Nils Frahm Playing With Space and Time

Nils Frahm Playing With Space and Time
Photo: Michal O'Neal

Nils Frahm has always had a large crossover appeal and something of a cult status in the electronic and indie music worlds — due to his accessible yet experimental sound and his position on the much loved Erased Tapes label — but 2013 saw the young German pianist enjoy a stronger presence than ever in the public consciousness. As well as an EP of re-workings of his 2011 single Juno by Luke Abbott and Clark and a collaboration with F.S. Blumm, it was live where Frahm's talents really shone. Playing around the globe from Japan to Belgium and notable headline performances in North American electronic music festivals such as MUTEK and Decibel, last month Frahm released Spaces, his first collection of live recordings that capture the spirit and range of Frahm live in 2013. Exclaim! caught up with him recently during a trip to New York for the album's release performance.

The overriding concept of Spaces is how different venues have their own unique character, yet you don't reveal in which spaces the tracks were recorded. Why is that?
Initially the plan was to name the places I recorded it in, but in the end, that wasn't important to me. There's something intriguing and beautiful about the idea that you don't know. The spaces speak for themselves I think; we don't really need to name them. I also didn't want to make a secret about the editing I had to do to make it a cohesive listen, although I don't think it's a very cohesive album anyway — it's kind of all over the place — but to make it as close to a cohesive listen as possible I had to do all these editing tricks, like going around the globe finding the perfect room for each song. In any case, there isn't a perfect room for a whole set of mine; the louder songs might work better in a bigger room and the quieter songs in a smaller room, or vice versa, but I've never felt like all the songs in a performance were nailed in one room. There was one moment when a cellphone rings and I like the fact that the people who were there and who laughed at the phone ringing during the performance will know they were there.

At MUTEK this year you played some of the same pieces across three very different performances. What factors do you think have the most impact to how it can come across differently?
I think as a listener it changes because you listen to it again. The first time you'll get a certain impression but the second time it will appear very differently to you, like when you watch a movie twice. The set structure was different on the second night and it depends what kind of mood I'm in on a given night and depends on the audience and the space. Sometimes when I'm exhausted and I feel like I'm getting weak I press the boost button on the jetpack and I play a bit more aggressively, a bit like how in martial arts you use the weight of your enemy, I use the weight of my exhaustion and try to use it in the music somehow.

On Spaces and in your live shows in general it seems like there's a lot of improvisation.
Yeah, it always has been. The pieces are not so complex in their structure. It's more or less in the tradition of jazz standards, where everybody knows the basic structure of the chords but then how the song is played varies depending on the context. I like to see my set in that realm where you have a basic idea you stick to, but on the fly you decide if you want to make the song longer or shorter or climax in the same way or a different way. It also enables me to flexibly adjust to the set-up or setting I'm playing in and that really helps, like tailoring a suit to fit somebody's body, so I think every night has a different atmosphere, a different vibe and I like to adjust to each evening's situation with my set.

Is that important to you to keep it interesting?
Yeah, it has to be that way otherwise I would play exactly the same, I would get a little bored with them. I feel like a lot of bands do at times when they tour too much and play too many shows, they get really tight and really planned out but something important might be missing, like the spontaneous element or the sense of everybody being really aware of what's going on. I've played bands where we had a very structured set and played a long tour and it would be pretty much the same every night but it wouldn't work every night because there might be only one or two venues where the set as you planned in the rehearsal really worked. When you move it from a little black box situation into a big church, for example, then the same set might not work.

You need to adjust the music to the longer reach of the church so when I come to a big church I play the piano very differently as opposed to [Le] Poisson Rouge [in New York] where you have a more dead-sounding room, you can play very differently. That really keeps the music alive and enables me to write new material while I'm performing, which is great because I'm on tour so much that in sound check, and at performances, I come up with new ideas, or little accidents which happen might inspire me for an idea for a new part of a song. Sometimes it just doesn't work so well and I'm not so thrilled with my ideas or my performance but that's the thrill of it — I can surprise myself in a positive way or a negative way and it's a bit of a gamble. It's kind of like extreme sports without the danger of dying. [Laughs]

How much improvisation is happening in a studio context?
All the performances on my recorded works were also based on improvisation. I keep the microphones set up at all times in my studio and I leave them running. The way I work is usually I'm at home and if I feel like playing a little bit I just record without listening back. Listening back is a very different thing to recording and not listening back. I just record and record and listen back maybe a couple of months later then I isolate the bits that I find intriguing or solid and maybe do a few edits on one take, cutting it down from five minutes to four minutes and that's pretty much what ends up on the album.

For example, Felt was recorded like that. I was just recording a lot of material as improvisations and sometimes recording a similar take ten times, but like in this jazz style with different solo parts or a different touch. I never compose a piece throughout. I have maybe a basic structure but also I want the finished recording to be a unique performance — something I won't repeat note for note. The only song that's not like that is the first one I recorded on the piano — "Ambre" on Wintermusik — that's maybe the only song that I could play note for note as I've written it, but that's a very old song from 2007 and since then my style of writing and recording music has changed.

