leader of a quiet revolution
In the studio of a former GDR production facility, Nils Frahm assembled a projector in the centre of the floor.
Reflected back from a screen, beamed Victoria, Sebastian Schipper’s one-take feature. Microphones and instruments were strewn in every alcove as the movie played out on an infinite loop. Images materialised and Frahm, accompanied by a small collective of friends, began to interact with the room. Here, the line separating the composer with the spectator dissolved.
Across the chaos of Schipper’s guerilla film editing, Frahm improvised a score gushing with radical finesse. No prearrangements. No demoing. No preproduction. Totally accidental, yet totally conscious of itself.
“The great thing is, all of the imperfections in live improvisation make compositions perfect,” Frahm enthuses. “That way the music takes on a translation of reality. The music takes the ‘God Position’, or the ‘Helicopter Position,’ flying above the action and even travelling in time, suggesting that anything could go wrong. But there remains this sense that it’s OK if it all goes wrong.”
The Victoria score saw the Hamburg-born, now firmly Berlin-based Frahm recently win a Deutscher Filmpreis, or Lola award, the German equivalent of an Oscar. It’s the first physical accolade he has received in his 10-year career as contemporary classical’s hugely admired activist. He regards the award simply as a “lovely surprise,” before deflecting the conversation back to the process of creating. “For Victoria, I had to bring the picture and the music together; a whole new layer of association you have to deal with. I think we have nine to ten pieces for the soundtrack, but I think all of the cues we ended up recording were in the hundreds. It’s hit-and-miss like that.
“But that’s my approach, and this is what I had to make clear,” he continues. “There is no such thing as preproduction for me. I would never record an album twice; once on the computer at home and then again in the studio to record the real thing. I hate MIDI arrangements and sitting in front of a computer for weeks only to have two days in the end to make real music.
“I will just record and hopefully something will emerge. I think we as musicians have a duty to tell production companies and directors that we work in a specific way and don’t do anything for money. And this is basically what I did. I told them I didn’t want any money from this project. I just want to experience the creation of something.”
Above all else, Frahm is a fan of process over final product. The 32-year-old’s work ethic is prodigiously constant, and it appears to be increasing in pace. Aside from scoring Victoria, this year he has released -solo- (his eighth solo release on the Erased Tapes label), a consoling collection of piano movements distributed for free online. He also became the founder of Piano Day, an annual celebration of newly completed compositions, which are readily available to download by the masses. He has performed a sell-out tour, called Nils Frahm Has Lost His Mind, in which he and a team of nine technicians transformed venue spaces into tombs of sound where silence became as integral as spectacle. And there are more, substantial but as-yet-unannounced, projects to come.
“I try doing things a little different to the zeitgeist. I’ve never toured a record for example. My records exist in their own sphere, so in my live shows they have their own kind of life. I think for my whole team, it’s important that everything we do has the potential of being different. We know that our time is limited.” He sighs, stressing that the genesis of his work is ingrained in personal progress over praise. “We would never make any decisions, or take on any project that is simply a good business opportunity or career step, unless it’s also artistically rewarding. By adhering to this dogma, we’ve made it quite far in a very short scale of time.”
And there’s a further more profound, progressive force guiding Frahm’s wider decisions and direction. “What I really am trying to achieve is inspiring people to be more radical in their creative processes. It doesn’t need to be as dry as it seems to be nowadays. I talk to a lot of musicians who ask me, ‘what’s your secret?’ There is no secret. The key is trust in your art. It’s the same for an audience as it is for a production company of a film as it is for the promoter of a concert. My team trust me. They are very close to me. But it takes courage to be hard on people, to sustain their trust, only to make up for it because the result of what we build together always ends up being quite spectacular.”
The detail, the fine-tuning and preparation for Frahm’s latest tour embodies his expanding organisation’s ethos and its relationship to labels like Erased Tapes. He talks like a CEO led by ideals, hellbent on innovation. “This was not a tour we made by hiring stagehands. A lot of bands or solo acts get big, get a big label and the big label gets a big management company and the management makes your tour production. Then you’re left with a line of people who you don’t know.
“Instead, my team are about to become our own masterclass. We’ve trained ourselves. We want to build upon others. This is the same when it comes to management or to labels. So many are tempted to jump to big labels, like Universal. I get offers like ‘Come on Nils, let’s make this big now, what do you say?’ I say ‘Yeah, we’ll make it big. But in our own way.’ Think of a label like Warp. They signed Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, Autechre. They made the label big. They didn’t leave to Universal. This is the exact spirit I have in my company.”
“When you jump from one stage of your career to the next stage and change your manager every two years, you lose…” Trust? “Yes. Trust again … because you meet new businessmen and can only hope they are as nice as they seem. I’ve heard horror stories about people getting fucked over by management and who choose to work alone, which is quite sad. I think working alone can get you quite far, but if you want to go a long way you need friends. It’s about growing with the right people and seeing what’s possible.”
So, entrenched in Frahm’s work is an ideology of progress. An ideology that through his swarm of releases and projects intends to galvanise a next-gen of independent, democratic artists. One project in particular is his collaborative investment in the construction of a specially designed piano by David Klavins. The piano, which is to be funded through the -solo- release and Piano Day contributions, would be the world’s tallest. “It’s about inspiration,” Frahm explains. “My music is there to inspire. Not everything needs to be an app or programme. All the big ideas we see these days are computer-centric. I feel like we can do something enormous and thrilling in the real world. If we only focus on digital innovation then we miss out on building hardware like Klavins’ tallest piano.
“I’m quite tired of hearing that the Steinway piano can’t get any better. ‘The Steinway’s perfect’. 120 years ago we apparently arrived at a point where it couldn’t improve. It’s a shame to say that, because technology progresses. We now have different materials and skills. We have all kinds of new ways to produce little parts with 3D printers. So I’m sure the piano can improve. David Klavins opened my eyes to this.”
As stirringly reticent and soft-spoken as Nils Frahm’s music suggests, the man behind the keys is one of the modern age’s dominant voices for change and innovation in the music industry. He’s an architect of grace and good intention. Classical’s nonconformist. “Piano Day is the prime example that we shouldn’t just think that everything is already there,” he argues. “Already created. Sometimes we give up before we even start. Maybe I’m crazy or arrogant enough to speak up and say there is still so much we need to change. I feel like we live off the wrong story. I’m in big doubts about the big ideas society lives by and that which fuels our imagination or our desires. We are killing ourselves in a way which art has the potential to stop.”
Such rabble-rousing rhetoric marks Frahm as a musician, a creative figurehead, who is unfailingly ambitious; revolutionary, even. “I think what people remember most is not what you did but how you did it. So I feel there is still hope in making art, in talking to people about how you do something. We might fail, who knows. But that’s the beauty of it. The beauty that anything could be a total success or a total disaster. Let’s see.”
Nils Frahm appears at Lovebox, Victoria Park, London, 18 July. -solo- is out now via Erased Tapes