Mu­si­cian Nils Frahm talks about cre­at­ing emo­tions with sound

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - DREW ROOKE is a Syd­ney­based free­lance jour­nal­ist.

“That’s a great dis­cov­ery – when you re­alise that mu­sic is not just in­vok­ing emo­tions, but cre­at­ing emo­tions.”

Nils Frahm

“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 “neo­clas­si­cal” – 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 recital­go­ers 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.”

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