Never Sit Still: An Interview with Nils Frahm

Sandra Song

Nils Frham

Photo by Tracy Morter.

To put it quite simply, Nils Frahm is an upender, or a man of multiple approaches always searching for a way to make things sound a little bit different or a hair toward the unexpected.

The proof is in his eager anticipation of a new arsenal of customized instruments he’s commissioned, because the hardest part of his work thus far is ensuring that it all sounds like what he hears in his head. From handmade organs to single-string pianos that sound like harps, “They sound like you’re kind of overcoming music”, he explains excitedly.

“Before I was just modifying existing instruments that I could get, because I had to change them in a way so that they’d fit my needs.”

He pauses for a moment, considering this, the relief evident in his voice, “This was a faster, more straightforward approach.”

But the 32-year-old Berlin-based composer will have to wait a little longer to actually play with his toys, as he’s currently in the midst of completing the North American leg of his epic Spaces tour. En route to Vancouver after the kickoff show in Seattle, he sounds weary on the phone, his voice quiet and cracking in a few places. Whether it’s jet-lag or the result of being stuck in a crawling border check queue has yet to be determined.

Either way, it’s too easy to use this border crossing as a symbolic metaphor for the way he’s so deftly defied any sort of pigeon-holing the past few years—whether it concerns medium or sonic intersectionality or instrumentation. After all, he’s already garnered an international reputation as a straddler of genres, technologies and musical traditions due to his penchant for the unconventional. And from his series of handmade instruments to an album of notated sheet music, it’s easy to see how Frahm is mainly known for flirting with techniques and theoretical implications that one wouldn’t typically associate with piano music. Or at least, in the (contemporary) classical sense of the term.

And he takes it all one step further with his most recent release, Spaces—his most well-received album to date. Spaces is a sprawling, epic work, lauded as an experience in and of itself. A way to get that much closer to the honesty of a live experience, as the carefully plotted (and eponymous) spaces wedged in between notes lends the entire work a power yet to be heard within your typical studio recording.

“By the end of tour you refine ideas and wish you could record it now,” he explains with a little laugh. “Which is what I wished happened before, so I just thought, ‘Why don’t I do that first?’”

Nils Frahm

Photo by Michal O’Neal.

Initially a mere memory-keeper to document how his new material sounded, he played with the possibility of actually turning these files sitting on his hard drive into something tangible for his listeners.

“I realized it might be nice just to take the best pieces of all these recordings and collage them into a concert of how I imagine it should be,” he explains eagerly. “I thought it would be great to just sort of take all my favorite moments and make it a live recording but almost as if you would in the studio on stage.”

And it launches us into a conversation on the implications of medium. How the energy he infuses into this reworked do-over of sorts offers a chance to reflect and prep for a tour that would be the distillation of all his work thus far.

“It was good to have because I will always be exactly in that space, that moment when I was recorded,” he says. “And like after the shows people were always asking, ‘What can I take home from what I just experienced?’ But before Spaces I couldn’t really tell them what to do.”

Frahm pauses a moment, thinking of a way to distill it all into one short artist statement of sorts, finally deciding on, “Taking on the challenge of making a bootleg recording to kind of recreate this experience was behind it.”

After all, far from one of those dreaded live recordings à la Woodstock or The Monterey Jazz Festival, it’s a masterful collage of past works, each performed in a different context, yet presented as one cohesive piece meant to be deconstructed in one fell swoop. And in turn, you feel a spectrum of emotions from start to finish, as Spaces is a glimpse into his ever-undulating world of crescendos and quarter notes. An especially poignant gesture as Frahm is a man with multiple pianos, an extensive repertoire, and an entire van-load’s worth of equipment. His gear trailer is telling of the hurdles he faces in translating such intricate, expansive pieces into individual records. According to him, there’s also something special about the experience of performance.

“Stress is more or less a negative expression that I’m talking about,” he insists.

