Nils Frahm at the Old Museum

Nils Frahm
Old Museum, Brisbane
Wednesday 8 October, 2014
By Alistair Noble

Walking on stage to perform, Nils Frahm kicked off his left sneaker to play organ pedals. The abandoned shoe sat on the front of the stage for the duration of the concert, and seemed to slowly take on some significance greater than just a casual redundancy, forming at once a simple human level bridge between audience and performer and also a small barrier, a distancing device. It was a nice simple sneaker, like the ones you’re wearing now. On this level Frahm is like you and I, and yet he was alone up there creating music with this one-shoed sensation. The sneaker seemed a quiet reminder that he is on a basic level one of us… and yet also very much not like us.

When Frahm talks between ‘songs’, as he calls his pieces, he adopts a casual, friendly banter. Self-deprecating and teasing. He’s like someone you might have met in a pub once, and maybe you did.

“Turn up your mobile phone so when someone calls you it’s really loud. I love that.”

“I don’t like to call myself a professional, because it sounds like I don’t love what I do, but…”

The stage set-up, like Frahm’s music is both generous and rigorously designed: one man alone with his piano and keyboards on a big, dark stage under a cosy, warm-toned spotlight. It feels somehow both intimate and remote. He plays with his back to the audience, so we can see what he is playing and how he plays it, but he doesn’t see us. For some songs he is clearly playing for us, and sometimes playing with us (“this is the point where at a techno festival you’d all be drunk and screaming ‘yeeeeeeaah!’ and thinking about fucking. Now we need to bring it up a bit.”). Occasionally, as with the beautifully expansive encore for solo piano, he seems to be playing for himself—floating in the comfortable embrace of fold-back speakers with us as privileged eavesdroppers.

You’ll have noticed by now that I’m writing this review a bit back-to-front. Instead of throwing out a first line about how great the music was, I’m circling around a bit. A very direct approach seems awkward for Frahm’s music, and I’m feeling that it is necessary to sneak up on it. But to be clear: this was a terrific performance of fascinating music from one of the more interesting musical minds of our post-everything time.

Seeing the Berlin-based Frahm for the first time in live performance was a revelation. Knowing his music only from recordings, I was surprised by the sheer energy required to perform some of this music live, and by the subtle shadows and moments of darkness. The relatively placid surfaces of his pieces in terms of sound quality, musical material, design and development rather disguise the underlying challenges and tensions, but this calm surface is very much an integral part of Frahm’s aesthetic. It is no accident that he often talks about the great influence of both the look and sound of ECM recordings on his early musical thinking. This is a composer-performer who thinks in terms of good design. Presentation is perhaps as important as structure and content. Introducing one song as ‘just a little idea I had during the sound-check”, he launched into a rather well-developed and complex improvisation, virtuosic in terms of both keyboard textures and musical thinking. Frahm’s work is full of pleasant surprises, twists and turns, and yet there is never a loss of control and the (dare I say) professional polish is maintained relentlessly. On every level, Frahm clearly sets a terrifically high standard of expectation for himself (and, I suspect, for his listeners although he might be too polite to say so). Near enough is really not good enough.

In his 2014 tours, Frahm is performing concerts built around material from his recent ‘Spaces’ CD which is itself made up of live recordings (or field-recordings, as Frahms prefers to call them) of songs from earlier releases. This reworking, revising and reframing of material is characteristic of Frahm, for whom the evolution of songs in different iterations of performance is perhaps an important aspect of creative process. In interviews, for example, he has spoken of the challenge of having to learn his own improvised pieces from studio recordings in order to play them in concert.

After a strong, loud electronic opening piece, with inflections of dub and distant echoes of Burial, Frahm settled into ‘Says’—a work in which delicate piano lines move across the implacable face of an auto-arpeggiated harmonic pedal-point. The melody seems to have some DNA inherited from Satie—not in the sense of quotation, but rather in tiny inflections of phrase and the way in which the melodic line moves against the static harmonic background. About 7 minutes into the piece, Frahms leaves the piano and turns to his electric keyboards. Suddenly the chords begin to move, and the previously flattened harmonic space opens out. The chord changes are simple and slow yet, coming after the long minutes of unmoving harmony, this sudden gear-shift in the harmonic rhythm seems vertiginously exciting, like a long, sweeping turn on the Grand Corniche at Monaco.

