Chosen One: Nils Frahm
Interview with Nils Frahm.
“And what is the purpose of writing music? One is, of course, not dealing with purposes but dealing with sounds. Or the answer must take the form of a paradox: a purposeful purposeless or a purposeless play. This play, however, is an affirmation of life—not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.”
—John Cage (Taken from ‘Silence: Lectures and Writings’, 1968)
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
Having had the good fortune of speaking to Ukrainian pianist Lubomyr Melnyk last Spring, much of the inspiring topics (Continuous Music, Eastern philosophy, the piano and sources of inspiration) he spoke of resonates powerfully for the latest Erased Tapes release by label-mate, Nils Frahm. ‘Spaces’ is a special document of the Berlin-based composer’s other-worldly live performance that feels closer to a vast treasure of field recordings than the typical live concert album. Frahm’s singular vision and immaculate craftsmanship is etched across the sonic canvas of these stunningly beautiful twelve live recordings – culled from over thirty concerts over the last two years – creating yet another work of indispensable art.
I recall Melnyk describing the art of his unique blend of ambient sound as he explained: “the space that as a musician, we go into a certain space where this music happens.” This becomes the essence of what ‘Spaces’ means for me, where Frahm’s piano and synthesizer-based compositions takes the listener on a wholly life-affirming voyage. With each delicate note of piano or ripple of synthesizer, time stands still as one feels beautifully lost in the sacred music. A moment in time is captured within the recordings of ‘Spaces’ that beautifully captures the energy and raw emotion of Frahm’s concerts. For those who have witnessed any of these remarkable shows, it is a universal fact that needs not be explained, for it is this unspoken connection between the performer and audience that permeates throughout the narrative of ‘Spaces’. Indeed, isn’t a concert a shared experience between the performer and his/her audience? As the ambient flourishes of the tour de force ‘Says’ and the utterly timeless and hypnotic ‘Said And Done’ effortlessly flow in and out of focus, the impossible becomes attainable that sees Frahm’s sonic creations effectively translated into the human space. The audience and performer become one.
A central question was posed from the outset: “Is it possible or not to isolate sound recording from live concerts, put it out of context, where it has happened, and then put it in a medium where people can listen to it.” Undeniably, ‘Spaces’ conveys Frahm’s fascination with sound and love for experimentation that truly reflects what audiences have witnessed during his resolutely unique concerts. Similar to his previous solo piano works from 2009’s ‘Wintermusik’ and ‘The Bells’ to 2011’s critically-acclaimed ‘Felt’ and last year’s opus ‘Screws’ – the aesthetics of ‘Spaces’ forms the expansive sonic terrain from which the layers of tracks are built from. The dynamic range of these live recordings is something to behold, as the short interlude of dub-based odyssey ‘An Aborted Beginning’ and pulsating ‘Hammers’ are interwoven with reflective pieces such as the fragile lament ‘Went Missing’ and the windswept beauty of ‘Over There, It’s Raining’.
The crowning jewel of ‘Spaces’ for me is ‘For Peter-Toilet Brushes-More’ – a gorgeous fusion of three of Frahm’s works – that are inspired by songs from ‘Juno’ and ‘Felt’. The opening section comprises a rich ebb and flow of brooding synthesizers, conjuring up the lost sounds of Laurie Spiegel, Mountains and Stars Of The Lid. The whole sense of the ambient flow of sound is distilled into the sixteen minutes of enchanting sounds. Seven minutes in, as the synths slowly drift away, the piano is utilized as a percussion instrument. African rhythms and an infectious groove is created (I fondly remember Nils opening one of his shows with this precise piece – immediately casting a spell upon his transfixed audience) forming the ideal backdrop for Frahm’s piano. The soft notes ascends into the atmosphere, building upon layers of breathtaking sounds where a beguiling tapestry is gradually constructed before your very eyes and ears. Thirteen minutes in, a crescendo is reached as the momentum of swirling piano notes reaches new summits, as something powerful and deeply profound is unleashed into the surrounding space.
Different recording mediums were employed by Frahm to capture his many live performances; old portable reel-to-reel recorders, some recorded on simple cassette tape decks, others roughy recorded on the house engineer’s mixing desks, and others with more advanced multi-tracking recordings. As the needle is spun and ‘Spaces’ is played, the listener is left to truly appreciate Frahm’s unconventional approach to an age-old instrument, as the liner notes of Frahm reads: “imagining you were in one room with me, where I play for you.”
