In Austrian producer and guitarist Christian Fennesz’s “Nebenraum” (2022), the first three minutes are filled by a three-note dissonant drone that sets up you for something you couldn’t have anticipated. As I listened to the piece over and over, I thought about the connection between the music’s three minutes and its final 75 seconds, which is in fact the heart of the experience, and maybe its true beginning. In this way, “Nebenraum” illustrates the topic of musical beginnings and endings. We’re familiar with their conventions in musical practice insofar as we can usually intuit when they’re happening: consider a song’s Introduction where the music yet to come is anticipated, where the band sets the tempo and key before the vocals come in, or a composition’s Ending where all the perviously heard themes return together for a rousing finale, or on recordings where the sounds gradually fade out so that the music appears to recede into an infinite tunnel. Across musical genres, rigorous composing/songwriting/production crafts ways of connecting a music’s beginning to its end, either through thematic development or recapitulation, seamless juxtaposition of otherwise distinct sections, or by more oblique means.
Fennesz’s “Nebenraum” takes the oblique route. As my listening to the piece became obsessive (I often listen while writing while riding the subway), I noticed a few things. First, the three-minute drone Introduction is bracing from the get-go, holding you in the dissonance web spun by its three notes. Second, the drone undergoes slight changes of texture and stereo placement beginning at the one minute mark. You hear it in both ears, then titled over to the left, then drifting over to the right, and here and there subtle pulsations come to the foreground. Third, at 2:25 you become aware of a second set of musical tones fading into the mix, first moving at a slower rate of pulsation, then shifting gears to a faster one. As the tones emerge, you revise how you have been hearing the drone: Was it in fact an introduction, and now a supporting harmony, for this new part? Yes and no, because by 3:15 the drone has abruptly stopped and the new part is now the only part in the mix. It’s located in a narrow middle slice of the stereo field, inhabits a lower register, flickers through filtering, and is surrounded by soft delay effects. The second part’s sound is compelling on its own; I could have listened to it for five or ten minutes. But there’s no time for that because we’re already near the end of the piece. As you follow the new part’s morphing along, you remember the three drone notes, which, while no longer audible, are still present as a phantom harmony backdrop for where the music is now.
There’s a lot to like about “Nebenraum.” First, Fennesz’s sounds do what the best electronic music does, which is to wake up our perceptual faculties by making us wonder about how its sounds were arrived at and how to make sense of its interpretively slippery textures. Second, these beguiling sounds and textures go on a journey, but the journey’s route is not an obvious one. Forget verses and choruses, or themes and variations. “Nebenraum” proceeds by a logic that feels custom-made for its form that seems custom made for its logic. Which brings us back to form and to beginning and endings. I’m writing about this piece of music because I love how much the music does with (seemingly) so little. It holds our attention through sustained dissonance, subtle flickers of texture change and stereo placement, and most dramatically, a shift from using a long beginning to set up a briefer ending. For me, the track’s four minutes and twenty-two seconds somehow compress time, not to mention Fennesz’s decades of experience working with sound. When a musician distills options for texture and structure into a form without fluff and a form that feels inevitable, the resulting music passes in a flash and it’s difficult to imagine it having unfolded any other way.