Why do you think that your music seems to resonate so strongly with electronic music crowds?
That's a good question. I think that my music could resonate with almost anybody. I had three generations in my audience at times — for example, a grandmother with a son and granddaughter came up to me after a show — and they would all go because they liked maybe different elements of my music. The idea is also to build a bridge for all the people from different countries on the musical map. To show electronic people the beauty of classical music, and show classical listeners the beauty of electronic sounds. I've had reactions from the more classical, academic musical audience tell me how much they much they liked the synthesiser parts and how they don't usually listen to electronic music.

Would you ever consider a whole album of your synth-based music like Juno and "Says"?
I haven't planned to do so. I use a synthesiser in the live performance to give a dynamic counterpoint to the quieter pieces on the piano and I think the synthesiser makes the acoustic piano sound even more acoustic and the acoustic piano makes the synthesiser sound even more synthesized. Each element becomes stronger because of the existence of the other and I like the mixture of the two. In my live set there are these really quiet moments and then really loud moments kind of like what Sonic Youth do, and you define the space by scaling it up in that way, but if it was only loud, electronic pieces I feel like it would be too monochromatic.

What I like is that by leaving out the full electronic song and just maybe soloing this one synthesiser sound, it makes it more timeless-sounding and makes it hard to put it in any style or any musical scene. The electronic world especially is pretty packed with labels such as grime, dubstep, deep house, tech house — there are all these genres and I think all these genres are quite narrow and they narrow down people's possibilities and make people expect certain things from you and I'm fighting that idea a little bit on Spaces. I fight the idea of being the classical pianist, I fight the idea of being an electronic artist. It might change with the next record — there might be no piano at all or it might be another solo piano album.

Do you listen to a lot of electronic music?
I get inspired by techno music and the four-on-the-floor beat. The song "Hammers" is really rhythmically fully a piano thing but I could never have composed that on the grand piano without listening to electronic music. For me, it was interesting to take the idea of sequenced music but express the idea on a classical instrument which was more interesting to me than trying to make a four-on-the-floor track myself. I personally appreciate all kinds of music, even certain metal and hardcore bands that are amazing. I listen to a '40s jazz record in the same way I listen to a Jon Hopkins release — I'm just curious about the tones and the frequencies and how harmonies change. Music is sound and sound is music to me. Also, a specific attitude is important. If you look at what Neil Young did — he was so powerful and strong in his expression, and he put so much meaning into his vocals and then there are other vocalists that sound perfectly in pitch and it might sound flawless but there's no soul in it. I'm always on the lookout for musicians that have that specific attitude. If I can't see the purpose of somebody's music I'm not really interested in listening to it.

It seems like 2013 was a good year for you.
Yeah, I'm really happy right now with the reactions. I didn't expect this kind of reaction to my music when I started doing it, because it's quite hard to put in any corner and now to feel like all these factors work in my favour and people get excited about my music having no handle makes me really thrilled. I want to keep that spirit, try to [stay] unpredictable. I want to surprise myself every time I make music. I want to feel like it's fresh and I don't want to bore myself. In a way it gets harder to find ways to create new ideas. It's a good time for music.

Do you think that's because genre boundaries are breaking down somewhat?
Yes, I guess so. For example, it's good to see Pantha Du Prince in a seated venue using classical instruments and playing to a younger crowd. Once people know that concert experience they are maybe quite thrilled to go to a John Cage performance or a Steve Reich or a Phillip Glass concert. Maybe they will listen to Thelonious Monk and other people who did beautiful solo piano albums and that would be exciting if I can help my fans sharpen their ears and be open for new sounds and experiences and experiments. When you listen to all the music we have from the past you realise that the bar is really high and we need to find new, more radical ways of expressing ourselves to compete with what already exists.

For some reason there's a big divide in music today. There's music is radical and interesting and worth listening to but on the other hand there is all this canned music. Music where they'll only use synthesised strings and instruments and free samples and Garageband where you can make your own track out pre-recorded portions and this whole other side of the music where everything gets super user-friendly and music gets super easy to make and everybody can be an artist today and that approach and attitude is something that I try to neglect. When I turn on the radio and listen to mainstream music market right is really disappointing and everything sounds the same. I don't even know if in 40 years people will listen back to this music and find it even funny or charming. Music from our childhood, we might laugh about because it's at least hilarious how odd-sounding it is. I'm definitely saying goodbye to the idea of being associated with mainstream music at any given point, because I feel like there's such a big divide between music listeners that are intellectuals, artists and open-minded spirits who are into something new and then there are a big portion of people who just turn on the radio and are okay about whatever is running. I don't really want to make music that is just consumed like a burger at McDonald's.

What's the plan for 2014?
[Laughs] So much! I'm working on a second collaboration album with a cellist called Anne Müller. We did an album called 7 Fingers in 2010 and we're working on a follow-up that will be part of a dance production. I'll be playing the Berliner Philharmonie in March, then an electronic music festival in Amsterdam, MUTEK Barcelona. I might potentially be working on a movie score, then there's a score for another theatre piece in Copenhagen. I'm also working on some solo piano work recording on the largest grand piano in the world. There was only one ever built — it's four metres long and it's situated in Germany. I'm really curious about that. I'm going to be working with a percussion ensemble. I'll also be back to the U.S. in March to play some shows, including SXSW — 2014 looks really full!