In Focus: Nils Frahm
There’s a wonderful sweet-spot between the ostensibly austere realm of “Classical” music and that of the accessible, formulaic charts of Pop. This little alcove of sweetness is made ever sweeter by the subtle permeation of electronic influences and the seamless cross-over between different musical palates. Nils Frahm has been capturing the attention of discerning listeners far and wide for a few years now. Distinguished by his often poignant musical portraits, his music captures a strong ‘contemporary-classical’ flavour (for want of a better label) and centres almost exclusively around the piano. Though he doesn’t personally identify with ‘melancholy’ this is a quality that is not uncommon in his music. Dominant features of his work include a minimalism that is unmistakably inherited from landmark composers like Philip Glass, whereas his widespread appeal can be paralleled with the accessibility of debatably tenuous composers like Ludovico Einaudi. This is no surprise when we learn of Frahm’s early encounter with his father’s extensive collection of ECM records, one of the most established musical institutes today and a label that is host to some of modern music’s all-time greats: Keith Jarrett, John Adams, Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt, the list is endless.
The track featured above, ‘Hammers’, is taken from his most recent album entitled ‘Spaces’ (Released on Erased Tapes back in November). A homage to Reich, this is arguably where the album is at its most intense, its most vital; the repetitive opening motif instantly imposes an urgency, captured in the energy of his tone. The track’s development relies on conventional yet powerful chord progressions, and is perpetuated by the harmonic diction of a largely rooted bass note that decisively shifts the harmony through the whirlwind of agitation and angst. A nice touch on the recording sees Frahm singing quietly along, a natural impulse that characterised the playing of immortal keyboard players like Glenn Gould and Keith Jarrett. Other stand-out tracks on the album include the capacious ‘Says’, an undulating eight minute synthetic journey through space that grows in intensity to its glorious climax; ‘Unter – Tristana – Ambre’ contains enough memorable material to keep your mind occupied for days after listening, its melancholic poetry is enchanting. Tracks like ‘Went Missing’ and ‘Familiar’ are expressively emotive and benign, but not so heart-wrenching as to be distasteful or overbearing. The album as a whole is an excellent listen and well worth exploring. The album closes with ‘Ross’s Harmonium’, an elegiac prologue to what is a fresh, original, and poignant musical collage. As the album opens with ‘An Aborted Beginning’, an assertive industrial tremor that wades into the dark emptiness with distorted hits and delayed electronic beeps, it closes in a similar vein, with obscured wandering synths and a lonely, sombre lead retreating into the distance. (You can stream his ‘Spaces‘ album here)
The following performance illustrates the inner avant garde that exudes from Frahm’s creative agency. His recordings are wonderfully produced, yet there is something deeply inspiring and stimulating when watching him create music live. The process of creating sound in a live setting really is a different beast to the art of capturing a sound on ‘tape’, and this performance really exposes the beauty of his artistic mind. If you can persevere through his treatment of the piano during the opening minutes, ‘Toilet Brushes – More’ (also from ‘Spaces’), is a fantastical journey through the ineffable universal consciousness. After an aggressively percussive introduction using a beater and a couple of toilet brushes (bought straight from the shop we assume), the heavy and imposing growl of the piano subsides as Frahm guides us into a hypnotic interlude of downwardly cascading loops and harmonies; reverberating arpeggios multiply into infinity, bleeding into the unborn future. As we get lost in this veiled synthesized continuum of accented intention, a switch back to the piano lifts us into the final section. Emerging fragments of his rework of ‘Promises’ by The Presets break through the texture, the hugely liberating, cathartic chord sequence spilling in like the glorious rays of morning sunlight. A truly powerful and engaging performance.
(Below: Toilet Brushes – More, Promises (Rework), Juno (Remix))
Frahm’s technical ability and explorations with the electronic realm of music have not gone unnoticed either. You can watch his appearance on the Boiler Room for Red Bull Music Academy here. The performance is more experimental and minimal compared to other performances and lacks an acoustic piano, though still includes some of his signature tracks. His live performance at Incubate 2012 follows a similar formula to the above concert, his deft use of technology in this performance to journey through different sound-worlds is almost effortless. ‘Says’, mentioned previously is beautiful yet simple, a demonstration of what can be achieved with just a synthesizer, a piano, and some delay. You can see a brilliant live rendition of ‘More’ here, done for KEXP on a simple analogue set-up with just a couple of Rhodes. Frahm’s music also crosses over easily into other electronic genres and the rising electronic artist Max Cooper has been most notable for championing his music. Listen above to his remixes of ‘For’ and ‘Peter’, which are available for free download. Additionally, Frahm’s 2012 album ‘Screws’ is perfect chill-out music and has spawned the ‘Screws – Reworked Project’ which exhibits public reworks of the original album (all up for free download).
In the video below you can see how Frahm commands the piano as a vessel for the abstract ideas flowing from his mind, the exquisite substance of the music is almost palpable, something tangible and reachable. Taking material from ‘Unter – Tristana – Ambre’ (also on ‘Spaces‘), Frahm first experiments with his ‘Unter’ motif before venturing into slightly darker waters with minor tonality and dissonant chords. An important component to his live performances includes the artful blending of different timbres through multiple keyboards, adding a subtle depth that is not possible on merely one acoustic piano; this is illustrated half-way through this performance, to which he executes with great effect. It becomes apparent just how alike in many ways Frahm is with Keith Jarrett; in addition to the accompanied singing, Frahm’s lyricism is not so far from the late Jazz player. This is hardly a surprise when Frahm admits himself that he knows all sixty of Jarrett’s albums inside out. Jarrett was perhaps most famous for his 100% improvised concerts, his rare and incredible ability to embody pure creativity, in its purest form. Perhaps Frahm is destined for this mantle, maybe not, but his ability as an improviser is undeniable. The performance ends with a revisiting of the opening motif, ‘Unter’, except stripped back and simplified; the beautifully haunting reprise is magical.
Frahm’s ethos is unconventional, preferring to write songs as live improvisations as opposed to the clinically obsessive perfectionist culture that surrounds the recording industry. Artists will spend thousands on studio hours, some accumulating close to triple figure takes for just a four track EP. Conversely, Frahm has it done in one. Frahm’s flexible creativity sees the Berlin-based musician developing an impressive live set, as well as time in the studio as a producer and engineer. It looks like 2014 will manifest a number of exciting projects, bringing together a number of collaborations, and a touring of his live show. Frahm’s music is perfect for overcast Sunday afternoons, or an introspective 1am session, but this in no way undermines the value of his work. Despite the ephemeral nature of musical genres and ‘fad’ styles, there’s something about Frahm’s music that is timeless, there is a knowing that his music will still be relevant in future years.