“Music is the best companion for the journey of dialogue within yourself.”
An unconventional master mind behind an age-old instrument, German composer and multi-instrumentalist Nils Frahm is ready to reveal the origins of his music production. We chatted with Frahm on sound, inspirations, dark sides and ghosts before his live performance at Zorlu PSM on September 19.
“The main inspiration is purely sound.”
Your search for sound never quits, not while recording at Funkhaus in Berlin or not while recording at the well in Mallorca. What is the simplest definition of good music, good sound and composing to you?
Oh it is exactly that! Good sounds that are well composed. That is good music to me. Good music is a hard question, but I think that it is one that does not annoy me. Good music in my case is which just makes me feel in balance with the piece. It is important for me that music imbalances my soul & myself. And I think it will always be.
You believe in the physical soul of the instruments. Despite owning synthesizers, you still record with a small Danish piano that you bought in Denmark. You choose to live in an analogue world in a massive digital world still. How does these decisions make up your personality as a musician? Do you find your music in instruments?
Yes! I always find my music instruments as I am not a singer. Singers find their music directly in themselves and since I am not one, I find the sound in any kinds of objects. You touch them directly with your hands and receive a sound. It may be a wineglass or else. And there are also complex instruments like the piano or the synthesizers where the principle is just really the same. You just take the tune and do the right thing! My connection with the instruments is very strong. But I also feel like that music grows on trees – like when you are standing by yourself outside somewhere and the combination of sounds feel like they are perfectly composed and all there is left for you to do after that is to enjoy the concert! I don’t see any instruments; I just feel the sound. An instrument can be defined as anything that causes a sound and it perfectly can be everyday object. It’s a fantastic and pretty interesting way to see and feel the environment and notice it more with your ears maybe more usually than your eyes.
Do you believe in the power of past? Your music – having grounds in a very revolutionary electronic influence – is a reminiscent of a deep composing work that reminds cult composers like Tchaikovsky. How did you rediscover the secrets of sounds, music and composing?
As a pianist I am today, I think I wouldn’t have come up with all of these ideas that I had without looking at the work of composers before me. They affected me with the possibilities of good melody or whatever that they were working on was a major inspiration and I wanted to do something like that because I wasn’t a big fan of popular music myself. I was affected by all the great musicians before me.
All Melody – a new chapter of your career that has evolved your music into a revolutionary state. All Melody consists of a choir, strings and other instruments while your on-stage live performance is solo. How did you adapt your work to the stage? How do you define the whole experience in your words?
Oh I just change the songs and sometimes I don’t play some of them because I feel like they don’t work when I don’t have an orchestra or a group of people playing with me. But I have so much material that I can pick and choose from a depth of material. Especially when you are playing alone you can break free; you don’t have to warn people when you are willing to go for a change – you can just decide in that moment. I like the energy – a solo performance is hard work, but it is also the most rewarding thing that you can do on stage. So, I decided to keep the energy of the solo performance. I basically don’t like to diffuse the focus. I just have to basically play everything myself and that makes me work in many different ways. Having a band on stage would of course be easier for me but it changes the intensity of the performance, so I think we have to sacrifice the people and the instruments to keep the energy of the solo performance alive. I’d rather lose the instrument, a melody line or a textural element than losing music itself by rewriting the songs. It works in the most naked way possible – without any decorations and extras.
Once All Melody appeared to be a complete work, it destroyed every other possible idea that you had in mind and became a statement of its own. What else did you have in mind? What would be Nils Frahm doing right now if All Melody was never released?
Oh, if it was never released? I think he would be up to something very similar! It would probably be different songs but by accident maybe things would have turned out differently. If I were to start the record tomorrow again, I couldn’t make it the same way, that’s for sure. It’s destined to the chance. You go into the studio and plan on writing a new piece or maybe finishing one and while doing so you think of things that moved you at that very moment and you change it. Sometimes I’m really amazed that some things turn out really different than you expected of them. Sometimes even more true in origin than your initial thought. And you feel like wow! – Somebody is helping you right now. Sometimes you have days where you stare at the wall, at the wall, at the wall... But the next thing is always very exciting. The existential or sometimes non-existential mix and harmony. And I’m very curious about what will happen in the future.
You mentioned in one of your earlier interviews that you transcend your fear into something you call “hyper-real” when you are on stage. As a great musician you are today, do you still hold this fear while performing?
Oh yeah! I always make sure that it’s there. You know just to make things not get too comfortable for me. I make it a little harder for myself to feel in the zone and in the moment right there. That is the reason that explains why my head is so complicated and full all the time. I always think about the next thing that could go completely wrong while performing in order to keep me awake. And a very big part of my show is this fear actually because nobody is %100 sure that it will work. So along with me, everybody – my whole team and crew holds respect for every single concert, and nobody is sure of anything.
Funkhaus Berlin - your studio, is a 1956 dated old radio broadcasting building and have lived through years of incredible music recording. Many musicians have past it, many stories to be told. Do you believe in the inspiration of the spaces? How does the Funkhaus inspire you?
Oh, it does for sure. Oh God, this is almost like a metaphysical question! I do believe in ghosts and energies. Every room has a certain energy or a vibration – what do you want to call - at the Funkhaus. The Funkhaus definitely has a very wonderful aura and a lot of people just like me feel the same way and they all notice something very special, special inside these very walls. I’m not really sure what it is – maybe just our imagination or own creativity but there are really energies tracing and spreading out from these walls. And for sure it makes a difference while recording here.
Music is often seen as freedom in many ways. Free from origin, home, roots and tradition. What does freedom in music mean to you? What is one feeling that crosses your heart when you compose? Which melodies, sounds make you overwhelmed?
This is a good question. I think it’s always this complex sensation of sound but also your imagination – if you hear a melody itself it might not touch you as the way desired completely but if you hear it from a special person, like a when little kid sings the exact song it makes you cry. It is almost like music is contextualized – it is never out of context. Melody is one part of music and comes to play when an instrument is played in a good tempo within the sound. That’s the sound that reminds you of a happy moment or a weeping tone. I truly feel like it is our imagination that makes music sound like music in the end. Our endlessly creative minds are what make the music sound meaningful to us. So I’m basically still on the path – trying to navigate freedom in that sense because I can do whatever I want within the studio walls and express whatever emotion or idea I want to. Over some time I got to realize that maybe I am not so free at all. I could really do whatever I want but this idea never crosses me. I never feel like I’m entirely free. I know that I’m not connected to any burdens or necessities.
My main purpose is always to find something which heals me. There is something that I would call as a “dark side” in everybody and everybody can get in touch with their dark side in different ways. I do that now for a very long time and best way to do it is through music. It lets you to connect with whatever energy breeds inside you. It’s something that doesn’t make you feel alone – music is a company. While you get in touch with something dark and deep inside yourself music holds you. This infinitively is what I try to get from music. Music is the best companion for the journey of dialogue within yourself.
In your Late Night Tales collection, you mention Nina Simone and claim that she has a “Nina Simone music” rather than labeling it with a genre or a limitation. Do you believe in a “Nils Frahm music”? How would you define “Nils Frahm music” in three words?
(Laughs) It’s usually calm. It has a lot of dynamic and it respects how crazy, wild and unpredictable reality in the end is. I hope it gives a lot of space for different colors, ideas and different moods. Hopefully there will be more of it for this world and for me to share.
Interview: Nazlı İlke Kaya
Illustration: Aslı Yazan