fact is that this music has become fairly exclusively associated over the years with chillout zones and the kind of art galleries – Austria is full of them – that still exhibit a single spotlit pile of sand in the middle of a large darkened white otherwise empty space. Even in these frenzied times – perhaps precisely because they are so frenzied – there’s still clearly a place for the kind of music that assists in reaching for the centred stillness which is the aim of meditation, and, god knows, there’s a need for good music that can do this. I was unfortunate enough to find myself on the receiving end of some ‘Music for Healing’ during a session on my back recently, an experience that I can only describe as being tethered to a drooling lunatic who won’t stop humming.
Which brings me to David Sylvian.
Either you’ve continued to enjoy David Sylvian’s solo and collaborative work since the 1983 breakup of synth-rock pioneers, Japan, or you’ve not. If you have, you’ll find his song, Transit, which is the only vocal track on this album, a mellow melancholy meditation on the crumbling café-culture of Europe – all cigarette-stained walls, faded Jacques Brel posters and ten-years-old Tour de France calendars – accompanied by a portentous blitzkrieg of semi-melodic glitch-bolts, thrown rather languorously at the chanteur’s feet in some gleeful parody of payment. If not, you’ll be totally perplexed as to why such a load of pretentious old twaddle has been given such prominence in an otherwise blissfully luminous but almost loftily abstract album. Nice voice, nice song, shame about the lyrics – they needed to be in Armenian, or something: ‘Say your goodbyes to Europe / Our history dies with Europe’ – I mean – pu-leeeease! Somehow, though, the glaring gaffe of Transit only adds to the charm of the album overall – it’s as if your best mate’s father had dropped by and casually mentioned a long lost weekend with Joni Mitchell – deeply embarassing, but rather cool, nevertheless.
Much of the experience of listening to Venice is a kind of hide-and-seek with its sparse melodic sources (which was what made Endless Summer such fun, as well, of course) – a more or less frustrating attempt to discover the analogue sketch behind the digital overpaintings. Fennesz seems to be playing with the idea that the advent of the digital represents a boundary-layer between the older and the newer musics – one that remains permeable, but only in one direction – that of time’s arrow. Maybe this is what he means by the quote heading this review – that, whereas there’s no turning the clock back, it’s incumbent on electronic musicians not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Typically, for instance, the rhythm-track, such as it is, is moved so far back in the mix as to be virtually inaudible, or just barely present, as if someone were moving furniture around a couple of walls away. Rhythm is ancillary to atmosphere, always.
I’ve refrained from discussing individual tracks for the simple reason that I think Venice is a through-composed entity – ‘symphonic’ might be stretching it a bit far, but ‘organic’ is proper: and to select one track out of context, without reference to what precedes and succeeds it, would be to miss the point – that it’s about connecting the dots, not defining them. The process might be uneven – Fennesz is, after all, engaged in an experimental process, and, if only in the sense that he is trying to draw meaning out of this ongoing process, he is writing code – but the result, when it flows, is music that verges on the transcendent