Fluid Metrical Feels, Delay Effects, And Rhythm In Nils Frahm’s “A Place” and “#2”

Over the past few weeks I’ve been spending quality time with Nils Frahm’s latest recording, All Melody. The album alternates between intimate solo piano work that is perhaps Frahm’s signature quietudes sound, and more expansive (and long) pieces built upon rolling electronic keyboard arpeggios swirling in delay-effected, rhythm deluges. Not that we need to categorize him, but Frahm is a hard-to-categorize one-man band: he’s a keyboardist, composer, and music producer who makes electronic and acoustic music with an arsenal of vintage gear including pianos intimate and grand, fender Rhodes, analog synthesizers, computer software, pipe organs, percussion, mixing boards, and effects units. The music is a mix of neo/post-classical, dub, and at times, reinvented electronic minimalism. The important thing is that it’s very listenable.

Two of the more fascinating tracks on All Melody that showcase Frahm’s expansive sensibility are “A Place” and “#2.” These pieces are for the most part instrumentals (with bits of women’s choir and strings here and there) built around layered arpeggios that ebb, flow, and circle around, slowly building towards the deluge. In some ways, the pieces evoke Tangerine Dream’s sequencers, Terry Riley’s A Rainbow of Curved Air rhythmic drones, and even the evolving processes of Steve Reich’s Drumming, but Frahm has evolved his own musical thing. Somehow his pieces sound like classic electronic music that could have been made in the early 1970s but at the same time sounds very right now.

There are a few qualities that keep “A Place” and “#2” interesting. The first is their subtle metrical feels: “A Place” is in four, and “#2” has a three/six/twelve-beat feel. In neither piece do you hear 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4 downbeats hammered out: “A Place” disguises its four feel through unusual phrasing, and in “#2” the 1-2-3-4-5-6-1-2-3-4-5-6 feel sounds circular, overlapping, and flowing. In this regard, the music’s roundness recalls one of last year’s most talked about electronic music recordings, Jlin’s Black Origami, whose six-beat rhythms I wrote about here. A second quality of Frahm’s music is how its filter effects are an intrinsic part of its structure: the music moves not only through melodic and harmonic shifts, but also through various slow-changing filters that open and close the music’s timbres. These effects cast a spell and as you listen you follow timbral changes unfolding as the music and your attention unfold along with them. A third quality that keeps Frahm’s music interesting is that its fluid metrical feel is continually accented and syncopated even though there aren’t any prominent drums or drum sounds in the mixes. Taken together, the music’s subtle metrical feel, filter effects, and lack of an overt boom-boom drum track keep its sound open yet organized a beautiful way.

Frahm has great touch: he has a feel for knowing how much and how little to put into the music and what strikes me listening to these pieces repeatedly is an exquisite sense of musical restraint and pacing whereby just the right rate of change is perfect design, and seven or nine and a half minutes perfect track length. On “A Place” and “#2” there’s enough variation to make the music dramatic and enough stasis and ambiguity to preserve a sense of mystery.

Here is a video interview with Frahm at his new studio where he recorded All Melody:

Musical Depth

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depth
the distance from the surface to the bottom of something; the apparent existence of three dimensions in a two-dimensional representation; complexity or profundity of thought

As I wrote here a few years ago, music is a depth experience par excellence, that seems to have built into its design an endless capacity to conjure virtual spaces. We might even say about this conjuring, to borrow from the musicologist David Burrows, that music’s work is to model the depths of different kinds of experiences for us in sound, from the gamut of emotions to more abstract yet tactilely real sensations, such as how we experience the surfaces and bottoms of spaces and places. Here is Burrows:

“Seeing music as a model could seem cold or trivializing. But the urgencies and the passions of living are among the things that music models: music doesn’t belong to the detached world of mathematical modeling. And there is nothing trivial about the musical enterprise: it is far removed from toy model airplanes or fashion models on runways. Certainly we are not consciously engaged in modeling when involved with music. Nobody turns on the stereo, kicks back and says, ‘Now for a little temporal modeling.’ If music is modeling at all, it is preconscious, participative, processual modeling: not the sort of model you stand back from and consider as you might a model to scale of the Colosseum in Rome. You live it” (David Burrows, Time and the Warm Body: A Musical Perspective on the Construction of Time, 2007, p.69).

Music offers opportunities for experiencing various kinds of depth, including melodic and harmonic depth, rhythmic depth, and timbral depth. Melodies and harmonies have depth in that their pitches outline chords—with roots and fifths, octaves and ninths, tones and semitones—that trace a kaleidoscope of virtual shapes. A repeating blues I-IV-V progression, for example, evokes something like short journey in space, doesn’t it? It’s a familiar, reliable, and comforting kind of travel that goes and returns while serving as an open-ended frame for supporting melodies (more virtual shapes) above it. Rhythmic depth is created through music’s repetitions and syncopations, its polyrhythms (e.g. 2 against 3), its accents, its meter (e.g. 4/4 or 12/8), and its layers of different note densities (e.g. the drummer drums quarter notes while the bass player fills in steady eighths). Timbral depth (or tone color) is created through layering different instrumental (and non-instrumental) sounds. Whether it’s a voice paired with an accordion, a ride cymbal over a snare drum, brass blended with woodwinds, or a mix of synthesizer pads, music’s timbral combinations create ever-changing depths. And finally, music has depth of volume or dynamics. A Japanese shakuhachi flute or bass music penetrating our bodies into dance submission are just two extremes of how music creates depth by being very quiet or very loud.

Yet all of these different kinds of depth serve what I think is music’s most important quality: its emotional depth or depth of feeling. A fact that never ceases to amaze me is how music exists within a single dimension (sound) yet has four-dimensional effects. This is why music built from the barest of materials (two hands clapping rhythms, or a shakuhachi solo) can create multiple emotional bandwidths, proving that depth of feeling is music’s most virtual quality: you hear one thing and feel other things on a different level of experience. No wonder the highest compliment one musician pays another is saying that their music is deep.

Curating The Week: Leftfield Dub, The Secret Happy Chord, Ambient Music At 40

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An article on leftfield dub.

“Certain operators in the electronic diaspora can be found exploring dub studio practices to create idiosyncratic music that feels inherently spawned from the heritage of soundsystem music without adhering to any particular rules.”

An article on the “secret” chord for songs that sounds happy.

“Unexpectedly, [the researchers] found that seventh chords—chords with four different notes rather than the usual three—had an even higher association with positive words, even in the case of minor seventh chords.”

An assessment of ambient music after 40 years.

“Since 1978, ambient has achieved a considerable legacy, offering a fertile ground upon which many divergent musical crops have been tended and cultivated. Its ability to refuse didacticism – the idea that the music should convey some kind of information or instruction – has remained a critical function of its success. Ambient proposes a chance for an open, impressionistic encounter that welcomes a wide array of potential readings, tailoring the music to individual situations and listenings.”

Step Sequenced

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The repeating sequence
has a fixed number of steps
that return again and again

a sixteen beat cycle, one measure of time
downbeats—1, 5, 9, 13—on the kick
backbeats—3, 7, 11, 15—on the snare
offbeats—2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, and 16—on the hats

the groove locked
tempo steady
rhythms measured

a repeating sequence just like your life.