Notes On A Nils Frahm Concert

In mid-March I went to hear Nils Frahm perform at The Knockdown Center, an open barn-like space in the middle of nowhere in an industrial neighborhood of Maspeth, Queens. There were about three thousand of us, drawn by curiosity about how Frahm might perform his part-neo-classical, part-electronic, part-almost-pop yet always experimental instrumental music. I walked around during the show, observing and taking notes on my phone, deciding that the beer line was far too long given the canned choices, and disappointed there were LPs and CDs for sale, but alas, no black cotton tees. So it goes.

There was a lot that I liked about Frahm’s concert: the audience was equal parts women and men; the fact that Frahm held our attention in varying amounts for an uninterrupted two hours by making (or triggering) all of the sounds himself; that he alternated between playing pensive solo piano pieces with more dub-groovy echoing sequenced-arpeggiated electronic material; that he took time to explain to us (in a charming and humble way) what he was doing and how some of the gear worked (“I brought this pipe organ with me on tour…”); that he wasn’t afraid to move between extremely quiet dynamics and chest-squashing loudness; that he took great liberties with rendering his recorded works (e.g. “A Place”, a standout track from his recent release was super slowed down) and made improvisation a key part of the show; that he used vintage analog electronic gear; that he brought an actual pipe organ with him (it was triggered from offstage); that he demonstrated how a hardware-based, unique techno-musical system can pay big sonic dividends in our era of software; that he played with the conventions of both classical music and electronic dance music idioms; and finally, that he did a lot in 6-beat meter, which is always a plus in my book. Let’s turn now to specifics.

Frahm’s talent is knowing how to mix a sense for rhythm with well-crafted melo-harmonic structures. Though Frahm is mainly a keyboardist (and part remixer, part triggerer and knob turner), it occurred to me halfway through the show that he is also, unquestionably, a Virtuoso of Delay. Frahm loves delay effects (e.g. echo boxes such as the Roland Space Echo) and this love is key to his music on two levels: delay allows him to create polyrhythms, and delay allows him to literally keep us waiting for what will happen next in the music. Many of his pieces begin with a synth arpeggio or a baseline or pipe organ stabs that cycle around in a rolling 6-beat meter. The arpeggio may be only a few notes, but it’s multiplied by echo effects that catch your ears unawares as the pitches bounce around the performance space, almost swarming into floating pods of polyrhythm. My guess is that Frahm will open and close various filters and change the settings on his machines to highlight different parts of the sequence, allowing select notes to ring out and send your listening off in new directions. This technique is beautiful in its simplicity because we see a relationship between Frahm’s onstage labor and the resulting changes in the music, and it also allows the music to grow organically through an improvising with otherwise fixed musical patterns. Some of the evening’s most exciting moments were when Frahm opened a filter to play with white noise through delay effects to create double-time drum ‘n’ bass snare patterns. The crowd loved these moments—the snares were accompanied by flashing strobe lights onstage—when the music’s texture intensified and things got harder and groovier. A guy standing next to me kept repeating “This is awesome! This is awesome! This is awesome!” It was awesome. In Frahm’s hands, delays create polyrhythm and literally multiply him.

Delay is also what Frahm does to grow his pieces by putting off substantial musical change until just before—and sometimes a bit after—the point when you think something needs to happen to keep things compelling. There’s always an audible, kinda classical, kinda minimalist processual logic in Frahm’s music. Typically, a piece might have a simple sequenced arpeggio (e.g. I-VII-I) over which Frahm fluidly solos on a Rhodes (but without blue notes or overt jazz influences). Eventually a bass line of sort emerges, but only once in a while on beats 1 and 4 over several repetitions of the sequence. It’s only after a minute that you realize what you thought was a 4-beat meter you were nodding your head to is actually in 6. The same delay applies to scale: it can take minutes for Frahm to hit a flattened 6th or 7th to reveal the piece’s full minor hue, and in the meantime where did those long tone dissonances floating above come from? Frahm has real patience for using time to build: the music keeps changing and growing—some vocal samples appear in reverb apparitions, bass notes become sub harmonic and boomy—yet the music’s repeating structure remains intact and perceptible. It can take many minutes, but the effect on the listener is always the same: this music isn’t simple.

Before his final piece, Frahm explained there would be an encore and then, just so there were wouldn’t be any surprises, explained exactly how that encore would unfold. It would be one of his most listened to pieces (according to Spotify streaming stats)— about six minutes in C minor, before it changed to some other chords. “I’m really boring” he joked, before running down those other chords. Then Frahm played the final piece, left the stage, and returned immediately for the encore—a solo piano piece was anything but boring. At the very end as he was doing a long acoustic fade out, I looked around me. Some of us were looking at the stage and some of us were looking at the floor, lost in the sounds. After two hours, he still had our attention.

If I had to critique anything about the concert, I think I speak for many in the audience who wished the loud-boomy-dubby parts had been expanded more. Frahm had the crowd’s nervous system in his hand when he played with the conventions of electronic dance music by applying his echoing 6-beat spin to it. I think we wanted more of that. In addition to extending the loud stuff, the quiet piano pieces could have been amplified louder while still preserving their dynamics. It was hard to hear their details from the back of the barn-like hall. (Perhaps this was a sound system issue?) And occasionally I wondered about the limitations of building pieces around harmonically static sequenced arpeggios; sometimes I hoped for a hard left turn beyond three or four chords. But these are quibbles. In all, Frahm’s performance raised questions: What is one supposed to do at it? Stand and watch? Head nod or dance in six? I like the ambiguity of Frahm’s answer: you can do whatever you want. Whether you get lost in the spaces inside its shifting rhythms, in its genre-bending, in its chords, in its ever-evolving timbral textures, or in its sustained moods, sometimes great music is about in-betweenness.

