THE Q&A: NILS FRAHM, MUSICIAN, PRODUCER

Nils FrahmNils Frahm is poised to become something of a sensation. Raised on a musical diet of classical and jazz, Frahm started playing the piano as a young student of Nahum Brodski, himself a student of Tchaikovsky’s last protégé. When the budding musician wasn’t hovering over a keyboard, he was sifting through his father’s vast collection of ECM records. Now, aged 27, Frahm has become a masterful improvisational pianist. In December Frahm released his first two albums simultaneously: “Wintermusik”, a stunning three-song piano suite, coloured by celeste and the reed organ, and "The Bells”, a broader, more complex collaboration with Peter Broderick, a fellow musician on the Erased Tapes record label. “The Bells” is a collection of improvisational pieces played during two nights in an old church in Berlin. The acoustics of the building lend the recording a voluptuous resonance. The music—played by Frahm and directed by Broderick—lurches, swells and glides its way through stifled rage, deep melancholy and delicate beauty. It is a testament to the talents of the duo that the record hardly seems improvised at all. Frahm has also been establishing his name as a producer, and in 2008 he founded Durton Studio in Berlin. He took a moment to talk to More Intelligent Life about his fascination with improvisation, the beauty of imperfection and the inspiration that can come from thematic constraints. More Intelligent Life: What was it like to have Nahum Brodski for a piano teacher? He must have been quite a character. Nils Frahm: I really loved my piano teacher. He was about 80 years old when I met him and he taught me the piano for seven years, sometimes four times per week, and he was absolutely supportive. His Russian background influenced my taste in music a lot in my formative years. He made me practice so hard it was almost painful. But of course glad I’m he did; since then I’ve never had to work as hard on my instrument. MIL: I read somewhere that you grew up with your father's ECM collection. He also appears to be an established architectural photographer. Was he a big creative influence? NF: Definitely. My father has incredible taste in music. He is also a photographer and one of the most amazing artists I’ve ever met. His aesthetic is so clear and convincing. You can see some of his work on his website. I had an amazing childhood, spending time with art books, obscure jazz and classical vinyl records. But my father also showed me the first Portishead album, “Dummy”, when I was around 15. So yes, he is also responsible for my taste in music, and once you’ve explored a label like ECM with artists like Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt, Ralph Towner, Valentin Silvestrov, Keith Jarrett and more on it, it will stay with you forever. MIL: Were you tempted to study jazz piano? NF: After school I wanted to study jazz piano but I was not so much into classic, old-school jazz stuff at that point, so I decided against it. It was probably also because of me being lazy. MIL: What were your first forays into recording? NF: I started recording music when I was 14 or 15—first with a cassette recorder and later with computers and now mostly on tape again. I was always really into the process of making records. I kind of stopped playing piano for a while and got deep into electronic music and music production and mixing. “Wintermusik” became my first solo piano release after a long time of only playing piano for myself. MIL: “Wintermusik” was originally a gift for friends, wasn’t it? NF: That’s right. I wouldn’t have thought that any of my piano music would be good enough for a release or a live concert. MIL: How did it become a commercial release? NF: Monique [Recknagel] from the Berlin-based boutique label Sonic Pieces came to one of my performances and told me how much she loved it. And all of my friends gave me this amazing feedback. I loved the idea of doing a small hand-made edition of 333 copies. It didn’t feel commercial at that point, but after I realised how quickly all of her copies sold, I asked her to do a second run. The second run of 500 copies sold out within a couple of days. Then Robert [Raths] from Erased Tapes in London got in touch and offered to work with me. He had heard my music through Peter [Broderick], who released his beautiful score “Music for Falling from Trees” with them, and he sent me an e-mail saying that he couldn’t imagine Erased Tapes without my music anymore. It felt amazing to hear that. They just re-released “Wintermusik” on a worldwide scale, with “The Bells” and my next album to follow [this year]. MIL: There's a heavy emphasis on improvisation in “The Bells”. Is this something that's always been important to you, or a recent direction? NF: Improvisation is a key aspect in my piano playing. I am not good at sheet reading—I never was. My strength is that I can play the melodies that I hear in my head. I like the directness about it and the risk. In good moments, through improvisation, I get this feeling throughout my body. I think at this point all thinking stops. It’s more like meditation. MIL: Is this something to do with your heavy exposure to jazz, do you think? NF: Yes, definitely. You could say it’s something in between jazz and unfinished compositions. MIL: How did you meet Peter Broderick, who worked on “The Bells” with you? NF: Monique showed me his music and I was blown away. I