Chosen One: Nils Frahm
Interview with Nils Frahm.
“In many ways I feel like I am slowly starting to realize why I am here and what my role is.”
Words: Mark Carry
In the Author’s Introduction to “Writings about Music” (1974), American composer Steve Reich wrote, “You want to hear music that moves you, and if you don’t, then you’re not really very curious to find out how it was put together. The truth is, musical intuition is at the rock bottom level of everything I’ve ever done.” Reading these inspired words from one of contemporary music’s true voices of wisdom, I felt this musical statement resonated powerfully for another vital voice in today’s musical landscape: namely Berlin-based pianist, composer and sound sculptor, Nils Frahm.
Across a rich body of work – ranging from delicately beautiful solo piano works and intricately layered ambient soundscapes to otherworldly synthesizer-based compositions where synthetic and organic worlds are often blurred and re-aligned – the German composer has continually pushed the sonic envelope that has served to, in turn, expand our own thoughts on the art of sound’s endless possibilities. From 2013’s live document ‘Spaces’ to this year’s infinitely beautiful and deeply personal solo piano work, ‘Solo’ and the soon-to-be-released debut film score, ‘Music For The Motion Score Victoria’ (directed by Sebastian Schipper), an unfolding aesthetic development shimmers majestically amidst the sound waves like a dazzling sunlit sea or the dawning day’s first pockets of light. Transcendence abounds and we, the devoted listener, are eternally grateful for this simple truth.
A piece of music such as ‘Them’ (taken from the score to ‘Victoria’) possesses the innate power to move you in a profound way. Frahm’s tender and exquisite piano patterns coalesce effortlessly with Anne Müller’s equally poignant and heart-wrenching strings to create a stunningly beautiful and enlightening musical journey.
Similarly, this year’s ‘Solo’ record carves a deeply affecting and captivating experience that ceaselessly traverses the human space. Recorded in four days, the Klavins M370 (the piano instrument spanning 3.7 metres in height that was built by Frahm’s close collaborator and friend, David Klavins) would serve the German composer’s sprawling canvas of enchanting sound. I feel the essence of ‘Solo’ becomes the sacred moment between Frahm and his trusted piano instrument; the 370 model providing an entirely new spectrum of colours and textures for the gifted composer to explore. Furthermore, a lyric penned by label-mate Peter Broderick – contained on the dazzling ‘Pockets Of Light’ piano-based composition by Lubomyr Melnyk – encapsulates the highly emotive and spiritual dimension that ‘Solo’ inhabits:
“from the hammers to the ears
we invite our fears
to sing outside
little spaces turn wide”
From the opening angelic tones of ‘Ode’ to the engulfing ripples of ‘Four Hands’ on the album’s fitting close, ‘Solo’ indeed invites our fears which ultimately invites the audience to bring their own emotional life to it. The album’s penultimate track – and longest cut – ‘Immerse!’ is a tour-de-force of striking intimacy that conjures up the mystical and sacred sounds cast by Keith Jarrett’s legendary 1975 Köln concert. A timeless sound is effortlessly unleashed by Frahm, when mere moments previously, the hypnotic, pulsating notes of ‘Wall’ radiates like pulses of the human heart.
‘Solo’ is available now on Erased Tapes Records while ‘Music For The Motion Score Victoria’ will be available on 15 June, also via Erased Tapes Records.
Interview with Nils Frahm.
Congratulations on the new ‘Solo’ album, Nils. It’s a really incredible album.
Nils Frahm: Thank you so much. I’m happy you like it; that means a lot.
You spent just four days recording ‘Solo’?
NF: Yes, we were recording for four days with the piano. It was one session and then I mixed and compiled everything. It was last summer I think, I had it finished for quite some time and waited a little bit to see if it stayed being good.
I love how there’s little traits inside the pieces of music that you feel some may belong to ‘Felt’, some feel more like ‘Screws’ where there are elements of certain pieces that go back to a certain time.
