Fennesz + Sakamoto: Flumina

On paper, Flumina promises much. Arriving as it does after 2005's live recording Sala Santa Cecilia and 2007's Cendre, this third Touch collaboration between Ryuichi Sakamoto and Christian Fennesz grew out of an arresting notion: during a Japan tour, Sakamoto played a piano piece in a different key at the start of each show until, twenty-four shows later, he'd accumulated twenty-four pieces in twenty-four different keys, covering all twenty-four steps of the Western tonal system (that they were recorded live is borne out by the occasional cough that's faintly audible). He then dispatched the material to Fennesz, who elaborated upon it by adding electronics, guitars, and synths, after which the two convened in New York to mix and put the finishing touches on the project.

All of which sounds fabulous in theory—but in practice is slightly less so, for a couple of key reasons. The first relates to the production process involved: recorded first, Sakamoto's piano playing is the lead and thus central element; Fennesz's compelling voice is thus relegated to a secondary role as mere colourist, as atmospheric enhancement designed to complement the pianist's musings. Yes, Fennesz is identifiable by the micro-slivers and fuzz that ornament the tracks, but what comes out the other end is indeed painterly but lacking in intensity, with pretty much all of it pitched at a low level and in a ruminative style. With the musicians having recorded their material sequentially, there's naturally little evidence of spontaneous interaction and unpredictability. Instead, everything feels under control and thus largely tension-free. Refined settings of compelling textural design emerge and do so for an overlong two-hour duration on a double-disc release that—inevitable though it is to say so—might have been better pared down to a single-disc presentation (even if that would mean either twenty-four abbreviated pieces or a smaller number of them).

My slightly underwhelmed impression of the project could admittedly be attributed to misguided expectations. That is, given Sakamoto's involvement, it wouldn't make sense for the more aggressive side of Fennesz's guitar playing to be present—and that's especially so when the pianist's playing is so delicate and impressionistic. And a strong argument can be made that the release includes a goodly share of lovely moments and exudes a light-fading quality that enhances its appeal. The second album in particular eases up on the prettiness to allow some welcome moments of grime to seep in; Fennesz's textures veritably envelop the piano playing during “0409” rather than merely accompany it and elsewhere the pianist's restrained playing allows the guitarist lots of room to add his distinctive signature. Having said that, hearing him used as a mere colourist can't help but seem like a lost opportunity of sorts, as it leaves much of his singular and marvelous voice out of the recording. Sakamoto is his usual self, but Fennesz sounds like someone forced by circumstance to rein it in so as not to overpower his partner. In essence, Flumina amounts to a pretty and pleasant collection of atmospheric mood music—rather less than what one might have hoped for, given the personnel involved.

February 2012