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Nils Frahm brings a playfulness to his serious compositions for piano and electronics, which leaves audiences delighted as well as enraptured. He vividly remembers crying when listening to English jazz saxophonist John Surman’s 1987 album, Private City, which mixes synthesisers with improvised saxophone.“It’s overwhelmingly powerful, emotional music that made me feel things that I didn’t know were in me. And that’s a great discovery – when you realise that music is not just invoking emotions, but creating emotions.”

By Drew Rooke.

Nils Frahm’s melody makers

Nils Frahm
Credit: Jerzy Wypych

“It’s hard with interviews. I would like to communicate to you in a different way. I wish I could just play my answers to questions because words are a constant regret for me, even though I use language in the most musical way I can.”

Nils Frahm is reclining on a mustard yellow couch in the restaurant of Canberra’s QT hotel. He’s had a relaxed morning ahead of his first performance later in the evening, as part of a world tour for his most recent album, All Melody.

“I feel like it’s still a square instrument, and whatever I say, when it echoes in my brain, I already wish I could change it. With music, I don’t really have that,” he says.

At 36, German pianist and composer Frahm has recorded nine solo albums and four solo EPs, and has collaborated with the likes of renowned hip-hop producer DJ Shadow and Icelandic pianist and producer Ólafur Arnalds. He has performed at the Royal Albert Hall, and his first film score release, Music for the Motion Picture Victoria – recorded in a single improvised take – won the esteemed German Film Award for Best Score in 2015. The music he makes has been dubbed “neo-classical” – not to be confused with the neoclassicism of Stravinsky – fusing free jazz, classical, dub, ambient and techno, and his fans are as likely to be regular recital-goers as they are clubbers.

Frahm, in an understated outfit of tracksuit pants and hoodie in khaki, black and grey, topped with a flat cap, isn’t just seeking to bend the possibilities of music but also of what it means to be a musical star. “I want to be sure that what I’m doing now still works with everything else that I loved about my life before I was successful,” he says. “I want to be able to share my life with the same people as before – my family, all of my old friends. And I want to show other people who might become successful in the future that they don’t need to freak out, and that they can still be absolutely humble and enjoy the small things.”

He stops talking to thank the young waitress who has just arrived at the table with the flat white he ordered minutes earlier. Her hands shake and she spills the coffee as she’s setting it on the table, and she flushes with embarrassment and apologises profusely.

“Don’t worry,” Frahm says, with a friendly face. “That’s totally fine.” She insists on taking it away and returns with a clean saucer and spoon.

“If you’re still able to be inspired by a good conversation before a concert with a homeless person who sleeps behind the venue,” he says, picking up where he left off, “…you know, maybe they’re the next amazing person you meet in life.”

He sips his coffee, puckers his lips and shakes his head. “I really don’t know how I got to where I am. It feels like a miracle.”

 

Born and raised in Hamburg, Frahm first learnt piano as a child from Nahum Brodski, a student of the last protégé of Tchaikovsky. A stern man, Brodski didn’t just teach Frahm piano, he also taught him discipline, and that personal suffering can be as necessary as ploughing the land before planting a crop if something beautiful is to grow.

But Frahm’s musical training also happened in his family home. His brother listened to techno, which was just beginning to blossom in Germany at the time, his mother to pop, and his father – a photographer who shot album covers for ECM Records – to jazz and classical. Although all the music he heard influenced his own compositions later, he was especially drawn to his father’s records. “I fell in love with my father’s musical collection, discovering music that felt like it wasn’t meant for kids. But I was able to hear it, and it blew me away.”

Hearing English jazz saxophonist John Surman was particularly profound for Frahm. He vividly remembers crying when listening to Surman’s 1987 album, Private City, which mixes synthesisers with improvised saxophone. “It’s overwhelmingly powerful, emotional music that made me feel things that I didn’t know were in me. And that’s a great discovery – when you realise that music is not just invoking emotions, but creating emotions.”

Fans of Frahm know that his own music is capable of similar emotional feats. It is simultaneously melancholic and euphoric, and can be so intense for some listeners that weeping and fainting are common at his concerts.

Such responses, he thinks, speak to something powerful but unknown that has long been suppressed in the listener. He says such responses are both very healthy – “like loosening a knot inside of you” – and an unsolvable mystery, “even to the most experienced musicians”. He points to one of his best-known, simple songs, “Says”, to elaborate. “It’s eight minutes long, and has the same chord which just gets a little louder,” he says. “But something really happens. I don’t understand. If I played it a half note down, it probably would not have worked the same.”

While his music is very serious, Frahm himself approaches the world with playfulness. Take the liner notes to his breakthrough 2013 album, Spaces – a small selection of more than two years’ worth of live recordings. He describes the opening track, “An Aborted Beginning”, as his “first, shy attempt in dub music? Please don’t frown, just smile.” He describes the song “Hammers” simply as “a workout”.

