By: Sean Moore/ Photos By: Derrick Rossignol
Nils Frahm requested upon arrival to move his show from the bigger State Theatre on Sunday night to the more intimate Port City, a smaller venue better suited for his atmospheric sound.
On the stage sat two “workstations” in which upright and grand pianos faced each other, along with customized and seemingly custom-made keyboards and effects boards shared a space, as well. It looked like a cross between a DJ booth and production studio. Frahm is definitely not a DJ. He’s a man with many machines who has seemingly mastered the art of crossing genres as difficult as that may seem to be when those genres are ambient, electronic music and classical. Seeing him perform live really drives it home for the audience as they held their breath at specific points of interest and then exhaled when his beats kicked in.
Nils Frahm, a German musician, composer, and producer who has made a name for himself by combining classical and electronic music in an unconventional yet inventive and innovative way. Creating an ambient sound through a plethora of instruments including keyboards, synthesizers, programmers, multiple pianos, and drum machines. With his two hands doing different things at the same time, he could be mistaken for a mad scientist. Happily playing and creating a complex, textured, and layered track with his left hand twiddling knobs and dials on his analog synthesizers and effects boards, often times creating a loop of sound, while his right hand plays the ivories of his pianos, sometimes at dizzying speeds.
“holding down a button, playing three notes and arpeggiating them at two separate octaves”
Taking the stage, with a humble bow to the crowd, watching him create was exhausting as he worked at each station, sometimes jogging between the two during songs. Sweat pouring from his brow and nose immediately after the first song. The combination of opening tracks from his latest album All Melody “The Whole Universe Wants to be Touched” and “Sunson” (the latter of which is a very classical piano-based tune that set a mood for the evening). The evening began, like a few other of his tunes, with a light spell of sound from two pianos, before he added in some organ chords and synth lines that manufactured at atmospheric maze of noise in both a subtle and stunning way that enveloped the room and the crowd. He wiped the sweat from his face multiple times throughout the nearly two and a half hour set, which could have easily been his cardio session for the day, the way he moved between the two set-ups and from the way he found himself swaying and thumping his own body to the rhythms he was creating.
The sound of his piano echoed through the small, absolutely quiet and attentive crowd (some sitting in plastic folding chairs, but most standing) and made you feel as if you were in a gothic chamber of an old European church. Adding to the atmosphere of the room were the flickering lights during the more upbeat, electronic parts of songs. But Frahm, and the room were lit by a single light that dimmed itself out of existence during his solo piano tracks. Then, he went to work at his other music station and you instantly felt transported to a vibrant European club as he introduced the percussive elements that make his music more ambient soundtrack (re: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) than something you’d hear at a rave (re: drum and bass, EMD). After playing a few songs, Frahm spoke to the crowd and explained his reasoning for moving the show to the smaller venue “because it seemed more appropriate and fitting in an intimate setting where people could dance and move, as opposed to a seated venue that would’ve only been about ⅔ full.” His self-deprecation drew a few laughs and cheers of approval and appreciation from the crowd then and again, when he spoke about the creation of his tune “Says” which he explained was created by “holding down a button, playing three notes and arpeggiating them at two separate octaves” which made him famous and allowed him the ability to buy more keyboards. The extent of time he put into creating this tune, according to him- 30 seconds. And yet, it sounds beautiful and yes, drew a loud reaction from the crowd, so perhaps he was not wrong about its popularity.
Frahm sets himself in a class of his own as he favors the flutters and ticks and arpeggiating marimba sounds throughout his songs. Many of his songs can be described as soundscape constructions that find Frahm jumping between his workstations, but not frantically, rather precisely as he knows exactly where each soundscape needs to go and how to get them there, taking the audience along for the ride. With eyes closed, listening to the beats, you head more into a trance-like state, while your body still cannot help itself from bobbing or moving around to the beautiful beats Frahm emits from his work stations. But it is in the way Frahm masterfully builds the tension like an old horror film soundtrack, before ultimately turning a track into an unexpectedly funky tune that blew me away. I could not help but think of the aforementioned Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross soundtrack work they’ve done together the past decade or so while listening to Nils Frahm recreate his beautiful songs, which bring feelings of sorrow, sadness, and a sense of solemnness, only to then, turn around and make the crowd move, like the way “All Melody” and “#2” do just that within the span of their nearly 20 minute length, played back-to-back.
I found myself simply in awe the entire night, watching this man work diligently at his machines. I know I was not the only one left amazed as I heard whispers in the crowd throughout the night and when his set was over. It was an evening of music that made you feel deep in your body, but also like he was taking you on an out-of-body experience.