NF: Yeah, I revisited some of my ideas and made new ideas out of them and some songs were inspired by others which I hadn’t really put out yet and some are completely new songs. It was really about the sound of the piano and this kind of sacred moment with this instrument which is really special.
I’d love for you to discuss that particular instrument. I saw some lovely videos of the Klavins 370 model and the stairs you go up. It must have been wonderful to play it.
NF: Yeah [laughs]. It’s quite a way up! Once you are up, you just start to play it before you go down again. It’s different with a normal piano where you can just get up and walk away again. But when you walk up there, you are up and then you play and it already makes it special like that.
It was timed so well to release the new album with Piano Day and what a beautiful idea and concept this celebration is. It’s amazing that nobody has thought of it before.
NF: Sometimes you are lucky when you have a little idea and then you know you can actually make it happen. And when I found out that there was no particular Piano Day declared at any point, I thought let’s give it a try. It’s almost not necessary because the piano is very popular in the moment but I simply wanted to make an occasion for people to finish their piano work, for example and share them and give people some kind of deadline to work on some of the piano projects and to share them with us. And I think it’s always helpful for people to have a certain goal and once we announced it people were getting creative and they shared all their songs with us and we had the soundcloud playlist, which was wonderful to listen to and it’s really exciting that some of these people who usually don’t get much attention and then all of a sudden get some attention and some new fans. I think it helps people who don’t have so much experience in trusting their work yet to get more profoundly enthusiastic and interested in their own work.
And for me, it was simply good to have an occasion where you could make a present because when you have a holiday it’s usually connected to the idea of making presents and I wanted to give the album away for free because that just works in general. I think it’s a good idea to make people download it from the source and if they want to donate they can. A lot of people just download the mp3 that’s inside the record anyway and come to the concerts. It was just like a silly little idea to give the present a specific reason and on the other hand I wanted to make people do the same; to share their own piano-based work with all of us and give it away for free and make it accessible. So in general, I like this project where there is a give and take and a nice trade of ideas and all that pays back on all kinds of other levels, I think.
Oh yes, of course. Like you say too Nils, I loved how during that week or two, there was so many wonderful new tracks surfacing. It made me think also how over the last ten years or so – and if you just think of this short space of time – there’s been so much amazing music, based on the piano and in this neo-classical realm. It’s been a wonderful few years for music.
NF: Oh yeah, of course, of course. We are familiar now with the whole thing. If I had done this earlier it would have been too early and maybe in the future, I’m interested in other things. So it was just the right moment to make this album accessible and also play a little bit with the whole conception of releasing albums like artists release albums every one or two years and there is a review and an add to cart button and then you feel like you should compare the record to some other record. Usually people do that very fast because their minds are conditioned in that kind of almost judgemental way. There is a Beatles discussion like ‘Oh which is your favourite album?’ and well you know I am happy that all of them are there and the same with other big bands and influential bands like let’s say ‘Oh what’s your favourite song of Radiohead?’ I never liked these questions; it’s almost like ‘What’s your favourite kind of wine?’ I love wine because there are so many different kinds and I love artists who start a little bit from scratch on each project they are doing and make it not just another record and another record in the same fashion so people feel very intrigued to compare them but to give each record a strong identity, a strong idea and of course from music which is most important in the end but also to make these records exist under their own standards. So I only heard one comment so far where somebody said ‘Oh I like ‘Spaces’ better’ and all the other comments were not about that which is so fantastic.
It’s really hard to compare ‘Solo’ with a record like ‘Spaces’, they were completely different musical projects for me and there were different parameters and I like how the people when I release a record like this with a story and with identity and a kind of conception then people start to see there is a new idea. And it’s almost unnecessary to give this record any rating because people can listen to it in five minutes and just press the download button, they listen to it themselves and since you’re not urged to buy it or not pushed to buy it you don’t really need people to review it. And it makes the buying decision easier because there is no buying decision. So on different levels we were trying to also play with the whole marketing concepts and the old path of music distribution and I really enjoy all these elements in the reviews and write-ups which is not so much about the music but it’s obviously a wonderful piano record which I agree, I like it myself otherwise I wouldn’t have released it but on the other hand, there is so much else to say and that is the stuff where it is good to write about it.
