Album Review: Fennesz’s “Plus Forty Seven Degrees…”

This review is about Fennesz’s second album, “Plus Forty Seven Degrees 56’ 37” Minus Sixteen Degrees 51’ 08.” Recorded in 1999, the album shows off the amazing variety of sounds that can be created on a single laptop.

Christian Fennesz, who goes by his last name on commercial releases, is an Austrian composer of experimental noise music. He is interested in using technology to distort and transform the sounds he records on his instruments and in nature. He first released music in 1997, but his breakout album was 2001’s “Endless Summer,” which took its title from the documentary of the same name.

Fennesz says the title “Plus Forty Seven Degrees…” refers to the coordinates of his backyard garden in Austria. While many of his other compositions feature samples and recordings of guitars, it would be difficult to recognize any earthly sound on this one. The album was made entirely on his laptop using several early electronic music programs, including Max/MSP.

“Plus Forty Seven Degrees…” has a rough-around-the-edges sound comprised of sound collages and ambient noise. Glitchy jumps and abrupt cuts give the music a sense of impermanence. Fennesz uses filters and effects to make certain elements of the music sound close or far, left or right; this is often as disorienting as it is intriguing. He said in a 2002 interview with Pitchfork, “For me, noise is not something I use to shock, or because it’s funny, or weird, or whatever. I use it because I find it beautiful.”

The boundaries of the eight tracks are arbitrary. Sometimes they coincide with a large musical shift, but sometimes an equally strong break occurs in the middle of a long track. They range in length from two to eight minutes and are all titled numerically.

“013” is the most representative track. It begins with what sounds like electric rain tapping on a deck. Tiny pops and plips alternate between your left and right ears, and you can almost hear a puddle forming as a distant low pluck fades in. Later, you are submerged underwater, and you hear the whole soundscape from below — the drops on the surface above and the little creatures surrounding you in the darkness.

“014,” the following track, sounds like a windy, grassy hilltop. You are standing in the sun as the wind picks up and backs off alternately. A warm minor chord moves you to a contemplative place for eight minutes. Time slows and you are left sitting there, wondering what has happened and how long it has been.

Fennesz’s soundscapes evoke an abstract sense of location; they bring listeners to pastoral Austria without relying on any specific references or recognizable sounds. Part of this is his non-musical design choices: The album’s cover art, a picture of a hillside with terraced fields, was edited with a grainy overlay to match the heavily modified sounds on the CD. According to Fennesz, “The whole thing has to have an overall design. That’s important for me…I want to plan everything in detail. It’s not that I want to really lead the listener somewhere; it’s more about me being satisfied with a project.”

If you enjoy “Plus Forty Seven Degrees…,” listen to these other albums by Fennesz: “Endless Summer,” “Field Recordings 1995-2002,” and “Black Sea.”