Gustav Mahler – Remix

Electronic composer-guitarist Christian Fennesz reinventing the master: Poetic lines in chime-like microtones, mystic or maniacal

Austrian electronic composer guitarist Christian Fennesz with German digital abstractionist Lillivan | Photo: Tav Falco

It takes 230 people to fill the broadcast auditorium of the ORF Radiokulturhaus on Argentinierstrasse. Built in 1947, just after the war, its rich woods and brass of the late Bauhaus added to the sense of time-bending, as fans crowded into the leather and wood seats for another in the week-long Lied Lab: Gustav Mahler Festival series, celebrating the centennial of the composer’s death. In the end, nearly every seat would be filled for this series highlight, crossing eras, idioms and instruments, an innovative project by the City of Vienna’s “Departure” program supporting creative industries, in cooperation with the Austrian National Broadcaster, the ORF.

Of the five events in the Lied Lab (Song Lab) series, this evening was certainly an exception, devoted not to Mahler’s work as written, but to a remix interpolation of his oeuvre by the Austrian electronic composer-guitarist Christian Fennesz and visualized by the German digital abstractionist, Lillevan. Himself a leading composer at the forefront of the electronic avant-garde, Fennesz understands the daunting task of re-contextualising the symphonies of a great musician.

“It was incredibly difficult to work with music that was already perfect,” Fennesz said. “I have the greatest respect for the composer, but ultimately could not improve the music. I only had to pick out parts here and there.”

Fennesz had studied music and ethnomusicology at an early age, but it was his training on the electric guitar, begun when he was only eight, that was the real beginning of his musical life. By the late Eighties he was playing in rock bands, but tired of the limitations and the timeworn symbolism of rock electric guitar. Soon he became an habitué of the Blue Box, the seminal underground alternative club in Vienna’s Seventh District. It was here in the 1990s that he encountered a DJ named Peter Rehberg, who was “spinning industrial electronic ambient grooves.” Rehberg would become the founder of Mego Records and would release the first albums of Fennesz computer-composed, guitar-layered tracks.

In 2001 Mego Records broke through with the release of the Fennesz-produced album, Endless Summer. With its layering of sparkling glitches, those microtonal breaks, like sparks flying, that characterize the idiom, and textured electric guitar distortions roiling under electronic aquamarine waves of deconstructed pop melodies, influenced by Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and his own days surfing off the shores of Bali, Fennesz had created an album unlike any other, and one that would establish him in the world of experimental music.

After Endless Summer, numerous album releases, prestigious collaborations and acclaimed performances on the stages of Europe, America and Japan, Fennesz came back to Europe, dividing his time between Paris and Vienna. For weeks he composed, deconstructed and interpolated, infusing his Mahler remix with transcendent, yet contemplative figures, evoking an alchemy of sounds into the dark corners of his underground studio – his “cave” on Neustiftgasse not far from the former atelier of Josef Hoffmann and the Wiener Werkstaette. An engraved placard over the corridor leading to the studio reads: ATHENE – the goddess of wisdom keeping watch.

Fennesz shared the Radiokulturhaus stage with the Berlin based video artist Lillevan at his side. Known for recombining and politicizing existing film images and fragments, Lillevan unfolded a newly invented visual approach to the Song Lab remix of Mahler.

“The aesthetics of the image are not to be found in its beauty, density and completeness,” he wrote on his website, “but in its transparencies and potentials.”

Dressed in black suits the artists ascended the platform and approached their laptops. As their fingers touched the keys a psychotropic soundscape began to unfold with fragile insistency. The dialog between the visual and musical electronic artists seemed highly synchronized, yet also improvisatory.

Within the optical vastness and resonance of the Radiokulturhaus auditorium, excerpts of the Mahler symphonies were re-invented in four movements. Mahler poetic lines emerged in gusts of chime-like microtones, exquisitely maniacal, the sheer sonorousness iridescent and glistening, in waves of granular melody lifting off from the stage, like a heavy wind sweeping in off over the lake near where Fennesz grew up in Burgenland.

Here were the delicately elegiac opening bars of the Adagietto of Mahler’s 5th Symphony, sampled while a cascading drone swelled up as if from below into a microtonal din. The visual projection split and heaved over windswept beaches. Fennesz strapped on his Fender Stratocaster electric guitar and thrashed its strings with predatory intent. From the instrument a massive undercurrent of dissonance welled forth that literally shook the room. Oceanic harmonics and cloven-hoofed glitches trembled with majestic ferocity then abruptly abated into a cloud of hypnotic noise and melody—an apotheosis of lyrical electronic expression: at once a collision and a marriage of sound and picture.

Then poof! In one hour and seven minutes it was over.

The hot and sweaty musicians stood up, took their bows, exeunt omnes, and returned to the stage, once again showered by the accolades of an agitated audience rose to its feet as one. Francesca von Habsburg was spotted as the first to enter the dressing room of Fennesz—alone.


Tav & Gina Lee Falco

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