Between the musical chairs

MUTEK rang up Frahm to wax poetic about piano, shifting musical fashions, the magic of unrehearsed performances and taking cues from the great Glenn Gould.

Michael-Oliver Harding - May 24, 2013
Between the musical chairs

German piano virtuoso Nils Frahm, is nothing like what you’d expect a 30-year-old composer schooled in the purest Tchaikovsky tradition, to soundlike. For one, Frahm’s unconventional approach to the instrument and his audacious improv work take their cues from a slew of classical and contemporary influences. Always mindful to rethink his sound practice and break down any stale creative habits that might stifle what he describes as “happy accidents”, Frahm’s compositions are both pared-down and subtly intricate, beautifully tender and brave, always acknowledging the singular spaces in which they’re recorded.

Since founding the Durton Studio in 2008, Frahm has rushed to the fore an exciting new wave of classically trained contemporaries (Peter Broderick, Ólafur Arnalds, Anne Müller), for whom age-old instruments merely serve as a point of entry to explore much broader, often uncharted musical realms. MUTEK rang up the imaginative Frahm to wax poetic about shifting musical fashions, the magic of unrehearsed performances and taking cues from the great Glenn Gould.

A constant throughout your work seems to be how you use your classical training as a jumping off point to explore a rich tapestry of sound. Have you always appreciated music in such a way?

Absolutely. When I play the piano, I use my classical training to create a certain sound I hadn’t imagined. When I hear that sound and I feel like it’s something new, then I try to explore and hold the moment, and recreate it afterwards. I try to be as non-technical about the instrument as possible, only using my very free spirit.

The piano is capable of doing quite unexpected things. I love when I hear people who aren’t classically trained or even very good at the piano. Often, someone with a certain vision might hit a tone or sound that is unheard of, like Thelonious Monk. I like to regard music as a sound phenomenon, no matter what music it is. What matters is what comes out of the speakers.

You once described what you do as spontaneous creations, unburdened by words or singing, that transcend the piano. Could you elaborate on that?

What I focus on is to interact with a situation in a rather spontaneous way. I like to keep my music open to improvisation, to happy accidents. The music I make is built around the piano because it’s the instrument I’m best at. But I try to transcend the piano – I want the listener to have a profound listening experience and not really know what he’s experiencing. It’s not so much about style or a certain kind of approach; I love all kinds of music, but what I really love about music is what’s between the bars or between the lines.

In some of your recordings, you incorporate sounds other musicians might frown upon – whether piano keys crackling or the sound of your breathing. Is that part of your fascination with the recorded experience?

Yes, that’s a good example. Imagine I want to mic a piano to record it, then I notice that I not only hear the notes, but also the mechanical aspect of the instrument along with it. That’s different from all the piano recordings I know. So when someone notices that something’s different, they usually try to get rid of it, because they want their recording to sound as good as all the recordings they’ve previously known.

I actually want to emphasize that. I push elements that are usually diminished or attenuated, thereby pretty much guaranteeing that what I achieve will be unheard of. There’s so much music out there, it’s difficult enough to define yourself and find ground nobody has touched upon before, so I want to feel like my piano records can stand on their own.

You’ve also said that you make no distinction between sound and music itself –that you consider yourself a recording artist above all else. Why is that?

Well, I put as much care into how my piano sounds on a recording than what I play. I think that’s what I learned from Glenn Gould. He was also obsessed with the way he wanted to record his piano and, at a certain point, he was going completely nuts with that! You realize it’s not only important to develop a sound on an instrument but you also need to record it so it carries what you want to achieve. It’s great if you’re experienced enough to get there, but what often comes along with that are accidents, unexpected things you stumble upon. Then, it’s all about your sensibility and aesthetic, and your ability to make a right or left turn and follow the accident.

You seem to cherish these intimate accidents as hidden incentives, especially in live performance contexts. Do you always aim to take the spontaneous, off the beaten path when facing a crowd?

Well, of course it doesn’t work every single night, but I try to be as conscious, open and positive about each possible accident that can arise. Because when you get into certain patterns and you do things a certain way, you get kind of deaf and blind – accidents happen and you just freak out; you want it your way instead of thinking and reflecting about all the untapped possibilities. Personally, that often leads to something new, and that’s where I really learn something – on stage. I’ve learned so much about music ever since I started playing live shows.

The international response to your work is pretty unanimous, as is a certain qualifier to describe your musical spirit: melancholy. Do you agree with the emotional consensus?

I guess… But to me, that’s the kind of music that makes me happy. I’ve had to think about the idea of melancholy quite a bit because people ask me so often. The answer I’ve found, what melancholy means for me, is that I turn negative feelings into art and transcend bad feelings into sad but beautiful feelings. People tell me that they cry a lot when they hear my music live, but I wonder if it’s a tear of happiness at contemplating something beautiful – an emotional reaction, which I think is always good. I don’t want to use my music for anything fashionable – it is not my aim to put on a show. So maybe I’m a melancholy performer or a quiet thinker, and the thoughts I’m having sound something along those lines.

Your delicate balance of technology in music is quite impressive – oscillating between pure piano compositions (“Felt”, “Screws”) and more electronic-minded pieces (“7 Fingers”). What is your relationship to electronic music?

I love electronic music. But then there are so many people who only love electronic music. For me, it is wonderful if I can help people wonder if there really are so many barriers between those musical islands. To me, it’s mostly about loving a certain spirit to the music. I want my music to be free from any kind of fashion, as I always sit between the chairs. I’m not sitting on a jazz festival, or an electronic festival, or a classical program, or a rock venue, that’s why I feel so happy about playing at all these different events. There aren’t many musicians who can play in such diverse situations while always keeping people surprised. That’s such a wonderful feeling… to surprise people.


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