A Berlin-based composer with a penchant for piano improvisation…
Raised on a musical diet of classical and jazz, Nils 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 twenty-seven, Frahm has become a masterful improvisational pianist.
In December he 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 Wedding, Berlin. Below he talks about his fascination with improvisation, the beauty of imperfection and the inspiration that can come from thematic constraints.
What was it like to have Nahum Brodski for a piano teacher? He must have been quite a character.
I really loved my piano teacher. He was about eighty 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 glad he did; since then I’ve never had to work as hard on my instrument.
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?
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 fifteen. 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.
Were you tempted to study jazz piano?
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.
What were your first forays into recording?
I started recording music when I was fourteen or fifteen—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.
Wintermusik was originally a gift for friends, wasn’t it?
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.
How did it become a commercial release?
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].
There’s a heavy emphasis on improvisation in The Bells. Is this something that’s always been important to you, or a recent direction?
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.
Is this something to do with your heavy exposure to jazz, do you think?
Yes, definitely. You could say it’s something in between jazz and unfinished compositions.
How did you meet Peter Broderick, who worked on The Bells with you?
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.
Where was The Bells recorded and how did the compositions take shape?
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.
What made you choose that specific venue?
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.
Were all the pieces improvised or were some partially composed?
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 forty 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.
What was Peter’s role exactly?
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.
The record has a melancholy, sombre feel. Is this something that you felt when playing?
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.
Is this emotion an element of your work in general?
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.
Do you have plans to play this music live or on tour? If so, will Peter be involved?
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.
I’ve heard there are some electronic projects in your future.
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.
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?
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