It’s really difficult to write about music sometimes and to describe every piece and to just describe a record in words which is really difficult but it’s quite nice to give to people who want to write about this some meaningful context to work with like Piano Day or the whole 450 Piano building idea. These are stories which are easy to write about and also good to write about and the actual music should just be listened to, it’s a very personal record and I would be very disappointed if people would rip it apart for any reason because for me it’s one of the most personal things I’ve ever done and the most radically me sounding thing, just a record that I did for myself and that’s also the reason why it had to be free because I don’t want to sell myself.
I love how ‘Solo’ begins with the track ‘Ode’ and the slow, meditative chords that feels like the perfect opening piece.
NF: Yeah, this is more elegant and grown up sounding than some of my other stuff which is a little bit more romantic or harder to listen to or something.
With a song like ‘Immerse’ – the album’s wonderful penultimate track – I wonder did it blossom over a long period of time?
NF: Yeah that’s the personal stuff that I was taking about. For me that song is a song which is just in me which I will play in different versions all my life. Sometimes you know this already and sometimes you just make different versions of one song and this is a very important song for me. This song is basically my dialogue with the world and living and the reflection – like the most broad reflection – of what resonates with me and this song had to be on there, this song is the centerpiece and it comes in the end because it sounds heavy and I want people to be relaxed when they experience this song.
And I love how ‘Wall’ comes just before it. There is a wonderfully cathartic feel to the piece and how it builds and builds and how it works and goes into a song like ‘Immerse’.
NF: Yeah, for me the playlist or sequencing of the record was where I spent most time with experimenting because it wasn’t really obvious which order was the best one and so I had a lot of versions – like eight different versions that I was listening to for some time and changing things – and in the end when I heard the version you know now this was really meaningful in some way, when you have to decide A of the vinyl being really quiet and B is overflowing and in many ways it was a lucky choice to make the sequencing like this. For instance even Robert [Rath] from Erased Tapes, he helped me with the last final tweaks and he said ‘Oh I think this song should be first’ and so he put ‘Ode’ in the very beginning which knocks on your door and says ‘Hello, here I am’ and so it’s beautiful in that kind of way.
It’s very interesting too what you say Nils about giving the music for free – and something similar to ‘Screws’ – but it works so well because the physical ownership of the album counts for so much too and to have the beautiful artwork so it only comes natural that fans would seek this out as it’s not enough to have it just as a download.
NF: Yeah I mean this is what we trust the fans in and this gives us an advantage because we don’t try to prevent crime like illegal downloading and all this energy that you would put into preventing leakage and having music being converted to bad mp3 quality and be put on a server or something. This you can only avoid if you just do it yourself with your way and of course we spend so much money on special paper artworks and all these things that people want to have one of my records and feel like ‘oh this is a collectible item’ and most of all I trust that this record – and I hope all my records – are records which you don’t want to sell after five or six or seven years. I mean there is a lot of music which you totally have to say goodbye to after a while because maybe they’re dated. I mean imagine if you’re a drum ‘n’ bass DJ and you have all these early kind of cheesy drum bass records and you really don’t have any parties to play at and what do you do with it? Maybe you have to throw them all away at some point and you feel like you shouldn’t buy that many vinyl records when I’m not sure I will spend time listening to them. But why I am confident that people will buy the record is that we are trying hard to make it a product which lasts, which is sustainable and which is also interesting after a couple of years and maybe even more interesting. So hopefully that makes sense in the conception of giving things away for free on one hand and on the other hand, trusting the people who actually want the physical item because they may want to give it to their kids at some point or something.
As time goes on and you pass the point when a particular record was released, memories and music are always intertwined as well and saying that, you can get new meaning and perspectives from any of your previous albums any time where there is always something new from an album like ‘The Bells’ for example even though it’s one of your early albums.
NF: Yeah exactly. Since ‘Wintermusik’ and ‘The Bells’ and my solo records, I imagine they will all age gracefully . . . hopefully [laughs].