In addition to extensive touring and the release of ‘Spaces’ – representing the latest chapter in Frahm’s treasured songbook – 2013 also saw the release of several records in which the German composer was responsible for producing in his trusted Durton home studio in Berlin. The first of these was Montreal-based composer and violinist Sarah Neufeld’s sprawling debut album, ‘Hero Brother’ released on Constellation Records. Next came the Dutch-born singer-songwriter Chantal Acda’s latest set of intimate torch-lit songs ‘Let Your Hands Be My Guide’ (Gizeh Records) and last but not least, the Bella Union release of Sumie’s self-titled debut album of (primarily) voice and acoustic guitar (to be released in January 2014). With all these records, a sacred dimension is tapped into, which could only be forged by Frahm’s deft touch of hand.
As ‘Says’ – the second track on ‘Spaces’ – culminates in a haven of sounds where piano, synths and electronics effortlessly coalesce together, I am reminded of of the album artwork of a certain pioneering composer, Laurie Spiegel. The album in question is her 1980 debut ‘The Expanding Universe’ (a title that perfectly embodies the interstellar journey of Frahm’s ‘Spaces’). On the front and back cover, an interview with Spiegel is printed where she discusses music. The following quote I feel mirrors perfectly the twelve sublime creations contained on ‘Spaces’:
“Every piece is different, and I suspect that every good piece has all the aspects of being human in it which are integrated into its creator, probably in the same balance.”
‘Spaces’ is available now on Erased Tapes.
Interview with Nils Frahm.
Welcome back home from your tour.
How was Japan? You were there recently.
Yeah, first New York and then Japan. And now we’re on our way to Copenhagen.
Congratulations on ‘Spaces’, it’s an amazing album. It’s a really special document of your concerts.
Thanks a lot. We were really happy with it.
The one thing that stands out first is how the original versions, how the songs live evolve and change from the actual versions on the albums itself. It’s lovely to hear how they must be changing over time.
Yeah, I think that’s the really, really interesting part to it actually.
Is there a particular song you included on the album that is the one you’re most proud of?
Well, I think we’re all really happy with how the second track turned out, ‘Says’. That’s a good take I think.
Yeah, it’s amazing. And I love how all the instruments that you have at your disposal – the syntheziser, the piano – it blends together so amazingly too. It develops so well.
Yeah, I think it’s a nice way to include some more electronics to the music and people really respond well to that.
You know the synthesizer itself, Nils, is that an instrument you got into after the piano?
I have that particular synthesizer since I was 14 years old so it’s always been in my collection. I made a lot of electronic music before I started working on the piano. I think I’ve been touring with the synth for 2 years now. Maybe sometimes when I was playing Ireland, I didn’t bring it because it was always too heavy but now I found a way how to bring that stuff on the plane so it became a part of the show.
My favourite at the moment is the eighth song, ‘For Peter-Toilet Brushes-More’. I suppose it’s a fusion of the three tracks and I love how it’s contained in the one flow of music. It works really amazingly.
Yeah, that’s an epic song for sure. That’s usually the song I’m closing the set with. Yeah, it’s kind of developed over time.
You know ‘Ross’s Harmonium’ as well, I love the liner notes with your essay on the sleeve of ‘Spaces’, where you outline all the variables – depending on the space, the environment you find yourself in on that day. For example, ‘Ross’s Harmonium’, I love how you mention it’s an artist who welcomed you to play on his harmonium. So I guess that was an improvisation?
Yeah, exactly. I try to include as many happy accidents as possible and record it on tape. That was my little piece, I thought it would be nice to add a bit of colour to the album.
And I love the dub song, the opener to the album.
That was more like a happy accident.
Is that something you might do more of?
I don’t know. It’s just a way to start the album, to confuse everyone a little bit. Also to make sure people set their volume right for the record because the second song starts at low volume because people would have to turn up their stereo too much. So I needed a very loud short bit to open the record with so people would have the record on with nice volume and that was the purpose of that song.
It was really interesting to read how there were different recording mediums you were using to capture all your concerts. The variation from the more professional set-up to a simple cassette deck. That must have been a nice process. I mean you had 30 or so shows, so it must have been quite a process to pick out the right ones from these sources?
