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Hidden Melodies: An Interview with Christian Fennesz

Black Sea

Christian Fennesz’s latest album, Black Sea wraps translucent melodies with swathes of gauze and static, guitar chords rising out of indeterminate washes of sound. It’s a beautiful, serene sort of music, like the end of a dream when you begin to incorporate real-world noises into an ongoing narrative, and Fennesz says that both elements — the melody and the fuzzy scrim that hides it — are important to him.

“I’m not afraid of melodies,” he explained in a recent telephone interview that was, itself, occasionally obscured by static. “But I do like music where you can really search for something within the sound, where there is a melody buried within something completely different. I don’t like things that are too clear and too easy to find.” He added, “For me, it’s always interesting and challenging to hide a melody. How to hide it and how much to show and how much to hide … all these processes keep me interested in the music.”

Fennesz has been making music since his teenage years, studying the guitar at school in his native Austria, and moving gradually away from guitar-based rock into more electronically derived and experimental sounds. Yet with Black Sea you can hear more of the guitar, pared back to essential, meditative tones.

“I had gotten to the point where I could play the guitar really well — really fast solos, for instance,” he said. “It really took me a while to get rid of all this because the guitar became a monster cliché. That’s why I completely abandoned it for a while and just worked on the laptop for a few years when I played live. But then I came back because I missed some of the things about it. I came back to the guitar, but play it extremely simply. Now I’m able to play just one or two chords and I’m fine, you know.”

Yet while his new album has, perhaps, a bit more guitar, it also contains sounds and instruments that don’t exist in the real world, that can be created only with laptop and specialized software. The bell-like sound at the beginning of “Saffron Revolution”, for instance, were created by a modeling synthesis program that Fennesz began using with Black Sea. “It’s quite new synthesis principle and really interesting,” he says. “It allows you to create virtual instruments that don’t exist in reality, so, in that case, something in between a gong and a flute.” He used the program in other places on the album. In “Grey Scale” for instance, there is a sound underneath nylon string guitar that could be a stringed instrument or some sort of organ, but is actually neither. It’s a construct, instead, of Fennesz’s newly acquired software.

Asked how long it takes to incorporate a new tool like this into his music, Fennesz says, “Fairly quickly, actually. You know, I’ve been doing this for so many years … since I discovered the effects box, really.” And, as when he is working with physical instruments, the process often begins with unstructured experimentation. “I play around with the software, and when I find something I like, I use it,” he says. “I’m not really studying it, but I can immediately find something for me that I can use.”

Fennesz says that sometimes, when he begins working, he has an idea already and works to realize it, but often, his compositions come out of long improvisation sessions in the studio he rents in Vienna or the home recording set-up at his Paris apartment. “The record button is always on,” he says. “I’m just playing around, for hours and hours, and I might find something that sounds interesting to me and that I can start with.”

The music that Fennesz creates seems to evoke the natural world — conjuring waves, winds, clouds, and landscapes. The sea, in particular, seems to be part of his sonic palette. There are seagull cries, recorded from a Portugal hotel room, at the beginning of “Black Sea”, and the subliminal surf sounds in other places on the album. The cover of the album, by artist Jon Wozencroft, shows a watery mud-flat stretching to the horizon, the city of London just visible in the distance.

Asked whether he’d been thinking about water during the recording sessions, he seems bemused at first. “I don’t know … I think, so, yes,” he says, adding, “I grew up on a very big lake in Austria and the water was always, through all my childhood, was always near. And the sound of the water and the sound of the wind was something that was really inspiring through all of my life. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to those kinds of sounds.”

Conceptually, it seems odd that such natural sounds come out of computers and effects-altered guitars, yet Fennesz brushes off questions about the relationship between nature and technology. “It’s just the way I work, for me,” he says. “The way I work with computers and guitars, for me that’s just a perfect solution. I like traditional recording. I like traditional playing, acoustic classical guitar playing. But I also like exploring new software on a computer, playing around with it. For me, both things are really important and interesting.”

Fennesz says he’s pleased with the way Black Sea turned out, a bit different from earlier works like Venice and Endless Summer, but still recognizably his own. “To me it sounds actually quite laid back, and I’m happy about that,” he explains. “It doesn’t sound nervous or ambitious. Which makes me quite satisfied and happy.”

Black Sea also sounds like a cohesive work, each track leading to the next in a progression. “The album just unfolded like that while I was producing it,” says Fennesz. At the beginning, I didn’t know how it was going to sound. I didn’t have a concept or whatever. I just kept on working and then suddenly, I realized that it’s more like one long piece, not many tracks. Although, of course, tracks can stand for themselves. But I think maybe for the first time, the album works as one piece.”

There’s no linear narrative to Black Sea, but rather a consistent atmosphere, which Fennesz says he refined during composition and recording. “As soon as I had four or five tracks really, the next one would be a response to what I had already done,” he said. “I was trying to have a clear, steady line. I didn’t want big breaks. It had to be like a film.”

All kinds of inspirations went into Black Sea, from the countries Fennesz has visited, to the music he has been listening to, to the many and varied musicians he has been collaborating with. “I learn so much from working with other artists,” he says. “With Mike Patton for example … we’re touring together in Europe and we’re doing live shows, completely improvised. There’s so much energy.” And, at the other end of the scale, Fennesz’s work with Ryiuchi Sakamoto has taught the value of silence.

As we speak, Fennesz has just finished a remix for Bloc Party, and scored a new film Welt Spiegel Kino for Austrian film-maker Gustav Deustsch. He was getting ready to travel to Knoxville, Tennessee to play the Big Ears Festival with Mark Linkous and Scott Minor of Sparklehorse.

Performing live? On real instruments? In front of audiences? Wouldn’t he rather be holed up in a quiet studio somewhere? Actually, says Fennesz, he’s grown to love live performance.

“In the beginning, I thought I would never play. I thought that I can’t make music except in a studio. That you release records and that’s it,” he says. “But I’ve been playing so much live now, the last ten years, and I’ve enjoyed it more and more and kind of need it. I always think, it’s like a painter, an artist who has to bring his pictures to a gallery or an actor who has to go on stage.”