Considering he was an artist I only used to have a passing familiarity with, I’ve spent a lot of hours listening to Fennesz this year. Something about his music has seemed appropriate for a time when it’s been necessary to hide away from the outside world, and find some other form of escape from the confines of the immediate physical environment.
Agora is Christian Fennesz’s most recent album as well as the most straightforwardly ‘ambient’ I’ve heard from him. The usual guitar is not to be found much, at least not appearing in a way that sounds recognisably like guitar. Neither are the clicks, pops, and glitches that populated his ‘breakout’ album Endless Summer, and normally give his music its crackly texture, complimenting the guitar to provide an abstract melody and cadence, of sorts.
Each of the four extended tracks on Agora is an all-encompassing monolithic wash of sound, with few aural landmarks to guide you once you’re in the midst of it. But despite their towering stature that’s not to say the music isn’t pretty – it’s lovely. Shorn as it is of all the fizzing clicks and glitches, this is the ‘smoothest’ Fennesz album I’ve heard, and certainly the easiest on the ears.
Given the listening environment this year, opening track ‘In My Room’ is aptly titled. But rather than inner space, Agora feels like an exploration of the great outdoors, specifically the ocean and the point at which it meets the land. In a similar but more subtle way than on 2008’s Black Sea (which I guess was inspired directly by that particular water feature), each of these tracks is evocative of the shoreline, and the feeling of boundless expanse you get when standing on a beach with nothing but sand, sea and sky in sight.
In My Room shudders into life with a lurching low rumble, then gives way to a clarion-like drone which is repeated over itself and drawn out into an endless blur of layers – the whole thing feels exactly like the heralding of a glorious sunrise on a pure new day. Elsewhere, there is some guitar to be found once you pay attention, but no plucked strings: it’s all soft washes of distortion, like waves surging up over sand and then rushing back again leaving a foam of gently fizzing bubbles.
The word ‘agora’ comes from the Greek for marketplace or ‘place of assembly’, which is where we get the term ‘agoraphobia’. Often used to refer to a fear of going outside, I suppose it really means a fear of crowded, populated places. Although this album came out in 2019, it couldn’t be more fitting that it’s been one of my preferred mental escape routes for 2020. A year characterised by an inordinate amount of time spent not just indoors, but away from crowded populated areas, to the extent that it seems while some of us will be desperately seeking the crush of human contact, the rest may suffer some form of agora-phobia for years to come.
Whatever your anxieties are about the future state of the world, I recommend this album as a form of relief. Coming out of a deep listen on headphones feels like emerging from a cleansing swim in a calm, clear sea.