Instead he prefers “excitement,” the sort of rush you get from the idea of being “a one-take performance.” If you mess this up you can’t play it again and this makes it very different, the focus is stronger and it’s just a different feeling because you only have this one shot.”

An especially difficult feat for someone with such an incredible backlog of material, from the mad flurry of “Hammers” to the mesmerizing ripples of “For”, Spaces is the first time he showcased a carefully collaged compilation of works. The ultimate sampler of sorts, from which he’s reworked, reframed and curated. It’s an album that grows along with Frahm as an artist and is an honest chronicle of the growing pains many experience, yet rarely get the chance to share.

His notated release Sheets, released at around the same time as Spaces, was also heralded as an innovative presentation of his work, though the two works were never really intended to fit together. However, it did spur Frahm to ponder the beginning of a series called “Eins”, which will add more print editions of previous works to his catalog. Another way for him to experiment with reformatting traditional modes of musical presentation.

“As an artist you commit yourself to express yourself,” he says. “Music is one possibility and making a book isn’t a different language. It’s just a different way of expressing ideas.”

And though many will insist he has a master plan and is always looking for a new way to present his work, none of it is actually intentional.

“I hope I come up with more ideas to blur the borders of the like classical forms of presenting a musicians work. That would be lovely,” he says. “But it doesn’t even feel like I’m doing anything completely different when it comes to the details. I may have some ideas that may be unconventional at times, but first and [foremost] it’s more like a task approach.”

A stillborn pause hangs in the air as he ponders the notion.

“Like right now, all I want to do is work on the album, which isn’t really all that different from what I usually do,”

He lets out a low chuckle before continuing: “but the story of how I actually do it… like I’m sure there’ll be some things I haven’t discovered yet. To create something as an artist that I don’t already have in my record collection. That drive will bring you to places where you think no one has been, and that’s exciting.”

There’s a mischievous air around the way he’s playing coy, “I’m curious myself.”

Take the film he’s working on right now with German director Sebastian Schipper; the first feature-length he’s actually cleared time out to work on, as he felt it channeled the same sort of adrenaline that fueled Spaces. Filmed all in one take, Frahm says, “the outcome is absolutely stunning.”

“I know what it takes to do things in one take, as we just talked about,” he explains. “I totally admire stuff like that and I thought it’d be a good match to work on a movie, which has this kind of energy I was just expressing on my recent record.”

And as someone who’s always trying to keep us on our toes, Frahm is keeping a tight lip on things, but hinted at a few collaboration albums and surprise projects in the works. “I haven’t even talked to anyone yet,” he says with a laugh.

One thing he is sure of though is that in addition to new releases, there will also be a new live tour featuring new material that will not be available for recording. This of course prompts a discussion about the implications of technology, handheld recording and video uploads, which Frahm just shakes his head at and chalks up to having, “something to do with patience.”

“Knowing how hard it is to make a good recording of a concert now, I know that it can’t be done on an iPhone and that it doesn’t really make sense to watch that stuff online to get an opinion of an artist,” Frahm says. “I think this can kind of kill music, you know. Like bad sounds, bad quality kills good music and so I just hope that people still use it consciously… wait for a time when you can get it in good quality.”

He continues.

“I learned that I can try to translate a live performance into a record and the record worked,” he thinks it over for a moment, trying to articulate it. “But still there’s something that you can’t put on CD, that you can’t put on record. It just has to be experience live and I want to explore what that is more. Like if I played a tour first with new material and recorded afterward, I’d already know how I wanted to play it.”

He apologizes after this, saying he has to take another interview in a moment, but not before one final question. I can sense he’s a little nonplussed, so I attempt to loop our conversation back toward our original line of inquiry, asking if it’s at least fair to say he’s upending the presentation process. To which he laughs a little, answers with a resounding “Exactly”, all before excusing himself to take the waiting call.

Nils Frahm’s Spaces is out now on Erased Tapes.

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