It is easy to get lost in Nils Frahm’s soundscapes. Frahm’s music across 10 albums in 15 years merges the 38-year-old German artist’s training in classical piano with his fondness for analog synthesisers and ambient field recordings. The effect moves from being tranquil to hypnotic and back as can be seen in the MUBI release Tripping with Nils Frahm.
Directed by Benoit Toulemonde, the 87-minute concert film captures Frahm performing at the Funkhaus Berlin. These performances were part of his 2018 tour to support the album All Melody. Frahm’s work in cinema includes the scores for the single-take German thriller Victoria and French photographer JR’s short film Ellis.
Frahm’s music has been variously described as neo-classical, ambient, and even just “music to work to”. He doesn’t mind: “I sometimes listen to Miles Davis or John Coltrane in the middle of work, not paying attention although they are masters, but it is the atmosphere they create that I like.” What about Dance Music for the Brain? Frahm approves. Excerpts from an interview.
You are really good at figuring out the pulse of your audiences and improvising accordingly in ‘Tripping With Nils Frahm’ as well as other live performances.
I’m really inspired by jazz pianist Keith Jarrett. For him, the audience is the most important. He stops even when he hears just a cough. He expects everybody to work with him towards the same goal.
My audience gives me a certain energy. We communicate without touching or words. I don’t know how. Sometimes I turn my back to them and I can feel the tension in the room, rising and falling like waves. Sometimes, I’m surfing on top, and it’s fun. But when they crash over me, I find myself confused, the audience is confused.
Then all of a sudden, it all becomes one energy, one focus. It’s an emotional process, I can’t think about it like a scientist. When I’m smiling in the movie, it’s like all of us acknowledging, ‘this is what we just experienced together’. It’s like running a marathon and drawing the energy from the people cheering and clapping on the sidelines. You will stop if there’s nobody.
The performances in ‘Tripping With Nils Frahm’ covers your output from multiple albums over a 10-year span. How would you describe your progress between these releases?
I would say I have just had time to develop more of the same. An artist progresses by making different versions of the same art. A photographer keeps taking the same photo, the musician the same song.
All my life, I have been trying to play one song in many versions. Maybe, one day I will write it in a perfect way and I will stop. Creating infinitely beautiful versions of one song, not finding perfection but the process to get there, is fun. While we think we can never get where we want to get, perhaps we are already there as we are going towards it.
Given the nature of your music, do you have a clear idea of what you want to do with a song before you execute your idea?
Sometimes, I have a beginning, middle, and end. I have a goal but I don’t know how to get there. Improvisation is the best way to keep it fresh. You play the same song everyday on tour for years, so it’s exciting for me to not repeat what I did the previous day. I am fighting every day for a better version.
One song which I produced exactly as I had planned to was Wall from the album Solo. It’s a repetition of the same chords, beginning at one volume, getting louder in the middle, then calming down. But usually, I play one note, and then improvise to get the second note.
Since you improvise on tour, how do you decide what’s best for the final studio version?
I use the best take from the moment. On the day of recording, you try to be as good as you can. But you never know, you could be better tomorrow, next week, or next month.
I frequently listen to my old music and realise I could have played this faster, or something is good just as it is. Sometimes I find a better version two or three years later.
You come from a country with a rich tradition of both Western classical music and cutting-edge electronic music.
Kraftwerk, or Mozart and Beethoven, have played a role, and it’s often a shock to me that these big masters are from my country. But it’s impossible to also relate to these giants. I hope to escape from the burden to be in a line with them.
What I am doing is different. It’s more jazz, more Amercianised, more improvised. The Third Reich forbade Germans from listening to jazz, which they thought was a bad thing coming from the enemy. So classical music was big. But jazz is bigger to me.
When people say you are the perfect mixture of your country’s traditions, I want to say there’s much more I am stealing from. In fact, I learned a lot from the Indian tabla. I really like the sitar’s overtones.
You once said that the visual and tactile components of music such as the vinyl packaging influenced you as a kid. Can one absorb and experience your musicality just as closely in the digital streaming age?
Yes, if you are listening with other people. The packaging, all those material things, was like a paper friend you could put your head to like a pillow, as if it’s the missing friend.
What can replace physical media is sharing the listening experience with others, which I have done a lot. It makes the music more real, as you marvel over a moment in the song together. Then we can get out of this strange little world of our headphones, where we are always alone.
That’s near-impossible during a pandemic. Has it affected your work and life?
Not much. We got lucky. We toured all through 2018 and 2019, and wanted a break in 2020. But if this happened in the middle of a tour, or after we had just finished an album and needed to go live to earn the money back, that would be terrible. I like working alone in the studio, but there’s the awareness that nobody knows what’s happening.
What are your non-musical influences?
Usually, the painful and tough moments of insecurity are more inspiring than moments of joy and happiness and being together. In those moments, I forget music and just want to soak it all in.
Art comes when you are in an environment to which you want to add something beautiful. Berlin is great but the bad weather and glum people and tough life help.
Imagine going to your dream place. You won’t want to make any art there, till you are perhaps bored. Nothing ever comes out of satisfaction.
So you’re no different from a singer-songwriter making confessional music?
True, in a way, but our languages have a different dialect. With a singer-songwriter, you have language as a border. If you don’t understand it, you only get a part of it.
My music is now part of India as well. There are no words, universal like traditional Indian music, which was all of a sudden understood in Europe in the 1970s, where we went, hey we have the same notes.
What’s interesting to me is that sometimes a person may find sadness from one of my happy songs or vice versa. It is okay when meaning transforms. I don’t remember the intention of my songs. I would say my music covers an ocean of feelings.