It’s not exactly news nowadays when folks collaborate over email; it’s more remarkable when someone springs for the airfare required to get musicians from different continents playing in the same room. The construction sequence that avant-heroes Ryuichi Sakamoto and Christian Fennesz followed to make Flumina doubtless influenced its outcome.
First, Sakamoto recorded 24 solo piano pieces in as many keys -- one for each step in the quartertone scale -- whilst on tour in Japan. He sent these to Fennesz in Vienna, who added guitar and computer treatments, and then they got together in New York to mix the thing down into their third record as a duo. Thus the piano melodies dominate each track; guitars limn them, electronics swell and course around them, and occasionally the piano’s notes blur and distort.
The obvious precedent here is the work of Brian Eno and Harold Budd, and like their predecessor, this set blurs the lines between pretty and beautiful. But because they were identified with Eno’s Ambient series on EG, the older duo’s music faced different expectations. It was supposed to work as background music, so if you found it too sweet, you could just turn it down. Sakamoto and Fennesz don’t say how you should take their music, but its piano-forward sound aligns it with decades of delicate minor-key melodies that have accompanied countless images of rain on window pains and lonely pining lovers. Fennesz’s subdued surges of electronics sometimes push against this effect, rather like an astringent solution that strips furniture of layers of polish. This makes the record rather more interesting as foreground than background listening, but only in smaller doses than its length — two CDs, 24 tracks, two hours — suggests. Play it all the way through and you’re likely to find it poking in and out of the attention you give to your household chores.