by / November 22nd, 2012 /

Top Story: Nils Frahm on working within and outside constraints

On his last LP, German pianist Nils Frahm composed a suite of songs with felt on his piano strings to dampen the sound – giving the record its name, Felt. His latest record also features such a damper, but it wasn’t so much self-imposed as imposed upon him. Screws was born out of an event. The response to that event, the trauma of it and the emotional impact it had on a young impresario of neo-classical and progressive piano styles. Though wordless, each song on Screws carries a strong narrative and a feeling lyricism cannot capture. “Words lead to misunderstandings, music does not,” Nils asserts when State catches up with him before he brings his mini-album on tour.

Whatever interpretations are open when listening to Nils Frahm records, live it is a communication and presence between the audience and the performer; “I am never sure if I can translate a feeling into a song, but I can certainly manifest a feeling in the way I play the song. I never play a song the same way. I don’t even want to try that. I think a music performance takes its strength and power from the very moment. So never think of how well you played a piece last week, trying to repeat that, play in the moment and be fully there when you do so. It is a spiritual exercise. I would describe the songs as spirituals. Jazz music has its root in many places. When you connect improvisation, blues and some higher force, then you hear spirituals.” Fitting then, that he will be playing at the Unitarian Church when he comes to Dublin.

The reason for Screws are the four of which, screws that is, holding Nils Frahm’s thumb together since his pianist’s nightmare accident: breaking a digit. So dedicated to his music, Nils sleeps in a bunk directly above his studio. Recently, he fell from his bed when the breakage happened. In a letter to his label Erased Tapes and wrote:

“As you can imagine, it is really bad news for a pianist when he gets diagnosed with a broken thumb. That day I was sitting in the emergency room, feeling rather dizzy while thinking of a zillion shows coming up and all the people involved around it. I realised in that moment how busy things have become. It is hard to turn down interesting projects and opportunities, since I surely love my work. It actually never felt like work. Playing piano and playing it for wonderful people is the greatest joy I can imagine.”

With good reason, Nils cleared his schedule and found himself on an unexpected holiday with time to reflect. However, there was no wallowing. “I hope that the songs don’t come across as a collection of bummed out thumb songs. Actually, those couple of weeks were one of my highlights of this year. I was at home for more than ten days at one time, which it felt like I hadn’t had in the last four years, and I felt so inspired. I wrote many many songs and got so much music done.” In recuperation, as a form of therapy, Nils composed 9 Songs for 9 Fingers (which later got renamed as Screws.) As a musician, Nils believes in music as a catalyst. “I hope that seeing a show of mine makes people realise how wonderful the whole concept of music is. That people channel their energy and force and people receive it. Without the audience, the music wouldn’t be the same.” When questioned on the poetry of performance, he is courteous, and a little starry, in his response, “I play so much better when I play for people. I have strong bond to my fans, because their ears make my music better. That is the most poetic aspect, because it feels so romantic that everybody gives and everybody gains in that constellation.”

Frequently, Nils Frahm gets mentioned alongside Peter Broderick, F.F. Blumm, Max Richter, Johann Johannsson, Olafur Arnalds, Dustin O’Halloran… the list goes on. They make classical, neo-classical, post-classical, nu-classical, minimal, ambient, post-rock, dreamy atmospherica, experimental electronica… this list of descriptors, too, goes on. Some are friends, some are collaborators, some are peers and contemporaries of a blurry lined scene. Or the perception of one because of a shared background. Nils adds focus and some selective, yet clarion, detail; “The term classical music describes around 500 years of music history, starting at the late 17th century. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven are the most known classical composers from that short but very important era. Musically, after that era, we are already in the romantic era. Chopin, Shubert, Schumann and so on. After that we have modern music, starting in the late 19th century.”

From that point, there has been an emphasis on the significance of score in modern classical music; by modern we are talking 1905 and onward. A modernist considers classical music to a primarily written discipline detailed by notation, including technical instructions for performing works. Improvisation is in fact an older school of thought, a remnant from the Baroque era, as heard in a cadenza: a free form solo in an opera or concert, usually to highlight the performer’s prowess. This is closer to the Frahm’s style, but he doesn’t commit to one, “I think there is no confinement in any musical style, there is only limits in people’s courage to just do their own.” Elaborating, he continues; “It is best to be aware of all kinds of musical concepts and value them since they all can lead to amazing results. For me it is more interesting to play solo at the moment and having absolute freedom to improvise is an amazing experience. I don’t need to communicate with other people on stage, I can go wherever I want. If this gets old for me, I will probably start writing notes on a sheet and have people play them. I love the idea of composing and bringing 100 people together to one musical idea.”

It’s a high-level skip through history, but all of Nils’ references are there. Well, most. “I never was a classical composer. I am more combining ideas from Baroque (Bach, Händel) with romantic ideas (Chopin, Satie) and mix all that with the craziness of modern music (Stravinsky, Steve Reich, John Cage) and then I put all that in a blender and mix it with blues, jazz and spiritual music.”

Making piano pieces rooted in melancholia and wistfulness, conceptual ideas formed in delicate grandeur, music steeped in history, informed by so many genres, and having such a wealth of knowledge, it’s easy to forget Nils was born in 1982. “Because I play the piano, people think I was an A student and always making my parents proud and happy. Nope. I have a punk music background and played in the loudest of rock bands of my hometown. I loved crazy techno music and still do. I am also interested in film music and actually so obsessed with music that my curiosity is bigger than the range of musical styles. There is no bad type of music, only bad musicians. Sorry, that sounds harsh, but I believe it is the truth.” A compelling and vernal attitude. In contradiction to what he might think, Nils Frahm can get his point across verbally with a gift for leaving things open-ended , “As I said before, we never really talked about what classical music is…people these days use the term classical in many different ways and most are leading to misunderstandings. Like most words.”

Nils Frahm plays Dublin’s Unitarian Church, on Friday November 23rd. Support comes from North Side Drive. Tickets are priced at €18.50, available from Tickets.ie.

Screws is out now via Erased Tapes.