RSS feed RSS Twitter Twitter Facebook Facebook 15 Questions 15 Questions

Smiling with a cramp

img  Tobias Fischer

The implicit promise behind a live album has always been to allow listeners to re-live a concert within the confinements of their own four walls. Pianist and composer Nils Frahm doesn't believe in this concept. The experiences of hearing music in a concert and at home are fundamentally different from his perspective and it would be artistically untruthful to claim otherwise. Which is why Frahm decided to take a rather unusual approach to his latest release Spaces. Recorded over the course of an expansive European tour, the album may look like a perfect documentation of his eclectic live capacities, from humorous dub-infused opener "An Aborted Beginning“ and Berlin-school-of-electronic-like sequencer epic "Says" to tender piano meditation "Went Missing" or dreamy closer "Ross's Harmonium". In reality, however, every bar of music has been carefully mulled over and edited, playing with the notion of where the live part ends and the studio work begins. Astoundingly, Spaces sounds every bit as spontaneous and in-the-moment as one of Frahm's stage performances. Which points at a fundamental paradox: To stay true to the idea of transporting a concert to a CD, you need to first re-construct it from scratch.

When you're performing live, isn't there the danger of clashing with the expectations of an audience which just wants you to play the songs the way they know them from the record?
Call me arrogant but I do think that I know better than the audience what works best in a live-setting. In a concert, you can work a lot more with dynamics. If a piece starts really quietly and then turns loud, for example, I have complete control over the audience and the space. It's unrealistic to create a studio album, on the other hand, and want people to appreciate it in the ideal listening environment – buying the record in a nice store, putting it on at home and positioning themselves in the perfect spot of the stereo image. In reality, they'll want to hear the music while ironing their shorts or preparing dinner. That's an important reason why I wouldn't want to go into similar extremes on my studio albums.

For Spaces, I didn't want to take live-concerts and pretend as though people will listen to them in the same context. Which meant I had to tweak, cut, edit and mix a lot in order for the music to feel like a concert again at home. You need to use every trick at your disposal for that to happen.

In many respects, Spaces is not a live-, but a studio album.
Absolutely. I collected a lot of material, recorded every single concert. And truth be told: A lot of it was shit. In order to make it sound un-edited, I had to edit a lot. And precisely because that's a hard job and because I couldn't guarantee it would work, I decided that the album would be a personal project. I financed it entirely out of my own pocket. I wanted to see if I could pull it off. And only after everything was finished did I call the label.

I had a technician with me at all times, who recorded my performances. That way, you gradually develop a routine. After ten gigs or so, you're no longer aware that you're recording. Which is the opposite of focusing on one big show, where I'd probably have been subjected to the fear of ruining everything. And it was only after ten performances or so that the really exciting things started to happen. This allowed me to to play with passion and risk. Nonetheless, listening back to the recordings was painful at times (laughs).

Where do you see the line between auxiliary noises and mistakes? What did you edit out, specifically?
I took out parts where I thought the inner tension and integrity of a song wasn't there. As long as these elements are present, I really don't care if you can hear someone coughing. In fact, I even appreciate supposed distractions like that, since they convey the idea to the listener that there's a space there, a real, physical space. So I really like it, if a mobile phone starts ringing right in the middle of a musical break. Of course, I liked these ambient noises anyway, even before commencing work on Spaces. That's something I tried to make clear on my previous album Felt: The squeaking of wooden boards on the floor, the tapping noises of the hammers - all of these aspects have carried over from listening to electronic music. It's all a question of ambiance. A piece by Chet Baker can occasionally seem pretty cheesy. But then I'll hear the spit in the mouthpiece and how the piano is placed slightly awkwardly in the left channel and the trumpet's on the right … and I'll get goosebumps without knowing why. And it's these moments that I'm looking for in my own music as well. 

How do you see the relationship between the sound you want to create and the space the music is recorded in? If you take an album like The Bells, it's almost as though the sound of the church is the narrative that holds it together ...
When I'm in a particular space, I'm listening to what is happening around me. And in doing so, I'm trying to make sure that what I'm playing corresponds with the sound of the space and the feeling expressed through the music. You need to listen, it's vital. You can't just come to a church and simply play the songs you prepared at home in your studio. You have to adapt to the situation at hand. Unfortunately, most rock bands are not flexible enough for that. They want to exactly recreate the set they've practised on stage. An improvising jazz band, on the other hand, will be able to adapt. They could decide to play slower pieces, use a bow on the bass, mallets on the toms, a few long, sustained notes on the saxophone. That's precisely what I did on The Bells: I came to the church with a specific idea, but when I wanted to record it, I realised it just wasn't possible. So I had to come up with a new concept, which would work in the context of the acoustics.

In a sense, to me, sound and composition are one and the same thing. Asked about this topic, Weather Report's Joe Zawinul once said: "There's nothing more inspiring than a beautiful sound". Then again, he used some of the most horrific synthesizer-sounds in the history of music. (laughs)

Are there rooms you couldn't imagine performing in at all?
I don't think so, no. Maybe a sterile conference room with no acoustic resonance whatsoever, a low ceiling, thick carpet and neon light. But generally speaking, I try to be prepared for everything and to cope with any situation. A bad PA can even be a pretty exciting source of motivation. I am the exact opposite of someone like Keith Jarrett, who'll run offstage if some one's noisy during the gig. That's exactly what I don't want. I want your memories of a particular evening to not just relate to the notes, the chords, the sounds. I want to create a far deeper impression than what the music alone would be capable of. I would love to have a lot more control of the light in the foyer, for example, I would love to draw visitors in with a very specific mood right in the moment they enter the building.

Does reality play a role when you're mixing an album? I remember you saying that music is about music, not love or life …
What I meant by that is that my music deals with our way of listening to things and less with desire or hate … Which is not to say you can't make use of these emotions very effectively. You'll obviously play differently each night. If you just had a fight with your girlfriend, for example, you may hit the keys a little harder than usual. Next day, the sentiment will be gone and you can't return to that mode of playing.

Perhaps that's for the better.
It certainly doesn't help if you're too emotionally invested in your performance. A lot of the musicians I personally admire are playing with a smile on their face. Someone like Ravi Shankar, for example. Perhaps that's because he genuinely loves what he's hearing … I'm not sure that's always the case with me and my own music. I'll have my hand here and my foot somewhere else completely and may be getting a cramp.

What did you concretely change about the recordings for Spaces in the studio?
The biggest incision is always what to leave out. Taking away things until what you're left with is something which feels definitive. In journalism, there's this oral history approach, where you transcribe interviews verbatim without editing them. The idea behind this is that any other approach would cut up the truth, resulting in a new, artificially created reality. In music, too, collagism is an art form – and as soon as you've left something out, you've changed reality. Once you've started, there's no end to this process. So the biggest part of to select one hour of material from fifty hours of recordings.

What remains is essentially getting the balance of the microphones right. And to be honest, I don't really care whether or not something sounds the way it did in concert. What concerns me is whether or not I like it in the studio. If that means cutting down a twelve-minute recording from a gig to eight minutes, so be it. Or I may segue from a section from London to a recording from Brussels within the same song. If it works, I'm not going to apologise for it.

You enjoy this process a lot, it would seem.
I'll make use of anything that's available to me to get things just the way I want them. It's part of my art.

Nils Frahm interview by Tobias Fischer
Photography by Michal O'Neal

If you enjoyed this interview with Nils Frahm, why not continue reading our review of his debut album Wintermusik? Or interviews with Ólafur Arnalds, Fabrizio Paterlini or Stefano Guzzetti?

Homepage: Nils Frahm
Homepage: Erased Tapes Records