Playing Along

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When I’m composing I’m almost always playing along with something that’s already sounding. Pop musicians often begin with a groove, but since I don’t make beat music (at the moment) I often begin with free improvisation at the keyboard. I’m searching for something—a chord, a bit of melody—that I haven’t exactly heard before. I’m searching for something novel, yet at the same time familiar enough to recall musics I already like. There’s also some ventriloquizing going on: it sometimes feels as if I’m pretending to be someone else whose music I might enjoy!

At some point this improvisation becomes a part that stands on its own—material from which to derive other parts or against which I can keep improvising. Now I shift modes from searcher to observer, listening to the improvised part as if surveying a map spread out in front of me, noticing routes and topographies that weren’t apparent when I was on the ground, in the thicket. As the improvised part plays, I play along like a one-way jam session. It’s one-way because the initial part can’t react to my playing along, which is a good thing because something needs to remain constant at this stage. I try out different kinds of playing along: harmonizing like a good group singer (hit those thirds and tenths—nice!), providing rhythmic accompaniment, staying out of the way, finding the holes here and there, and exploring going against the harmonic grain (that’s not C major anymore, it’s A minor!). For the most part mostly I listen while playing to see if I can figure out what, if anything, that initial part needs to make it more than itself.

It may sound strange, but even though the composition process has just begun here I’m already considering whether or not my initial improvisation is complete on its own. I’m assuming a lot, specifically 1) the possibility that what I’ve begun with is already enough and not in need of any playing along with, and 2) that finishing things through minimal means is preferable to finishing them through maximal means. As I listen, observing the music, I notice details of its form, tempo, mood, and go-to gestures. The improvisation has already boxed me in somewhat, but maybe it also offers ways to get out? Playing along to the music is like making multiple attempts to figure out how to make the most of the details I’m noticing.

There are also pragmatic considerations as I play along. I try out different sounds to hear how they go with what I started with: there are resonant and dry sounds, fat and thin sounds, sharp and rounded sounds, hollow and solid sounds, clean and dirty-muffled sounds, and so on. I’ll play the same part over and over again while trying out different sounds (and unbeknownst to me, solidify the part I’m playing because I’m too busy evaluating one timbre after another). Trying out different sounds can lead to either revelation (this bowed kalimba is perfect!) or a sense that I’ve lost track of playing along’s most important function, which is to meaningfully interact with what is already sounding. And so the process unfolds as I listen to and play along with the improvisation and try out various sounds.

At some point—sometimes it’s days or weeks or months later—I start hearing things in the initial improvisation that were never apparent at the time I did it. I start hearing the musical thread—the lines of musical thinking—that I was following as I aimed for this note and missed it by a semitone, or jumped for a dramatic deep chord and hit upon something partly wrong yet still adequately cool. Now I hear those moments as signposts that can anchor a piece. The moments are rich in information about destinations, and so are the notes leading up to and away from those moments. Now I’m hearing the flow of what I was trying to say my first time around.

Speaking of hearing flow, it might surprise you to hear that composers don’t necessarily think about music in technical terms. You might have noticed that I haven’t dwelled on keys or scales, and the reason for this is that this isn’t how I think at an instrument. (Does a painter think consciously about the color blue except insofar as blue conveys a certain kind of energy and mood? How do musicians “think” at their instruments?) An acquaintance in school who was a composer once came up to me after I had played a vibraphone piece and observed, “you must really like Dorian [mode].” At that moment I realized that I had composed the piece not upon my knowledge of modes but around the vibraphone’s shapes and limitations (e.g. its lowest note is an F). My acquaintance’s observation wasn’t entirely wrong, but it wasn’t right either. Instead of keys and scales, one can think about the flows of moments, drama, destinations, and hand shapes. The potentials of these elements become clearer when I’m playing along and trying to understand the improvisation that began the process. That’s what playing along is: a way to understand what someone else—or yourself, a while ago—is doing and then fitting into that to amplify it.




Curating The Week: Mouse On Mars, Carlos Kleiber, A Watchmaker


An article about Mouse On Mars.

“Music is a strong anarchic force,” Mr. St. Werner said. “It’s probably our last bastion of anarchic wilderness, that trace of nature that keeps just growing, keeps crossbreeding, keeps immigrating and migrating and cross-fertilizing and expanding our perceptual apparatus. It’s also a great means for orientation and for bonding with other people. We don’t have to think about music, we don’t have to talk about the term. Eventually we’ll find it, or it will find us.”

An article about Carlos Kleiber.

“Kleiber’s ‘bedside book’ was the Zhuangzi, an ancient text written by Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou. He was particularly consumed by one phrase: ‘Leave no trace,’ or, to quote the line in full, ‘The Perfect man leaves no traces of his conduct.’”

A video about watchmaking.

“If you practice something, then it becomes your life. Whatever you spend your time on, it’s all you have.”