Christian Fennesz & Ryuichi Sakamoto Flumina

[Touch; 2011]

Styles: ambient, light, salon, background
Others: Erik Satie, Brian Eno, Yellow Magic Orchestra

Flumina is the third collaboration between Christian Fennesz and Ryuichi Sakomoto. And it’s much more in the vein of 2007’s Cendre than their live outing from a few years before that, Sala Santa Cecilia. Where Sala Santa Cecilia was a lush and noisy record, constantly shifting between dense electronic clatter and distorted quiet, Flumina is overtly ambient: a subtle dialogue between Sakomoto’s artful piano meanderings and Fennesz’s atmospheric fuzz.

In fact, Flumina is a ‘concept’ or ‘process’ record in two senses. First, because each of the 24 tracks is in a different key, the intention being to represent each hue and shade of the quarter-tone scale. Second, because each was arrived at by the same dialectical method. Sakomoto would record the piano parts while on tour in Japan, send Fennesz the tracks via email, and he would add a bit of drone on his guitar and laptop at home in Austria before, finally, they got together in person in New York to mix the whole record down.

Unfortunately, the concept’s pretty much the most interesting thing about it. Flumina does nothing for me, and although I’m struggling to work out why, my hunch is that it has something to do with ambience.

Adorno’s brilliant and polemical essay from 1938 On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening (PDF link) covers a hell of a lot of ground. It’s virtuosic, a masterpiece of critique that comes close to an entire sociology of music in a scant 30 pages. While many of Adorno’s arguments may not endear themselves to the 21st-century reader, in terms of rigor and passion alone, it’s hard not to be impressed.

One of the more well-known targets of the essay is what Adorno calls “light” music. Whereas “the history of serious music since Mozart” can be understood, Adorno argues, as a “flight from the banal,” the commodification of music and the birth of the culture industry instigated a reversal of that trend: not just a degradation in the quality of music being consumed and produced, but the structural regression of listening itself. “In one of his essays,” Adorno muses,

Aldous Huxley has raised the question of who, in a place of amusement, is really being amused. With the same justice, it can be asked whom music for entertainment still entertains. Rather, it seems to complement the reduction of people to silence, the dying out of speech as expression, the inability to communicate at all. It inhabits the pockets of silence that develop between people molded by anxiety, work and undemanding docility. Everywhere it takes over, unnoticed, the deadly sad role that fell to it in the time and the specific situation of the silent films. It is perceived purely as background.

Today, we recognize Adorno’s argument here as a critique of ‘ambient’ music or muzak — pop as the sonic accompaniment to shopping (PDF link), driving, work, exercise, eating, partying, or whatever the case may be: a capitalist technology of affect modulation. It’s a familiar logic by this point. But also one that we’re far less resistant to these days than Adorno was. Partly that’s because we simply don’t have a choice anymore, but it’s also partly because — thanks, no doubt, to the likes of Adorno — we’ve become better listeners — more capable of switching listening practices as the context demands, able to listen carefully when it counts.

Not only that, but Satie, Eno, drone, and minimal techno have taught us to valorize ambience itself for its own sake. In fact, ambient is practically the new highbrow. When I saw Tony Conrad and Charlemagne Palestine perform a four-hour-long concert of ultra-subtly-shifting tone-palettes of violin, piano, and church organ, it certainly felt that way, both in terms of the demographic of the audience and the mood of the evening. These days, ambient is serious stuff. Sometimes, contra Adorno, there really can be depth to ‘banality’: ‘lightness’ can elevate the soul.

I’m totally on board with that. In the right place, at the right time, ambient music (I’m using the term deliberately broadly here) can be transcendent. The Conrad and Palestine gig was amazing. The question is, though: Where does ambient end and plain old boring begin? In other words, how light is too light? In a genre that expressly advocates distraction, or at least the constant interplay between distraction and a more focused form of listening — where noticing your attention fade in and out is part of the pleasure — what happens when the music disappears completely? And how as critics are we meant to judge a form of musical expression that explicitly subverts so many of our usual criteria for evaluation?

To bring us back to Flumina, then, I’m not (just) asking why two such accomplished musicians would make such a dull record. There are plenty of possible reasons there. What I’m wondering is what it could even mean to accuse an overtly ambient record of being boring. How do you critique something on the basis of what it perceives to be its own virtues? And especially when, in other circumstances, you’re perfectly happy to accept them as virtues yourself? Can you really critique an ambient record for failing to hold your attention? Or, if you do, does that just prove that you weren’t listening correctly to begin with?

Flumina drifts. It’s artful and peaceful and hazy and calm. Its texture and dynamics are both pretty constant, and even though the piano moves between Shostakovich and Gershwin and the background music to that film I can’t quite place, it never really feels like much changes. Certainly, the modulations in Fennesz’s woozy atmospherics are extremely fine-grained.

But after all, that’s the point, isn’t it? This album’s about mood, vibe: ambience. And that leaves me in a critical catch-22. On one hand, I’m tempted to get all curmudgeonly and Adorno-like on Flumina and lambast its composers for producing such a redundant record. But I feel hamstrung. If I’m prepared to endorse the values it embodies in other contexts, which I am, I simply don’t know where to locate my critical purchase. Flumina does exactly what it’s meant to. Which is not very much. And on this occasion, I’m afraid to say, that also feels like not enough.

Links: Touch

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