Listening Notes: Christian Fennesz’s Agora (2019)

by David Taylor

Austrian experimental guitarist and composer Christian Fennesz has, for 25 years, made music that decomposes and reconstitutes popular and rock-and-roll musical idioms. His first EP, Fennesz Plays (Mego, 1995) consists of two tracks: “Paint it Black” and “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder).

The originals of those songs were both released in 1966, and they emblematize the Janus-faced nature of popular music in that moment: on one side Brian Wilson’s plaintive vocals awash in syrupy strings; on the other Mick Jagger’s paranoid snarl tangled up in Keith Richards’ open-tuned riffs. On Fennesz Plays, these two iconic songs get rewired to transmit frequencies of postmodern commotion and premillennial disquiet—there's an ebullience to Fennesz’s noisy meta-pop adaptations, but along with that comes an anxious realization that the quaint lyricism of the originals is no longer accessible. The guitars—central on both tracks—are routed through a series of defamiliarizing effects; the chords emerge atomized, shattered, stretched and fuzzed out, surrounded by digital noise, punctuated by arrhythmic percussion.

Since that first record Fennesz has continued this work of musical deterritorialization. Endless Summer (Mego, 2001) again looks back to the sun-drenched vibe of the Beach Boys:

This album comes to us crackling through a slightly mistuned AM radio in the window of a Hong Kong high-rise while scenes from Bruce Brown’s landmark ’60s surf documentary flicker on a nearby TV.

On Mahler Remixed (recorded 2011; released Touch, 2016), Fennesz extends his adaptive project beyond popular and rock music to the arch-romanticism of fellow Austrian composer, Gustav Mahler. The results are consistent with earlier work: as the soaring strings and dense orchestral harmonies of the musical source material get pulverized, suspended in digital space, and reconfigured, the structures of feeling associated with the music are remade also. Mahler’s late-romantic/proto-modern lyricism is repurposed as material for a postmodern soundscape at once luxurious and anxious.

The new record, Agora (Touch, 2019) obliquely continues this referential thread, as at least one reviewer has pointed out. More directly, it picks up on another feature of Fennesz’s catalogue: the attention to place and space. I already mentioned Endless Summer, which evokes a hallucinatory coast situated at the intersection of 1960s Long Beach and 2050s Sai Kung. Then there’s Venice (Touch, 2004) and Black Sea (Touch, 2008), records that demonstrate the composer’s affinity for more concretely ‘real’ maritime settings, as evidenced by the presence of site-specific field recordings—Black Sea opens with the sound of waves and wind, which is notable since Fennesz uses field recordings far less than many of his peers. These two albums also sound pelagic: half-remembered melodies drift across waves of distortion, buoyed along by swaying bass-lines. The music is fluid, but it's also curiously static. If Fennesz’s approach to the musical past is to transform and disfigure it in flight toward new forms of expression, then these records demonstrate a similar approach to geography, as the coordinates and specificities of place get dissolved and flow out into oceans of pure sound.

The title of the newest album hints at more abstract spatial considerations: not a singular locale, but a type or genre of place, a notional place with multiple outposts in the real. In interviews, Fennesz has said that Agora came about because he lost access to a full recording studio and was forced to work at home. The first track, “In My Room,” seems to speak to that contingency. But where other bedroom-produced records trade on the hushed attentiveness of intimate spaces, this track and the others on Agora are more about extimacy. “In My Room” is twelve minutes long and fully enmeshed in an energy similar to Vangelis’s Blade Runner (1982) soundtrack, more readily evoking stark, brutalist exteriors than than the comforts of home and hearth. Musically it's the opposite of small; it's grand, sprawling, vast. When the expressive lead fully emerges (around the two minute mark) it rises from layers of synthetic harmony with the towering alien sublimity of a neon mountain.

The next track, “Rainfall,” and the title track which follows add to the sense of traveling through sonic spaces curiously abstracted from any determinants of place. The closing track, “We Trigger The Sun,” completes this movement, taking listeners out of the pseudo-domestic and public spheres of “In My Room” and “Agora,” and into a weirdly intimate cosmic outside. The composition refers back to all the elements of previous tracks: icy synths, heavily effected guitar chords, wavering basslines. The elements are arranged into a kind of elliptical pattern that's retrospective, even retrograde—appropriate given the geocentric orientation suggested by the track’s title. By the time “We Trigger The Sun” ends Agora has turned the quasi-space it started from inside out. Rather than starting with a (musical or geographic) commonplace and rearticulating it in a new idiom, here Fennesz works in reverse, creating an augmented-reality agora by deeply estranging the inside of his own home studio.

The structure of Agora taken as a whole works to dislocate the listening experience: it’s not a droning monolith of sound that always orients you back toward the ground note. Nor is it a series of brief glitch-pop sketches with advertised changes of scenery. Instead it's a deliberate sequence of meditative ten-minute movements that open, develop, and fade as one track bleeds into the next. There’s almost nothing percussive here, no rhythmic grid to measure one's progress. After even five minutes of listening it’s hard to say where you are: dislocation doesn’t necessarily mean you’re now elsewhere, and continuity doesn’t mean you’re still on the same track.