Styles: touch therapy
Others: Gerard Manley Hopkins
1. To talk about “texture” at the start of something like this is to start daubing off squares on the Fennesz Review Game of Bingo at a pretty fast clip, but even 13 years on from Endless Summer, Fennesz is without peer when it comes to transforming the “material” possibilities of music (as Adorno would have it) into the sensation of actual material, the physical world. It is tactile without being sensual, a catalogue of touch-memory and sensory experience. At points, listening to Bécs is to hear gauze become gossamer, and feel it too. When I scroll through the things I take for granted, my sense of touch is probably right between my brother and the long-term nature of my student loan arrangements, but if I lose it, Fennesz is probably the closest thing I’ve got to re-experiencing what it is to feel things against me.
2. Plenty of guitarists before Fennesz had found ways to peel away the mind-forged manacles of the instrument, to trace out that journey from “tool” to “my tool.” “Blessed State” by Wire made the guitar trill like a rivulet of water down a dashboard of an abandoned Mazda by the side of the M1, a sound so perfectly formed I don’t know if I’ve ever come across it again. Glenn Branca extended the guitar’s possibilities to jamming your head down a barrel of fireworks with a bunch of lit matches in your hair. Fennesz’s mission is equal parts invention and archaeology; he could play with precisely the tone used in “Cherry Pie” by Warrant and I am completely certain that he would make me feel a thing without even thinking of Warrant. He probably already has. In “Static Kings,” he reclaims the awful and queasy guitar tone you find on the ballads of late-period Cure albums. In his hands, his guitar becomes divorced from “the guitar.” Fenneszplayinguitar.
3. Bécs has been cited as a “sequel” to Endless Summer, and with the retromania happening everywhere, why the hell not? Wang-diddle-do. You don’t need a gimmick to sell a Fennesz album considering they’re as rare as hen’s teeth, but it feels of a piece, the other side of the coin. Bécs is Hungarian for Vienna, where Fennesz hails from, and the relationship of this album to Endless Summer works in the way the name of your home in an unfamiliar tongue forces you to reapprehend your own vision of it. The dominant theme here is of the sense of recasting the original approach, adding tumbling live drums in the huge “Liminality,” playing with the chop of the wave rather than the swell of the surf. He adds tumbling live drums in the huge “Liminality,” renders his guitar a liquid sword slicing huge swatches of chords in the astonishing “Static Kings,” before curling it into a mattress spring in “The Liar.” This is a sweatier, stranger summer.
4. Why do we take pains to describe the sound of experimental music to each other? As Dewey has it in Art as Experience, the art isn’t the object; it’s the relationship between the subject and object formed from observation, from experience. Besides that, describing the lift and drift of something like “Liminality” feels plain boring. On a different step of the same semantic Escher staircase, I don’t know if it makes much sense to compare Fennesz to other musicians, even. Like, he has contemporaries, but they’re out ploughing their own fields. Jim O’Rourke is to Fennesz what Byron was to Gerard Manley Hopkins. If you’re in the mood, you don’t listen to Fennesz as much as you do wade into it, in the same way one might with Seamus Heaney. Consider “Oyster”:
My tongue was a filling estuary,
My palate hung with starlight:
As I tasted the salty Pleiades
Orion dipped his foot into the water.
The fleshy, tender sprawl of his language puts the oyster in your mouth in the same way Fennesz conjures and brings the world of touch to your ears, drawing a synesthetic arc between the senses. While Heaney ends that poem with a plea to make himself “pure verb” through his poetry, Fennesz makes pure nouns happen, and sometimes even creates them; the weird, unhappy stillness of “Pallas Athene” is a noun I’ve not yet identified.
5. Sassure split language into two: langue, the overarching system; and parole, the speech act. Bécs finishes with “Parole,” and it’s illuminating in more ways than one. It’s almost the only time the guitar goes untreated, and the shock of hearing this little composed fugue for solo acoustic guitar feels like Fennesz reminding you that, in his world, this system of langue, everything remains possible from and rooted in the parole of the humble guitar singing out. It closes on a ringing chord, which is maybe the most rockist gesture he’s made so far.
6. I’m sitting here with my MacBook and what, to a discerning eye from a distance of maybe seven or eight meters, could be assumed to be a black Fender Stratocaster (it’s actually a cheap Hannah Montana guitar with stars in place of the dots on the frets, and the worst $35 i’ve ever dropped). So, I have here with me, within touching distance, what are essentially the tools Christian Fennesz uses when he makes an album, and now as I listen to the surge and chug of “Bécs,” I am getting cognitive dissonance like you wouldn’t even believe right now. How? How? I’m sure he has enough guitar pedals to provide ashtrays for an army, but that’s neither here nor there. What the real triumph of experimental art like this narrows down to is something kind of specific; it reorients the potential relationship one has with their tools. Experimental art is forbidding because it is a pathbreaker, giving the rest of us new languages to run with, to express ourselves in ways that only really forge paths inwards or bridge together other ones; the harshness of Throbbing Gristle made blasting Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” at your wedding possible, after all, putting the BDSM in pop. If each Fennesz album seems better than the last, it’s because the world is catching up, and if it’s hard to find much to get surprised about on Bécs, that isn’t something that’s got a lot to do with Christian Fennesz. As the shock of the new wears off, other qualities rise, like the profound psychological loneliness living in Warhol’s Screen Tests beneath the delicious emptiness of the concept. What Duchamp did for the urinal was to give it a whole new shade of purpose; what Fennesz does with his tools is to reimbue the played-out guitar and the dull hollow computer with shafts of light, of possibility. The laptop is a holy, foreign thing; light-bringer, transformation machine, equal parts Yahoo Answers and beatific splendor, your cyborg better half. Listen to Bécs and wonder a little at where you can take yours again, and vice versa.
01. Static Kings
02. The Liar
04. Pallas Athene