I must ask you about the Klavins 450 instrument that is being made at the moment. It’s an amazing venture and creation in itself. I would love for you to discuss the collaboration between yourself and David Klavins?
NF: David is of course important in this whole release and the future, and the next couple of years. I just love him as a person and he is very, very wonderful and I would even say a wise man, fun to be with and really great to talk to and most importantly he’s a fantastic and talented engineer who is absolutely fearless of challenge and fearless of failure. He reminds me of myself in many ways, I think it’s a mutual thing and we fell in love with each other [laughs] in some way.
So he built this Una Corda piano for me – a small piano which I will be bringing on tour – which was the first project we worked on together. And since it was a full success I didn’t have any doubt that we should try a bigger project. And of course the 450 is almost too big of a project – and I would say it is too big of a project – and I think this is also why nobody would really invest in it or nobody had the balls to do it. Since I know the prototype, the 370 and love it to pieces and I imagine the recording of ‘Solo’ proved that it’s a wonderful sounding instrument with quality no other piano really has. I thought it would be a shame if we missed this opportunity to realize this piano because on the time there is a limit, David is already sixty-two and of course in ten years, he’s not sure if he could make a big project like this and for him time is running out as well and I felt like OK maybe I’m the crazy one who has to make it happen because I can’t imagine anyone else putting the money on the table and realizing it. So in the end I was the one who had the infrastructure to realize the project and do also certain part of marketing.
I always love to talk about things I really, really want to support and this is something I truly, fully believe in. The conceptualization of long, long piano strings is a very good idea and we’ll find a very beautiful and humble economical way of making this big piano happen and everything on the piano will be for the sake of sound. It won’t have any compromises that all other pianos will have and I feel like it’s striding for something like a completion in some way and I feel like if I want to take care of the piano while I’m here, it would be that one. I need to take responsibility for the financial part, I have two years now to make all the money for it and most of it I probably have to pay out of my own pocket but if it’s done I would really like to find a room for it and build a studio around it, to make wonderful recordings and have as many people get access to that and make it part of piano festivals so people can experience it and after I’m gone, I want to donate the piano to someone or some better cause like a wonderful institution maybe or museum or whatnot but it should definitely belong to the public and as long as I’m here, I will take care of it and make sure a lot of people will have fun with it.
That’s the beautiful thing too Nils with a project like this and how it’s being promoted, it feels like all the fans have their own part in it too.
NF: Yeah this is my idea of group effort. Nobody has so much money to buy it themselves and if they have too much money, they should give it to people who don’t have so much. If I would be able to pay this right away with no questions asked out of my pocket, I would wonder that something is wrong because this is too big for one person and this is a shad effort. Basically something that is owned by humanity let’s say, I mean when people started building big bridges and they started building the Eiffel tower or let’s say they built a big planetarium with a monster telescope which are bigger than anything before; there always had to be one crazy person who had to believe in it so much to make it happen and I like that idea in that respect. In this project I’m the crazy one who tries to convince everyone else, let’s make it happen, let’s make it happen. So far, it looks like people get the point which is a big relief and also great to see.
It’s cool too Nils it reminds me of those stories of people with synthesizers some decades ago and how they would collect all these parts and how it would take up a huge room or even a house.
NF: Yeah, yeah and they were expensive already and of course someone had to believe in it so much to just reach out for something unknown and uncertain risking that it could be total failure or maybe actually totally amazing and I totally love that look to gamble in that way and just imagining something, believing in it, seeing that it’s purposeful and makes sense and then start to invest in it.
In many ways I feel like I am slowly starting to realize why I am here and what my role is. For others also, not just to play the piano, make concerts and make records but also to act in a way that people may imagine, Oh I would like to do something like this or I want to lose my mind as well [laughs]. I just want to work on something fun and crazy like this and just to inspire people who you just can’t lose, you just risk things and with a lot of risk there is a big reward waiting and with the whole campaign I feel once again, this is more than just making piano music at the moment and I really like the direction that it takes.
