Next Friday, March 7 as part of our ongoing Vienna: City of Dreams festival, Fennesz salutes the universality of fellow Austrian Gustav Mahler in a remixed interpolation of the composer’s oeuvre, visualized by the German digital abstractionist Lillevan, to show Mahler’s enduring influence in modern life, both in the creative incubator of Vienna and around the world.
The route to becoming one of the world’s preeminent electronic musicians was by no means direct for Christian Fennesz. He started guitar lessons at a young age, studied ethnomusicology in college, and later—in the 1990s—became a fixture in Vienna’s experimental rock scene. It was only in the subsequent decade that, frustrated with the confines of the rock studio, he found himself gravitating towards the techno sphere, where he could devise his own production techniques at home. Over the next few years, Fennesz developed a unique and immediately identifiable electronic sound palette: an intricate wash of reverberating melodies, disrupted by heavy distortion and glitchy artifacts.
When prompted, Fennesz cites a myriad of influences, among them The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, and John Cage—all of which are identifiable in his individual soundscape. The prevalent distortion owes a debt to Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine, the general appreciation for noise and experimentalism to John Cage, and the preservation of melody to The Beatles and The Beach Boys. Fennesz hides these melodies beneath layers of fuzz and glitch, but their sheer presence sets his work apart from much of the experimental electronic scene.
Collaboration is a vital aspect of Fennesz’s output. He has worked with scores of other musicians, from the electro-pop band Yellow Magic Orchestra, to the experimental singer-songwriter Sparklehorse, to the noise artist Merzbow. His collaborations extend into the visual domain, as he provides soundtracks for a number of film producers and has enlisted various video artists to provide images for his sounds. [The March 7 performance's] projections are by Lillevan, a Berlin-based animator and media artist who excels at extricating a certain musicality out of moving imagery. Lillevan and Fennesz both speak of the “archaeological” process of their work, of uncovering pre-existing footage (for Lillevan) or sounds (for Fennesz) and placing them in new contexts. But while a true archaeologist rehabilitates his found objects—repairing them, polishing them, perhaps putting them on display in a museum—these artists find beauty in leaving them cracked and caked in dirt.
When Vienna’s lied lab 2011: gustav mahler festival set out to find an artist who could provide a Mahler-inspired piece to complement the composer’s song cycle oeuvre, Fennesz was an intriguing fit. He was best known for his experimental “covers” of pop tunes (such as The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” and A-ha’s “Take on Me”) and had not often engaged classical material or themes. But it was clear that the music of Mahler, a fellow Viennese who himself could evoke a nostalgic aura through oceanic masses of sound, would be a perfect subject for Fennesz.
In Mahler Remixed, Fennesz uses the fin de siècle composer’s work as a jumping-off point, but the sonic result is undeniably Fenneszian rather than Mahlerian: A crackly, ambient, microtonal texture dominates, and harmonies don’t so much progress as evolve. In addition to performing on the guitar (usually his Fender Stratocaster), Fennesz manipulates all of the sounds in real time, via the laptop program Max/MSP. Lillevan’s projections, also live-processed, provide the perfect accompaniment, smoothly layering and crossfading natural images through selfconsciously digital manipulation.
Now and then, clear samples of Mahler’s music emerge, momentarily brushing off the pervasive blankets of noise. Perhaps most recognizable is a slice of the famous Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony—a passage where Mahler’s blissful melancholy seems just as at home with Fennesz.
© 2014 The Carnegie Hall Corporation