Sonic Circuits Interview: Fennesz on Surfing, Technology, and the Elements
Last night's Sonic Circuits show at the Strathmore Mansion was a treat—and not just because the dark, wooden walls of the arts center's music room complemented the string-based openers.
The Low End String Quartet is a "reimagined" take on the string quartet; instead of cello and violin, there was a guitar and an upright bass. Janel and Anthony, a guitar and cello duo, followed, with a long set of minimalistic compositions. They were joined by pianist and electronic musician Arturas Bumsteinas, who tickled their songs with piano arpeggiations and sound glitches.
But the crowd reserved most of its anticipation for Christian Fennesz, who rarely performs in this country. The Austrian Fennesz is known for creating organic soundscapes with his electric guitar, pedals, and a laptop. Before his set, Fennesz spoke with Washington City Paper.
Washington City Paper: How did you decide to perform live with laptop and a guitar simultaneously?
Fennesz: Well, I got frustrated with the guitar, and the symbol of it. There was just, you know, so much noodling going on with it. When I started using software programs, I discovered a complete, new universe of making music. There's this certain sound that I want to make, and by using a laptop and a guitar, I can do that, with that combination of analog—the guitar—and digital—the computer. Then I have this whole network of pedals, guitar, and computer. It just becomes one big instrument.
WCP: What main software program do you use?
Fennesz: Maxim SP Max/MSP. With it, and my pedals, I can build effects and change things around. It's really like one, big studio in a box.
WCP: How do you seek out software and programs then? And with technology constantly changing and improving, do you upgrade frequently?
Fennesz: Well, I'm not a programmer. I'd rather spend my time making music, and using the programs, so I have programmers find and make programs for me. I do upgrade, a lot, because I like having state-of-the-art technology. The software gets more complex, and loses its compatibility with older computers. There'll be issues with RAM, and memory…so yes, I upgrade.
WCP: While you're creating new music, do you ever return to your older computer systems and software?
Fennesz: Yes, I do, because I'm familiar with how they work. And sometimes I like the limitation that older systems have. Looking back at when I started off, I think now that limitation can be a good thing. I mean, when you have everything you need, sometimes it's too much. It's interesting what limitation can do.
WCP: And while speaking about returning to things, do you ever listen back on older recordings?
Fennesz: No, I really can't listen to my old stuff. Except Endless Summer. To me, that album felt like pop music that had its own life. Like it was made by someone else. It's nice pop. Influences from Brian Wilson.
WCP: There are a lot of musicians that take influence from Brian Wilson, and The Beach Boys. Animal Collective, especially Panda Bear, have stated that before.
Fennesz: Yes, it's definitely true, The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson are influential. But it's good to know that they've been influential for a while, and that bands have been making music from that influence.
WCP: The title itself too, takes influence from a movie, right?
Fennesz: Yes, Endless Summer is a surfing movie. Wonderful documentation about surfing, people traveling just to look for that perfect wave.
WCP: So how did surf culture find a way into your album title?
Fennesz: Well, I was just really into surfing for a while, surfing in Bali, just for fun.
WCP: Water seems to be a recurrent theme in your music, mostly in your titles and album art, and parallel, receding lines.
Fennesz: The album art, that's a special part of Touch Label. I just let the art director take control there, since he's got a certain aesthetic, but we definitely talk about things first. Whereas water, it's always had an influence on me. I grew up by a lake, and loved the sounds of water and wind. Just being able to hear the elements at an early age like that was great.
WCP: So are you trying to recreate those sounds in your music?
Fennesz: I think I'm just more so influenced by those sounds.
Photo by Jonathan L. Fischer's BlackBerry. Video by Andrew Noz.