Nils Frahm: the piano “will always be my medicine”

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For the first time in years, Nils Frahm is happy not to play the piano. “Maybe for so many years I’ve been overdoing the music a bit,” he admits to me on Zoom de Mallorca, where he spent part of the lockdown. His last decade has been characterized by constant acceleration as he has grown from a little-known musician publishing contemplative piano studies to a renowned virtuoso giving sold-out performances at the world’s most prestigious opera houses.

This frantic pace has come at a cost. “I was a little crazy,” he says. “The pandemic was like a call from life itself to use this time when music and culture were not happening. I didn’t want to just bite my nails and panic, I tried to come to terms with it and appreciate the simple things.

If Frahm wants to take it slow, he’s in the right place. Through our choppy video call, I see a rustic stone wall, a weathered wooden shutter, and a strip of azure sky shining behind it. The terrible internet connection did not darken the arctic blue of his eyes.

The calm of the past year has also given Frahm time to polish a five-year album in the works. Listeners might be surprised to hear his signature delicate piano on 2X1 = 4 replaced by an exploration of the majestic dub interspersed with ambient and classic elements. This is his fourth collaboration with German artist FS Blumm, a pillar of Berlin’s musical underground, and released on Leiter, a new label that Frahm has created as a platform for emerging artists.

Despite this new version, Frahm is in a contemplative rather than festive mood. “It’s been seven years since I took the time to think like this. . . My label seems like a good step, but I really don’t know what the next step is. I’m in this weird phase, like everyone else.

During this recent bout of soul-searching, he also published Graz, an album recorded in 2009 as part of his student thesis, the culmination of a piano training started during his childhood in Hamburg. After music school he released a handful of albums before his breakthrough, 2011 Felt, catapulted him onto the world stage with a velocity that seemed not to match current music – melancholy piano skits that flow like liquid and articulate muffled intimacy.

The sweetness of Felt is in part the result of Frahm’s penchant for experimentation outside of piano conventions. He placed microphones deep inside the instrument to pick up the sound of his feet on the pedals and his fingers on the keys, covering the strings of the instrument with felt to dampen their sound. He has since become known for such experiences: playing a piano nearly four meters tall, using toilet brushes to beat beats, and responding to a broken thumb while composing. Screws, an album of nine compositions to be played with nine fingers.

Frahm’s compositions are dripping with emotion. Part of this is due to a taste for exaggerated dynamics, moving from the quietest whisper of minor keys to the soaring highs of the piano, organ and synthesizer. It is quickly regrouped in a genre called “neo-” or “post-classical” alongside artists such as Max Richter, Ólafur Arnalds and Jóhann Jóhannsson.

“All of a sudden I was brought up by association with this new genre,” he says. “But I thought I was just copying stuff that was standard decades ago with artists like Penguin Cafe Orchestra or the band Rachel’s. . . I have too much credit.

Somewhere Frahm fully deserves his credit is in the live performance, where he gained a reputation for the virtuosity captured in the 2020 concert film. Trip with Nils Frahm (which unexpectedly lists Brad Pitt as executive producer – Frahm provided his sweeping synthesizer opus “Says” for a pivotal scene in Pitt’s film Ad Astra). In Trigger we see Frahm constantly in motion, jumping in ballet between three keyboards, playing them simultaneously. It’s more of a rock show than classical piano.

The audience at his concerts usually looks delighted, cheering and whistling even in the middle of the song. Frahm feeds on these answers. “It’s wonderful when people are listening in a passionate and urgent manner – even with the lights off, I can feel the intention of the audience under my skin.”

The Trigger the film is assembled from four performances from his 2018 album The whole melody, which saw Frahm broaden his sonic palette and compose with greater ambition in his Berlin studio at the Funkhaus, a building that once served as the state broadcasting house for East Germany. The record was set in the United States, United Kingdom and Germany, and engaged him in a world tour of more than 180 sold-out performances.

When the tour was abruptly cut short by the pandemic, Frahm realized how exhausted he was. “I’m the type of person who never stands still,” he says. “It was great to use that for a while, but then it all started to fall apart around me. I have to be more responsible and not find myself in a sad situation because of my passion. Because passion is both: it is a place of pure joy and a place of pure agony.

He hasn’t played much music in Mallorca, where he spends most of his time walking, swimming, spending time with his wife, and learning how to make olive oil. He’s not sure how he feels about resuming his demanding touring schedule. “I don’t want concert halls to be full,” says Frahm. “It’s time for the younger ones to get through it and I can retire. I’m more tired, you know?

It’s hard to believe that Frahm, not even 40, is really considering throwing in the towel. Despite all his talk about fatigue, he never sparkles as much as when he talks about performing live. Just before he spoke of retiring, he had said, “It’s good to miss making music. Then I’ll go back to the studio with new ideas and the desire to create. When I mention that, he laughs. “It’s true, I will always be a musician. The piano will always be necessary for me. It will always be my medicine.

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