Yeah, sometimes I recorded the shows with different recorders simultaneously and I choose the right tone or the right sound or the right medium for the take and it was hard to make a running order out of all the different media because sometimes when you have a tape recorder there is a lot of hiss without people noticing it cut, so the transition is something I had to work on a lot. It was a nice puzzle, for sure.
For any fan that has seen you live and for the people who have not had the fortune to see you in concert yet, it’s a lovely way to bring you back to one of your shows. You really feel that energy as you listen to the record itself.
Yeah, that was one of the hardest parts to translate the energy from a room where all the people are in the room – to record and capture something little more than just music where you feel you’re part of something. And yeah, it worked out, I’m happy. That’s good to hear.
Again, on your liner notes, it was cool to read how you see it more like a field recording. It’s obvious it’s not a typical live record, for example you know where 80% of the record is the new album. For this, it’s more an experiment than anything.
It was, definitely. I had the feeling I wanted to try to make something special out of this live set and then to not only record one show and go with that because I feel like if I had done it more like putting it online for free, you know like film one concert and label it as a feature or gimmick. In order to make it like a real album and to give it a feel of an album rather than just to record a concert. Because one recorded concert feels like we’re selling out already, like there is no more albums to come so put out the live record or something like that. The world’s not crazy about that but more about recording all these pieces live which I love to have part of the album. The concert is an ideal situation to record them, to include the audience energy you were talking about into the recording, something you can’t really create in a studio.
It’s interesting too, Nils, I had the pleasure to interview Lubomyr Melnyk earlier in the year and obviously you collaborated closely with him on his latest record. But you know, from what he was saying about the continuous music and I remember he was talking about music as much as Zen and philosophy in the sense of you know, being in that right moment. It’s obvious listening to your music, it must be the same situation?
Some people say it’s a little like taking drugs. Maybe they mean there’s a certain almost…maybe some people call it like a spiritual element to the music where people kind of get lost in it and think it’s something and they go on a journey while listening to it. And that’s why some of the pieces are sometimes really long, you have time to get into that certain state of mind where you can listen distantly you know, come from a different perspective.
I was reading recently a book you’re probably already familiar with, by John Cage. It’s a book on lectures and essays called ‘Silence’. He talks about music but also philosophy and the mental aspect of music and performance. But you know, after seeing you live it’s fascinating when I see how many dates – you’re playing so many concerts – the energy, both physical and mental – it must take a lot out of you.
Yeah, it’s a little bit like that but it also gives the energy in the same way, as much as it is exhausting, it is also something which you gain in the same time.
Another thing that’s fascinating is that for the performance itself, you use what you have at your disposal and it’s all in real time. It’s beautiful, you know like what you said that accidents can happen during the show itself as well. Can you recall a moment where you have created something new or an older song where you realize now it’s going in a new direction or following a new path?
Yeah, I mean I feel like there are so many different ideas. Some songs are connected – for example, the solo piano song – they follow a certain ideal and there are other songs, for example, the more synthesizer driven ones which go in a total different direction but I feel like they are still connected because they appear different when they, for example the piano songs are in contrast to the more loud songs of synthesizer. The contrast helps both to stand out more. The solo piano songs feel even quieter and the loud songs feel even louder or more powerful. I contrast them like that so it’s about pretty much creating a certain dynamic in my live set and it always maintains a certain energy where people feel they’re totally sucked into something and they can’t escape it. When there’s like ten minutes of really, really quietness, it’s good to play something really loud to refreshen your ears and brain. I mean I feel it even when I play certain times with a long beginning with one note repeating, it usually is a good way to make everyone really curious, like what the hell is going on – people who have heard the song don’t know what I’m doing there – and they get so maybe upset, annoyed or at least they wonder, you know. That’s all I want to do, it’s not really about the musical concept but what it does to the listener. So throughout the album, it’s mostly about that, it’s a little bit like translating music into psychology and the other way around and to see how to structure that where people feel they can’t escape the experience, they want to be part of it and really want to know what’s coming next. They feel like anything’s possible. I’m working on that basically.
That’s exactly how I’d describe it if I could. You do definitely get lost in the music like it’s very much a journey.
Yeah, that’s exactly what I want.
One other thing Nils that you were touching on earlier, the whole thing of releases. For yourself and any important artists, you know each release is a very special document as well. For example, to have it on vinyl and you know it’s going to be there for years to come, you know it’s not something you just throw out haphazardly. Even, you know having your essay inside and the artwork and photography, you know it’s very special, like a new chapter. I’m sure this aspect and seeing your music now – there’s a few great albums under your belt – it must be nice to think that you have a series of special records to your name.