thought he was a genius, so I contacted him via MySpace, I think. He replied and said that he liked my music as well. I was amazed that he actually listened to it. As if that wasn’t enough, after a few days he asked me if I wanted to record some of my piano music for the solo piano series he curates for Kning Disk. A few weeks later he flew over to Berlin. MIL: Where was “The Bells” recorded and how did the compositions take shape? NF: “The Bells” was recorded at the Grunewald church in Berlin, a very beautiful place on the outskirts of the city. Inside there is a huge organ, a giant harpsichord and a grand piano. I don’t think you can call the pieces compositions because I hadn’t prepared any of them beforehand. In general, I wouldn’t call myself the best composer on the piano. When I write set pieces I get bored with them quite quickly. For some reason it’s only music that I can’t replay so easily that fascinates me. You find this bit of imperfection in improvised music, which keeps it alive for me. MIL: What made you choose that specific venue? NF: My friend and cello player Anne Müller gave a concert with her quartet in the Grunewald church and I was in the audience that night. The concert was amazing and the acoustics of the place really impressed me. The church community rents this place for little money, and after I played a few notes on the Bösendorfer Imperial D [a piano], I knew that I had to record something there. I didn’t regret it. We lit up some candles, drank some port and felt inspired throughout the whole night. MIL: Were all the pieces improvised or were some partially composed? NF: I had a few rough little themes here and there, but I never arranged them, so I tried to treat them like improvisations. My approach was really unorganised. Maybe that was also because I hardly had any time to get prepared before the session. So I decided that I don’t want to make it like a normal recording session, where you play your pieces a couple of times and get annoyed when you hit a wrong key. The sets I played were sometimes up to 40 minutes of improvisations, and afterwards we would only use five minutes of it. Peter reminded me that it would be good if I also played a few short, sparse improvisations. The only piece that was more or less pre-composed was “Over There it’s Raining”, but I never really had a set arrangement for it. That night it was somehow easy for me to wrap it up. MIL: What was Peter's role exactly? NL: Yes, he was the one who had the idea for the whole project. So in a way I played this music for him. When I think back on those two nights, I know that the music would have been really different without him. At the time I was listening to his music a lot and I wanted to try something more minimal with my music. That’s what I mean when I say that I played the music for him. He was my muse, my motivator and also the person who brought this music to the world. Without him nobody would have given me a record deal, so he was also the producer. At one point he was lying on top of the strings in the piano and said, “Play a song that is called ‘Peter is Dead in the Piano’.” He knew that I would get motivated if he gave me some limitations, like for example, “Play a track where you start as quiet as you can and then get as loud as possible”—which became “Down Down”. Nils Frahm wintermusicMIL: The record has a melancholy, sombre feel. Is this something that you felt when playing? NL: I actually can’t tell what I feel when I play. But the saddest passage can make me so happy when I realise that I created something beautiful. MIL: Is emotion an element of your work in general? NL: I couldn’t say that I am particularly melancholy, but it is for some reason easier to get a connection to these feelings, I guess. It really depends on the situation. For example, the record would have sounded a lot different if I had recorded it during sunrise. MIL: Do you have plans to play this music live or on tour? If so, will Peter be involved? NL: Yes. I will tour quite a bit this year. In April I will be on a European tour with Balmorhea, and in the Fall I will tour with Peter again. In between I will play solo shows here and there. MIL: I’ve heard there are some electronic projects in your future. NL: I recently finished a project with Anne Müller, which is mostly electronic and cello. It will be released on Hush next year. Also, I finished a collaboration with F.S. Blumm, one of my favourite musicians ever, and I am truly proud of what we’ve done. It will be released this summer on Sonic Pieces. And I did a project with Tsukimono. This album will be released on Home Normal this year as well. And of course I will start working on my new solo album for Erased Tapes. MIL: And you work as an engineer and producer too. Who have you worked with so far and who do you hope to work with in the future? NL: I am about to finish Peter’s album, which has been really exciting so far. I love to work on other people’s material and to choose the right sounds for instruments and to be responsible for the mixing process. I love to make all these decisions; it’s like spicing someone else’s meal. But be warned, if you add too much salt it could ruin the soup. I will work with Grand Salvo and Dustin O’Halloran this year. I will be pretty busy with touring, so maybe I won’t be in the studio too much. We will see. "Wintermusik" and "The Bells" are available from Erased Tapes ~ PAUL SULLIVAN