BIG EARS 09: Fennesz

The abstract, atmospheric music of Christian Fennesz

The name may be unfamiliar, but the Austrian sound-sculptor who performs under his surname as Fennesz (his Christian name is Christian) is one of the most imitated, influential electronic artists in the world. It's not incidental or coincidental that Fennesz will be performing three times during the Big Ears festival, both opening and closing the festival.

Debuting in 1997 with Hotel Paral.lel, a noisy electronic album that grew out of but also transcended the glitch-based side of the IDM scene, he achieved wider fame and acclaim following 2001's Endless Summer, an album that will likely stand as one of the most sublime touchstones of turn-of-the-century popular music. But 2004's Venice moved even further in the direction of the soothing tones and melodic underpinnings of its predecessor, and even featured vocals—a first for a Fennesz album—courtesy of David Sylvian, singer for the New Romantic pop group Japan.

Late last year came the highly-acclaimed Black Sea, which is Fennesz's most accomplished, thematically coherent recording to date. Beginning with the 10-minute ambient title track, the record groans and glides along for an hour, displaying a softer sheen than his previous work, while still retaining his signature sound.

"Of course I know I had many followers after Endless Summer," Fennesz says via phone form his home in Austria, when asked if his many imitators led him to consciously change his sound. "That's fine, that's great, but it's not really related to what I did with this album. For me it has to be something new, and the whole feeling behind the Black Sea album was a different one. Don't ask me what it is, because I don't know.... I have very abstract ideas, atmospheric feelings, when I start out, and during the work it kind of unfolds and things become clearer."

Fennesz's music is difficult to describe to those who have never experienced it. It bears some relation to the ambient music pioneered by Brian Eno and others; it also retains some resemblance to fellow computer-composing electronic artists like Aphex Twin, Oval, or Pita, but it's unique for its reliance on guitars for its source material. A veteran of punk bands since his early teens, Fennesz was also a member of several Viennese underground bands in the early '90s, which he says were heavily influenced by the guitar sound of Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine. That influence can still be heard in the walls of guitars and distortion he manipulates through a computer, with certain tracks sounding like parts of Loveless or Bad Moon Rising isolated and put through a glitch blender.

"It's not really possible to [recreate album tracks]," he says. "I would say 70 to 80 percent is improvised. But I always use the same sounds; I have a bank of samples I use. What I'm trying to do is recreate the atmosphere of a track I've done before, and I think when people hear it, they recognize the sounds if they're familiar with the track. It's like creating a new mix anytime I play live."

Fennesz will open the festival at the Bijou on Friday night, perform in an improv trio on Saturday, and close the festival on Sunday night in a collaboration with Mark Linkous and Scott Minor of Sparklehorse. Fennesz and Linkous have collaborated before, most notably for a still-unreleased session of Amsterdam's In the Fishtank recordings, but this is the first time they will perform together in the United States.

"We have a week to rehearse, and that's not a long time, because we haven't been playing together for a long time," Fennesz says. "I'm curious, actually. I don't really know what we're going to do, but it's going to be fun at least."