In conversation with Christian Fennesz

23 February 2017

On the occasion of Austrian musician Christian Fennesz and visual artist Lillevan’s live performance of Mahler Remixed in Rome (28 February 2017, Main Hall of the Sapienza, Rome) – a personal reinterpretation of the syphonies of the celebrated composer Gustav Mahler using the sounds of electronic processing and colored abstract visuals that has drawn accolades around the world – NERO presents musicologist Simone Caputo’s interview with Fennesz.        

In 2011, coinciding with the one hundredth anniversary of the death of Gustav Mahler and ten years after an unsuccessful first attempt, Christoph Thun Hohenstein from the creative agency Departure commissioned Christian Fennesz to make a reworking of the celebrated composer’s symphonies. Out of this emerged four long remixes, created in collaboration with visual artist Lillevan and performed live in Vienna (Konzerthaus), New York (Carnegie Hall) and Istanbul (Borusan Art Centre). The performance was recorded in May 2011 and released in 2014. Almost in deference to the romantic symphonic tradition, Mahler Remixed is divided into four movements with varying durations. Fennesz takes the symphonies, dissects them and creates – mixing and treating the original fragments with those of processed guitars, digital sounds and various noises – something which is unrecognizable from the original material, overturning atmospheres and initial intentions.
Simone Caputo: In your 1995 solo debut Instrumental you experimented with a number of sound solutions that range from evocative atmospheres to more pacey, excited passages, skimming through distorted frequencies and guitar harmonics played on flickering rhythms. How did your experience with the noise-jazz trio Maische influence these first experiments with fragmented frequencies?

Christian Fennesz: The band’s influence wasn’t too strong on that record. I really wanted to take my guitar playing a step further by using samplers and sequencers. It was still pre laptop. I was just using an ensoniq sampler and an Atari computer.

S.C.: Even though your work focuses on an in-depth segmentation of sound through the use of a glitch aesthetic and digital noise, you have always managed to preserve a certain taste for calm, clear, sometimes elusive melodic inflections, often hidden in the ever-changing magma of digital eruptions. Within your musical realm what kinds of relationships exist between noise, melody and harmony?

C.F.
: Noise, melody and harmony are equally important to me. I enjoy experimenting with noise but a good melody will always be the most important thing.

S.C.: The release of your 2001 album Endless summer sent ripples throughout the digital scene with its staggered rhythms, fleeting yet vivid guitar melodies and echoing vibraphone – a work that clearly was created with an eye towards the past, as if trying to retrieve traces of long-lost stories. How did you face this pop-oriented challenge?

C.F.: At the time what people where doing was all abstract computer experiments I thought. Fair enough and very interesting. But I thought I better go the soulful way. I grew up with music from the 60s and 70s.
So I put traces of 70s fm radio on sandpaper…

S.C.:With your 2004 album Venice you went back to working on digital textures and their underlying dynamics, treating sound as it were subject to the ebb and flow of constant expansions, a slow-crumbling surface, a decadent city worn away by the waters of time. How did you manage to obtain tracks that seem to grow from the inside without any apparent orbiting focal points?

C.F.: The music in Venice is very “free floating.” There are not many metric references. It was rather difficult to make. Mixing was the key. It’s probably the biggest multi-track session I have done.

S.C.: Over the course of your career you have met many musicians with musical backgrounds distant from your own like Polwechsel, Jim O’Rourke and David Sylvian. Does this somehow allow you to perceive your music differently and project it outside of any genre categorization?

C.F.: Collaboration is learning for me. It helps me grow as a musician. I am very grateful that I can work with all these wonderful musicians.

S.C.: In one of your first 7” works, Plays, you offered a reinterpretation of Paint it Black by The Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys’ Don’t Talk, constructing them on impressions and intuitions yet maintaining some of the originals’ vibes and tonalities. One could say that through this operation you created more of a personal transcription than actual covers of the songs in question. In 2011 you approached Gustav Mahler’s symphonic work (resulting in the 2014 Mahler Remixed album) applying a similar process. Why Mahler? What criteria did you use in choosing the samples to work on? What logic defined your personal relation with the world-renowned Austrian composer?

C.F.: Mahler Remixed is an ongoing work in progress since 2002. First it was a commission from the Austrian cultural forum /New York. In 2011 we continued and made a dvd (Lillevan and I). I was never a Mahler expert. As it was a commissioned work, I took it as a challenge.

S.C.: One of the most striking aspects of Mahler remixed is the almost complete absence of the tangled tensions that run throughout Mahler’s creative process, the transformation of insurmountable dramas into expanses at times languid and celestial through an applied deceleration of the original dynamics. If this is indeed true, what brought you to this artistic path?

C.F.: I am a much lesser composer than Mahler and would never dare to compare myself to that genius. I could only approach the project by using my own tools and work routines that are far less complex. But its my style. In the end its a remix.

S.C.: Do you nurture a specific interest in the more scenic aspects of live performing? How did Lillevan’s visuals become a part of Mahler Remixed? Are they conceived simply as a sort of accompaniment? Or are they meant to contribute in the “manipulation” of sound through image stratification?

C.F.: I wanted to make it the most opulent and symphonic I can. Lillevan’s visuals are perfect for this. Give him a big screen and he becomes a magician.