I also want to go in the direction where I think of more instruments that I want to build and find people who can help me do this. Starting from scratch and believe that even something like a Steinway could be different or beautiful or better. This is something where we as a society has lost a little bit of belief because at the moment we are thinking back too much, we are looking back to the old days, we all want to have an old record player, we want to have an old hi-fi system or an old lamp; mostly old because things back then were often better. It is no secret anymore and a lot of people know this already and we need to start to think about how we want to change this. And my little contribution is to make a piano that we believe is the best piano in the world and it doesn’t have to be old, it’s new. What we are doing now because we want to believe that we can make things better than they were and this is giving me a lot of hope and a lot of strength and I can only recommend believing and imagining that what we are doing now can be better than let’s say our father’s and mother’s and grandfather’s and grandmother’s.
Have you had any other breakthroughs or discoveries with any of the other concepts in your mind and working in your studio?
NF: The studio is a little bit abandoned because I am in the rehearsal room right now and my rehearsal room is full with my new instruments like this organ I was building and some mellotron. I don’t know if you know this instrument but it’s a tape for each note like thirty-five keys and each key activates a little tape running inside and I recorded my own sample banks for these three sounds, from Anne Müller on cello, Katinka Fogh Vindelev – the singer from Efterklang on the choir sound – and Ruth Velten on saxophone, so three wonderful girls played their beautiful instruments and I recorded them on tape and made a mellotron out of it. And then there’s the pipe organ which has fifty-six reed pipes like a proper church organ but mobile so you can bring it on tour and then there is a lot more new instruments that we are making new works and making new sounds.
I feel like I’m just starting now. I feel like I’m fully developed now [laughs] and now I really get the results I was always going for and looking for. It is a beautiful experience and 2015 is already a really good year and promising and I’m sure we’ll have a lot of fun.
It’s very exciting to hear of all these extra new instruments and sounds. It feels like you have this complete canvas to work from and no limit to the scope of your projects.
NF: Yeah there are totally different colours to work with, almost like you worked in black and white before and now you have blue, red and green and it gives you so many new pictures to paint with that, it’s fantastic. And I’m only just exploring and this also what I love about the tour is that it’s also crazy because you have all these old instruments which are old and fragile and could break on the tour so I have to bring technicians to repair them and we have to make a crazy production plan to make the show happen and this is already so demanding and a little too far. But on the other hand, I’m making music which is not released yet but I’m making the tour so I get better at these songs. I will start in Copenhagen with the first show, the first will be more like trying and looking and probably also making more failures but also really giving everything to make it work and to have a lot of charm and character. And in the end after six weeks of playing it every day, I will slowly refine my ideas and when I come home, I have the rest of the year off to make a record out of these new experiences and so I will have a lot of time to practice before I go to the studio and I think this way makes much more sense than making the record first and then going on tour.
It’s like that classic way of testing out new songs and the idea of road testing the new material.
NF: Exactly like you would make a small club tour first, then make the record and then you play the big rooms. [laughs] I wish I had a small club tour first but unfortunately I’m playing the big rooms [laughs] from the very beginning. So it will be an absolutely unpredictable experience and I’m very curious.
But I think that’s fundamentally the most inspiring part. As you mention the unpredictability, but for any live performance, I feel the audience reacts completely when you know it’s something that’s very much there in the moment as opposed to just someone going through the motions.
NF: Yes, I think that too.
I wonder if you had time to listen to any new records in the last while?
NF: Not really I must admit since I’m in this creative phase, I’ve stopped listening to music really. I just want to be in this bubble. In the car, I listen to talk radio and when I’m home I’m not listening to anything. It can be very irritating to be listening to too much music when you’re trying to hear your own songs but what I just got from a friend is ninety unreleased Boards of Canada tracks which I didn’t have. They don’t say if they really did it or not but you obviously hear it and I’m such a big fan of theirs. When I listen to something at the moment I’m listening to a big, big pool of great little songs.
‘Solo’ is available now on Erased Tapes Records while ‘Music For The Motion Score Victoria’ will be available on 15 June, also via Erased Tapes Records.