Published Mar 21, 2014Despite being an early show on a Thursday, with doors at 6 p.m., Berlin-based experimental pianist Nils Frahm filled the Electric Owl to capacity in his first Vancouver appearance. As the evening progressed, Frahm would come to refer to the increasingly steamy space as a unisex sauna. By the end, he had nearly sweated through his t-shirt, but the tenacity with which he performs was as much to blame as the compounding body heat in the room.
When he worked a small mixer and rack synth, Frahm would contort his body while wiggling his butt, using his focused gestures as much as his fingers to coax his sounds out into the ether. When he turned manically toward the piano, attacking waves of repeated, fractured melodies with all the energy at his command, his head bobbed with each right hand strike, while his face wrenched into a grimace so severe that his sweat could be confused for tears. He had the inimitable face of a man with courage in his convictions, every note seemingly endorsed by his very soul. Sometimes, he would sing the chord progressions to himself, so loudly at times that they were audible through his piano mics.
Frahm's prowess had the packed crowd hypnotized. The place was nearly silent for "Said and Done," from his latest album, Spaces (and originally from 2009's The Bells), a minimalist composition à la Philip Glass, and "You" from Screws, a brilliantly sweet solo piano piece. But between the moments of dramatic electro-acoustic bliss and solo piano elegance — he took a bow with a smile and his hands folded in prayer whenever he didn't segue seamlessly from one track to another — Frahm lightened the mood with his wry, distinctively German sense of humour. He noted that he was accustomed to playing stuffy classical venues, but the access to the bar was nice, and subsequently recommended schnapps for nerves. He also jokingly put on the toque he brought with him, assuming Vancouver would be cold instead of seven degrees and sunny.
Stage presence aside, the focus was always on Frahm's music. He'd play with one hand on the piano and the other crossing over to a Fender Rhodes, playing with downy softness one second and hammering away at the keys the next, so ferociously that it looked as though his hands may seize. He did confess that his assigned piano had acted up in sound check, requiring much retooling, and that he planned on beating the crap out of it and burning it down. After he played what he said was his last beautiful track, an apparently untitled piece, he said the piano would not survive the show, that sometimes the pianos he meets on the road are friends and sometimes they're enemies, and it can be interesting either way.
Those hopelessly devoted either to rock or classical music often express an inherent distrust in technology, but Frahm bridges the gap between electronic sound and acoustic skill so effortlessly that the boundaries seem arbitrary. He transitioned straight from the nakedness of "You" to static-laden, drum machine house, and his encore piece "Familiar" started on piano before venturing into kosmiche and, briefly, IDM territory. "For - Peter - Toilet Brushes - More" had a brick-crumbling bass drone, but near the end, Frahm started drumming on the lidless piano's strings with what he claimed were musical toilet brushes (He assured us he didn't get them from the venue's bathrooms).
This drumming enhanced the natural percussive base of the piano, but Frahm went a step further, drumming on the mics themselves for a sort of snare sound, before returning to the Rhodes and piano keyboards simultaneously. You can't get much more electro-acoustic than that. Seeing him perform, one gets the sense that Nils Frahm would find a way to make music even if he was just a head in a jar.
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