Erratics: Surveying the landscape with Fennesz

By Mark Mushet

The track “Wind on Water” from the 1975 LP Evening Star by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno was probably the first notable attempt at evoking a specific sense of landscape using only electric guitar and an unstable process of electronic treatment. The cover features a lithograph by the German artist Peter Schmidt of an evening sunset over a body of water. It is considered a modern classic of the “ambient” genre.

Electronic musicians often associate their music with images of landscapes. But few create convincing music that expresses the ineffable qualities of the wilderness without resorting to dramatic cliche. A generation after Fripp and Eno, electronic musicians work with minds and bodies divided between city life and the landscapes they desire greater connection with. Urban dwellers steeped in the noise floor of city life can’t help but want some grit in their soundscapes. So many electronic musicians now meld some degree of noise into work that finally seems to reflect the immense and impossible beauty of the physical world we live in; inarticulate, immersive, a swarming of the senses. And images of sunsets on album covers don’t cut it anymore.

Germany’s Alva Noto, England’s Chris Herbert, and Canadians Tim Hecker and loscil all spring to mind as musicians who incorporate “noise” and/or treated field recordings into music that is connected in some way to landscape and place. Then there’s Christian Fennesz who played a startlingly loud set at the Western Front in the fall of 2010 using a guitar, laptop and some custom electronics. If you’re familiar with his work you’ll know of his fondness for sculpting dense slabs of sound with shifting melodic and harmonic interest that emerge and recede with little regard for metre.

I’d read an interview with Fennesz some time ago and was surprised to hear of his connection to the landscape of his homeland. He was born in Vienna and refers to the impact that the sound of wind across a lake has on him. “It has definitely been an influence. Whenever I go back I recognize it as the first sound; the wind on the water. The area I return to looks very different from the rest of Austria. Here you have mountains. There are no mountains where I come from. It’s very flat, more like Hungary. Austria has been a very big country once. Austria and Hungary were like brothers as one state.”

The Pacific Northwest is an exotic place in terms of its flora, fauna and geology. But I’ve rarely heard the place in any of the new music created here. I grew up in North Vancouver near canyons, forests, lakes, rivers and the ocean. Yet I prefer to listen to music created continents away. For example, Black Sea, Fennesz’ last album on the UK’s Touch label, speaks more to me than much of the music of our local scene. It’s thick with atmosphere that is compelling, invasive and indistinct. It gradually reveals larger shapes hewn from electric amplified vibrations and distortion. And throughout the recording there are intangible, unexpected bits created intentionally (and not) by the instability of his production and performance process. As for the title Black Sea, that may be seen as a nod to continuity and connection in that the Danube flows through his hometown and eventually empties into the Black Sea, which, like Austria, borders several different countries and cultures.

This past June I drove through the Grand Coulee area of Washington State, a dramatic sun-baked place carved by torrents of water and debris several times over during the last ice age. I listened to Black Sea during the drive and it was perfectly suited to the view of a long lake where the coulee invites and channels strong wind currents. Then something struck me; each unexpected, seemingly incongruous sound event, those bits, in the recording were equivalent to what geologists call “erratics”; boulders or other natural debris left in unusual unexpected places as the glaciers that shaped the larger forms of the landscape receded. I stopped to take the occasional photograph and this idea served to title some of the resulting images. The meaning of “erratic” has broadened to mean: “any material which is not native to the immediate locale, but has been transported from elsewhere.” On this visit I included objects in the compositions that are obliquely associated with the ongoing shaping of landscape by human activity. And in the American desert, there are always unexpected bits lying around, debris that is man-made, often shiny and broken and gradually receding into the whole.

About instability and those unexpected bits in the music, Fennesz explains: “It’s random like the landscape is. I don’t like perfection. It makes me nervous. It’s why my music has no clear rhythm. It’s more like there is a pulse that you have to find. But it is still there. It is equally so with the landscape. It’s random and never exactly the same…and it’s not in synch.”

Electronic musicians worldwide tend to access the same sound recording and shaping technology. They listen to a small pool of like-minded souls and often find themselves collaborating in person or virtually. Given how connected we all are, I wonder if it’s even possible for sonic landscapes to emerge that reflect distinctive regions. And in the end, does it matter?

Fennesz: “I’ve had strong bonds with people who’ve come from completely different parts of the world and we are like brothers. We’ve experienced similar things and the landscape, whatever it is, must have had a similar impact on them as well. You can’t describe it so easily. It’s an emotional process I guess. I can feel if someone has a good sense of imagination or not when they make music. I think that’s the point.”

In the thick, humid air on the night of September 26th, 2010, Fennesz convinced the sold-out house at the Front that just such a good sense of imagination was at work. There were no visuals; just Fennesz at a small table with laptop, guitar, mixing desk and effects pedals. As the audience filtered out into the dark I’d venture to guess there were many ears ringing with new associations.