I think that each record tells a little story beside the concert, they all document, they all have a narrative element to them. ‘Screws’ tells the story about an injury, ‘Felt’ tells the story about the recording process and chance, and my neighbours basically, ‘The Bells’ was a recording about two friends improvising two nights in a church, and ‘Wintermusik’ was a gift for my family.
I wonder Nils do you have any ideas or thoughts on the next chapters in terms of the narrative?
I’m working on all kinds of different ideas right now. I’m still recording solo piano material but I’m also working more with synthesizer and I’m also interested in doing something with a conductor named Andre De Ridder, that’s something I’m doing some sketches for now. Ideally, I work on three different albums at the same time and which one feels the strongest and which one is the most exciting. There are a lot of recordings in my hard drive which aren’t released and usually I feel they don’t really have strong enough of a story to it, you know the music is interesting. But usually when I’m working on a record there is a point where I feel like this is something I want to do now and until that point, I’m just working, working on the music, recording, recording more until I can see the bigger picture.
Even as you say, Nils, outside of your own releases this year alone, I love the albums that you were involved on the production. For example the Chantal Acda album ‘Let Your Hands Be My Guide’ was amazing.
Oh thank you, yeah that’s a great album.
I wonder is this in your Durton studio when you’re producing this music?
That was Durton studio, yeah. That was my place.
I love how this album and Sarah Neufeld and also the Sumie record, I love how it’s obviously their own sound but at the same time, there is a lovely kind of hidden dimension in all of them, there’s a similar ambience and intimacy, it’s really quite something.
Yeah, I think that’s my handwriting probably. It’s not to over do it because originality of the artist I’m working with should be in the focus but it’s just the way the sound turns out when I work on it.
Do you have any techniques you would use almost religiously, like that you would have some rules nearly that would guide you or does it not really work like that?
Well, usually I want to work in a certain tempo. The recordings you mentioned were done in not more than seven days. But I think a good album needs to be done rather fast. It needs to be prepared well. You shouldn’t be tired of the songs by the point when you’re finishing them. And I worked on other albums that took many more days to make them and then something gets lost – the exhausting process of fiddling too much – so I’d like to kind of work fast.
As you say, you always have multiple things going on at the same time, even as I read the track list to ‘Spaces’ it’s lovely to see how all the different projects feed into one other. It must be healthy to have all these projects on the go at the same time.
I mean at the end it’s all one. For me it’s quite connected but there could also be different elements joining in the future. For example, like I said that I want to work with other players to go away from just solo playing and share a stage and studio with other musicians and that could be a whole different chapter again. Now, there’s so many solo albums of mine and I would like to see what would happen if I played with other musicians, for example. That could be something.
That sounds amazing. Would you have people in mind?
I mean it’s weird if they read about it before I talk to them but I have a long list of musicians I’m listening to at the moment who I think could be interesting. But it could also more be people from the classical music world. Right now I’m really interested more in choir music and vocal music. So maybe I will work on something like that. But it’s too early to really say this is a plan, it’s just ideas floating around.
I loved your release a few years ago with Anne Müller.
Oh yeah, we’re working on a second album right now.
Oh wow, is that cello and piano being the main focus?
The main focus and added there is also some singing and more electronic elements to it. It’s really promising material. So I hope I can finish it in the next year sometime.
I remember you were telling me before about the new piano you got at the time, you were saying how you never came across one before like it.
Yeah, it’s fantastic, really fantastic. I just hadn’t much time to record on it but I’ve got a couple of pieces recorded on this which is beautiful, it’s more like sophisticated felt sound. It goes in a similar direction but it sounds almost more polished in a more interesting way. It sounds like a cross between a harp and a piano and the guitar sometimes. Yeah, it’s a fantastic instrument.
Well thanks so much for talking to me. Well done again on ‘Spaces’, it’s amazing to hear all your related releases from this year.
Oh thanks so much, it’s good to hear. That means a lot.
I hope to see you on tour next year.
Yeah, we definitely need to come to Ireland again.
It’s funny, I remember the Unitarian Church and being in the background for your soundcheck, it was really quite something.
We need to make a proper show because I haven’t really played a full set in Ireland yet and we’re definitely coming back with a full set-up.
‘Spaces’ is available now on Erased Tapes.