Said and Done’ is one of Frahm’s best-known piano songs, opening with a single note repeated fast and hard, to the point where the tone becomes brassy and pitch starts to bend as the string gives out under pressure. More than a full minute into the performance, a gloriously solitary bass-note heralds the beginning of the song itself, which unfolds slowly and deliberately around the continuing repeated note in the middle of the texture. Compositionally, one might suspect this fascination for pedal-points owes a debt to the harmonic stasis of electronic dance music, and no doubt it does to some extent. Here, however, the piano sound gives a clue to a more important aspect of Frahms’ music heritage: Keith Jarrett. But not just any Keith Jarrett. It seems to me that there is a very specific recording being referenced here in Jarrett’s 1980 ECM album of music by the early 20th century mystical teacher Gurdjieff. In these harmonies and in the structure of these melodies and chords there is a rather complex artistic and philosophical heritage. As Frahm himself said in an interview last year, “Each chord I play is not a bunch of certain separated notes, but it’s a symbol.”

Frahm’s identity as a contemporary pianist sits somewhere within a broad genre of present-day performer-composers who work with piano in different ways. His music is a little more abstract and less tune-focused than Rachel Grimes, and less involved with prepared-piano grittiness than Hauschka. Frahm seems quite comfortable playing piano alone, but in some ways his most distinctive voice is heard in the context of the piano augmented by electronics. Here, his well-defined creative aesthetic is once again clearly audible. He loves vintage keyboards, and eschews overt laptopping for more directly plugged-in effects driven from a modest interface of knobs and dials.

Essentially, it strikes me that part of the distinctive Frahm sound and style stems from the fact that it is vitally keyboard-driven, no matter what else might be going on. In ‘Hammers’, for example, he sings to emphasise a melodic line, but the piano always remains central. He has a rather breathtaking ability to play across and through his carefully set electronic delays, in such a way that the delay is not a mere colouristic effect but an integral part of the composition in terms of rhythm, harmony and even melodic structure (as in the central four-song set ‘For—Peter—Toilet Brushes—More’). He sometimes says, with typical modesty, that these pieces are easier to play than they sound but personally, I doubt it.

Musically, Frahm’s work sits in a special position that draws inspiration from composers like Erik Satie and John Cage, from much of the ECM catalogue of artists such as Jarrett, from vintage new age acoustic music, and also from electronica of various styles ranging from dance music to more abstract or ambient genres (sometimes quite seriously, but often as a wry parody). His melodies seem to grow organically, unfolding from very elemental materials: an interval, a chord or two, a bass note. When they have run their course, they again devolve into their constituent parts. This clever play with very fundamental aspects of musical material is one with very strong resonances in the classical music tradition but also invokes the late 20th century minimalism of Glass and Reich, and its more far-flung spin-offs in techno, dub, and some darker regions of metal. Western tonality and its tired old repertoire of triadic chords can be boring in contemporary music, but Frahm’s work has just enough edge to it, just enough abstraction, for me to forget about this most of the time. Still, I wonder what would happen if his harmonic possibilities ranged a little further afield.

Alongside the keyboard playing and electronics, Frahm’s work has a third crucial aspect: he is also a brilliant and imaginative sound engineer. The sheer quality of sound at this concert in Brisbane was some of the best I have ever heard. Frahm tours with a very fine engineer, and his own sound system (again, we see a careful and very personal control of all the aspects and parameters of a performance), but this is only part of the secret. Engineering factors such as microphone placement are an integral part of Frahm’s music, and his piano is surrounded by a finely-crafted web of mic arrays in different registers, under-string pick-ups and probably other things less obvious to the audience. In some pieces, such as the aptly titled ‘Toilet Brushes’ (yes, this involves hitting the piano with toilet brushes—John Cage would have been delighted) it almost sounds as though there are contact mics on the piano frame itself. The result of this is a unique ability to control the sound of the piano in different registers (the very low bass register, for example was gorgeous and unearthly, like a 32-foot organ stop), and to feed specific channels through effects.

At times, as one is drawn deeper into the world of Frahm’s musical thinking, uncanny things seem to happen. The distant drone of a semi-trailer exhaust-braking hits the pitch of a bass-note. A pair of passing police sirens flutter through an open space in the treble register. It is as though Frahm has a sorcerer’s ability to absorb these ‘outside’ sounds into his unfolding performance, as if he had fore-heard them inwardly.

Certainly, the full-house audience (with many bushranger beards and vintage party frocks in evidence) seemed to be strongly affected by this concert, judging by the careful attention with which people listened. Even the most simple of Frahm’s songs do seem to touch something deep in us, at a collective cultural level if that is possible. At times his music felt like a physical presence moving across the hall, the deep, slow breathing of something bigger than all of us, a zeitgeist. For all the horrors of the present day world (and there are dark moments even in Frahm’s work too, like the knob-twiddling that created a sound alarmingly like a heavy military helicopter coming in low), his performance seems to remind us that humans can be informed and intelligent in their work, that art can be beautiful and still true to the spirit of our times, that a person and perhaps also a society can be both critical and generous.

It ended, however, with a simple and unpretentious gesture: picking up that left sneaker and wandering off the stage a little lop-sidedly. “I’ll see you all outside after to say goodbye”, said Frahm. And he did.

– Alistair Noble

Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.

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