Friday night: the church Korskirken in Bergen was packed with an audience excited to experience the music of the Berlin-based composer and musician Nils Frahm.
Frahm is a classically trained pianist, and, as a composer, his music is heavily influenced by several 20th century composers. However, Frahm has moved beyond this, and today is best known for combining electronic and classical music. In fact, Frahm has been interested in and inspired by electronic music his entire life. As a composer he is, actually, just as influenced by jazz and improvised music as he is by other classical and contemporary styles, and sonic experimentation and improvisation are cornerstones to his method of composition.
He is an exceptionally productive musician, with as many as 10 albums and EPs in his own name since 2005, in addition to several collaborations with other artists.
Most of the music at this concert, with two exceptions, can be found on Frahm's latest album, "Spaces" (Erased Tapes, 2013) which is a collection of live recordings performed during 2012 and 2013.
Having lost all his equipment together with the rest of his luggage on his way to Bergen, he had to rely solely on borrowed equipment, and had to program the borrowed synthesizer in very limited time prior to the concert. Frahm's usual gear for live performances includes an upright and a grand piano, a Fender Rhodes, a Roland Juno 60, a Moog Taurus and some delay units. It's difficult to be sure how different the setup this evening was from his usual one, but I suspect that if Frahm hadn't told the audience what had happened and that he was a bit nervous about how this would work out, few, if any, in the audience would be able to tell that something was out of the ordinary. In fact, listening to "Spaces" after the concert, it was hard to spot any major differences in the instrumentation (or rather the sound of them).
The concert started with the lights being turned off, leaving the audience in pitch darkness for two minutes and thereby setting the mood. Suddenly the sound of the church organ could be heard, and Frahm appeared, dimly lit, by the organ on the church gallery. The piece started out quietly enough, but evolved gradually. It was truly a beautiful, ambient tune that slowly built in volume, playing out the register of the organ.
As the piece slowly faded out, leaving just one single tone on reverb, Frahm moved down to the church floor, taking his place at the synthesizer and computer. Then the single tune was broken up and morphed into the tune "Says". Built around a repeating synth pattern, it is a very meditative piece. Although it stayed on the same pattern for quite some time, Frahm only sparsely playing around it on a Fender Rhodes, it eventually broke out to change chords and increase in volume to a very monumental sound towards the end.
For "Said and Done" ("The Bells", Erased Tapes 2009) he turned to the grand piano. According to Frahm this is an exhausting piece to play, as it is built around a single key being hammered at a given pace and playing around this. This is, in a way, very "typical" for Frahm, as many of his experiments focus upon exploring the possibilities of the instruments he is dealing with, revolving around extremely simple ideas.
Frahm calls himself "old-fashioned" and claims he refuses to use a loop station for his repetitive themes. He takes pride in having to turn all the knobs physically then and there instead of "faking it". The explanation he gives for this is that he's worried he would get lost in the possibilities available if he started offloading too much to technology. Playing everything himself also gives a natural dynamics to the sound simply because it is hard not to. "Said and Done" also shows Frahm's fascination for contrasts in his music, where a gentle melody floats on top of the - at times - insistent and dramatic hammering of that single key.
Moving over to the upright piano, "Went Missing" ("Spaces") and "Familiar" ("Felt", Erased Tapes, 2011) are more romantic melodies. Tenderly played, the contrast between these tunes and "Said and Done" exposed the strengths and weaknesses between the upright and the grand piano. The upright piano obviously lacks sustain in the higher register, but, on the other hand, the resonance within the instrument is very much under control. For the grand piano the problem is that because it has such a large "cage" the resonance might give some side-effects depending on the acoustics of the room itself and the position of the microphones.
"You" ("Screws", Erased Tapes, 2012) feels much related in both mood, style and tempo to the music on Bugge Wesseltoft's "It's Snowing On My Piano" (ACT, 1997). It is a very evocative and melancholic piece best suited for late evenings in front of the fireplace. Most of Frahm's albums are sonically very intimate, where the personality of the piano plays a vital role, as the listener comes very close to the instrument through the microphones' position. This particular feel will usually disappear (and it did) in a church concert, due to the aforementioned acoustic conditions. This gives a very different experience, which of course is a good thing, as one would want live experiences to be different from listening to the album.
Frahm says in the liner notes of his latest album that the aptly named "Improvisations For Coughs and a Cell Phone" inspired the whole "Spaces" project, as he feels there are some tunes that only work when played in front of a live audience. Though freer in its improvised ornamentations, it still is a somewhat quiet piece, making for a contrast when suddenly "Hammers" kicks in. This piece, according to Frahm a "work out", has a real driving tempo that takes the audience out of the cozy and meditative atmosphere that had been established through the earlier tunes. Now he again turned to the synthesizer and played the two pieces "For" and "Peter" from his EP "Juno" (Erased Tapes, 2011). The ambience and washing synth waves gave way to a short section where he created catchy rhythm patterns on the wood and the strings of the grand piano using... toilet brushes! The sound was run through an echo unit, adding texture to the patterns. This morphed into the piece "More" ("Felt"), the piano and Rhodes sound still processed through the echo unit. The energy and the monumental sound of this tune made for a perfect ending of the set.
The encore took the mood down again to a quiet melancholy with "Unter" from "Felt", and "Tristana" and "Ambre" from "Wintermusik" (Erased Tapes, 2009).
Despite the logistics problems Frahm faced when arriving in Bergen, he pulled off a concert of great beauty and lyricism in front of a very pleased audience. Frahm has created a niche for himself where he is more or less alone at the moment, and where he eagerly explores different possibilities within the self-imposed boundaries of his concept. He certainly is one to follow closely in the future to see where his next projects take him.
All photos © Oddbjørn Steffensen