This playfulness is also apparent in his approach to making music. He made his 2012 album, Screws, for example, with nine fingers after he broke his thumb falling out of a bunk bed, and “Toilet Brushes” was produced by striking the insides of a grand piano with two toilet brushes. He stresses that the unconventional methods aren’t meant to ridicule the classical tradition. “I’m just showcasing that, for me to get further, I need this funny tool to help myself,” he says. “I wish I could do this with my 10 fingers. But no – in this moment, I just need to bang it this way.”

Mistakes during live performances also don’t faze him. “If something doesn’t work, it makes me smile, rather than freak out.” In the moment of performing, “nothing really horrible can happen”.

Frahm hopes that by seeing how he approaches his music, people might be inspired to approach their own lives in a similar fashion. He says it’s like if there is a group of people at a lake who have all forgotten their bathers. “They all stand back, then someone finally takes all their clothes off and jumps in. Everyone else sees that person having so much fun in the water and thinks, Fuck it. And then everyone goes naked and has a great time swimming together.”

 

Frahm considers his records that preceded All Melody as “lucky accidents”.

“I didn’t really know what to do – I was just doing things until they worked,” he says.

In 2016, after an intense touring period, he sought to take more control – “to learn piano again, to study, to turn my phone off, get any distraction out of my life, and focus on my craft”.

He did this in his newly acquired studio inside Berlin’s historic Funkhaus building. Built between 1953 and 1956, Funkhaus served as the recording and broadcast centre for the German Democratic Republic. Frahm’s studio – known as Saal 3 – was originally the building’s chamber music complex, and has, he writes in the liner notes for All Melody, “the most inspiring acoustics I’ve ever come across”.

He spent a year renovating the studio, redoing the cabling, electricity, woodwork and acoustics, as well as custom-building a mixing console. The decision to embark on such a complex project was, he says, “a decision towards professionalism”. The space he created became a laboratory to experiment with unwavering dedication, consuming little other music and often spending days at a time inside the studio, sleeping on a small makeshift bed of just a pillow and folded blanket. What he felt in the studio at that time, he says, is something he has “never felt before when making music”.

In All Melody the result is Frahm’s opus, his grandest statement yet. It incorporates his usual keyboard instruments along with a 12-piece choir, timpani, strings, trumpet, bass marimba and gongs. There are gentle moments, such as the opening track, “The Whole Universe Wants To Be Touched”, in which a harmonium respires softly beneath harmonising human voices, and more intense ones, such as the title track and its successor “#2”, where pulsing electronic beats gradually build to an overwhelming release. Interwoven, recurring motifs unify the album’s many different elements and moods, and act as a sort of guide through the vast realms of Frahm’s musical imagination.

After the current tour, Frahm says he’s eager to retreat to his studio. “I want to play piano. I want to finger-practise again, because I realise maybe I could actually become a really great pianist. I know I just need to practise, practise, practise.”

Still, he wonders whether music will always remain his focus. Frahm says he is deeply concerned by the erosion of basic human rights and the destruction of the environment, and believes we’re living in an age “where questing for the perfect piano sound might not be the first priority”. Every day he wakes up and feels like “the world is getting worse”.

I ask how he remains so positive and upbeat in the face of these realisations.

He laughs. “That’s my big secret,” he replies. After a moment, he lets the flippancy fade. “I think positivity is possible because we live in a mostly delusional state, and if we can make up our own problems, then we can also make up our attitude. And, like water flows from the top of a mountain to the bottom, it’s also set in stone that a good attitude always helps more than a bad one.”

Frahm finishes his coffee and sets off to walk to the nearby Canberra Theatre Centre for the soundcheck for tonight’s show. There’s an excited bounce in his step. He stops at the red-tip photinia shrubs that line the footpath. “That red,” he says, pointing to the leaves. “It’s beautiful.”

 

Just after 8pm, the venue’s doors are closed and Frahm appears on stage. He smiles and bows to the audience. His vast set-up – virtually his entire studio – is arranged in two U-shaped islands. There are two drum machines, four space echoes, a mixing box, three synthesisers, two keyboards, a midi controller, a harmonium, a toy piano, a Danish upright piano and a grand piano.

In two-and-a-half hours, he moves between each island performing extended, improvised versions of tracks from All Melody as well as his earlier albums. He shifts seamlessly from entrancing classical piano where his hands move so fast they seem to hover over the keys like hummingbirds, to blissful, arpeggiating, synthesiser-led ambient, and to minimal techno during which he fiddles with the many knobs and taps the many buttons on his assembled machines, all the while with a wild grin on his sweaty face.

Watching him perform, I’m reminded of something he said earlier in the day. “All the craziness with my instruments – it’s a rush. An absolute kick. And I love exhibiting this crash with instruments in front of people. I find out everything about myself in that moment of making music.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 3, 2018 as "Frahm machinery". Subscribe here.

Drew Rooke
is a Sydney-based freelance journalist.