If you’ve been finding that the current state of lockdown and isolation has been making you feel bored or world-weary, then Ennui, the latest release by Austrian ensemble Franui might just be exactly what you need – regardless whether that’s empathy or escapism. Franui are well-known for their arrangements and adaptations of classical music, and these form the foundation of the album. However, these adaptations – including Mozart, Bartók, Schubert, Schumann and Satie – are all decidedly off-kilter, exacerbated by being juxtaposed and mashed together such that they often feel as if their notes are literally sliding around (or even off) the page. That’s one part of Ennui; the other is a series of pithy spoken texts, drawing on and/or freely adapted from the likes of Georg Büchner, Kierkegaard, Matthias Claudius, Walter Benjamin and John Cage, each of which has something to say on the subjects of listlessness, weariness and boredom.
Combined together in this way, the album brings to mind the left-field absurdist wit of William Walton and Edith Sitwell’s Façade (now almost a century old). If this suggests that Ennui can be regarded as an “entertainment”, that is most definitely the case. The ensemble’s treatment of the original music – often drawn from their composers’ ‘occasional’ works, such as divertimenti – is deliberately amusing, though it’s important to stress that it’s not played for laughs. Indeed, there are times when it’s like listening to someone blind drunk trying to communicate something deadly serious, conveying a disconcerting form of black humour. And there are times when its kilter is not remotely off, such as in the central movement ‘Teure Mutter’ [dear Mother] that hypnotically melds together fragments of a funeral march with echoes of the grotesque double bass ‘Frère Jacques’ melody from Mahler’s First Symphony. Likewise, the album’s closing piece, based on Mozart, though titled ‘Ouverture ennuyeuse’ [boring overture] is nothing of the kind, being one of the prettiest things i’ve heard in a while, a kind of tired, soothing lullaby.
But in general Ennui is light, not heavy, and the playfulness of the arrangements also brings to mind the world of silent film scores, especially in the way it tilts on its axis, abruptly shifting into something different as if following the mayhem of unseen dramatic escapades. The inclusion of Satie (music) and Cage (words) is significant, as Ennui is clearly an extension of the serious/not serious dichotomy that occurs (often simultaneously) in both of their respective outputs. As such, for all its whimsy, it’s just as easy to take Ennui much more seriously, and to hear in its unstable counterpoint a kind of boiling frustration, making the implied orderliness of the music as inconceivable a prospect as it is undesirable. The spoken texts – intoned throughout (by actor Peter Simonischek) with a dry, matter-of-fact tone – are worthy of contemplation, both in their own right and, more importantly, in the context of each other. There isn’t a consistent argument running through them: some decry the foolishness of boredom, others its inevitability, or impossibility, or the pain or pleasure resulting from it. Every text articulates a different take on the experience, while the music weaves around them an endless patchwork tapestry of seemingly half-remembered classical and romantic off-cuts that veer between capricious, solemn and reassuring.
It’s a fascinating album to spend time with in the current climate we’re living through. If you’re finding yourself weighed down by a heavy dose of weltschmerz at the moment, Ennui might provide some light relief – while also providing space for reflection on the pros and cons of boredom. It may make you think, but it will definitely make you laugh – and perhaps that’s a combination we could all do with right now.