Immersed in music since his early childhood and getting his inspirations from the classical, experimental and electronic worlds, Nils Frahm composes music not knowing any limits regarding style, energy or instruments. As comfortable in a concert hall as in the Boiler Room, what Nils teaches us is that there is no frontier in music. Presently in his second North American tour of the year, we were able to catch the jovial German musician on the phone just as he was crossing the Canadian border.
You have a strong classical training. Where does your fascination for electronic music come from?
The experimental quality of electronic music always interested me. I grew up with experimental acoustic and instrumental music. My father used to listen to Arvo Pärt, John Cage, free jazz and stuff like that. Those musicians were looking for something new. They were looking for their own sound. Basically what electronic music did was give those people a whole new powerful palette of colors and brushes to create that they didn’t have before. I find that the 90s were a particularly interesting period, but I feel it slowed down a little bit in the past years, I have the impression it’s too much about business and money now. And that’s why I turned away a little bit to rediscover acoustic music. I’ve always had an analog approach to electronic music. Although I think my music kept this trancy feeling that came as I used to listen to trance and goa music when I was younger.
What was the first instrument you used that wasn’t piano?
After learning the piano I started buying some keyboards, organ, synthesizers and amplifiers. I was a teenager, it was all very exciting to collect everything I could and experiment.
Did you feel a lot of prejudices from your peers in the classical field when you started composing electronic music?
I never felt anything like that simply because I never really belonged to the classical field or any scene at all. It seems that the excitement about the neo classical music made me known, but I’ve always been doing both classic and electronic music. I think people who come to my concerts are always more interested in one style or the other. I hope it brings them to discover something new and get interested into other styles of music.
Do you wish there were less categorizing?
It’s so hard to categorize music today; there is so much in between. If I go to a record shop I find a lot of music in the rock and roll section that is not rock and roll. I know that records shops find it hard to put my music into a box. But I felt it would be interesting to reflect all the music that inspires me rather than trying to sound like a unique style. I can afford now to use a very diverse palette of sounds from quiet classical piano to really loud electronic stuff and people will stay and listen to it. I can play a very broad variety of styles and textures and want to expand it even more, I don’t want to narrow it down. It’s like there is a little rebel inside me who wants to shock people (laughs).
You are using a Juno synthetiser. And you even named an album of solo work Juno. You have a custom made piano called Una Corda. You seemed strongly attached to your instruments. To which extend can an instrument influence your productions? What part does the instrument itself play in your inspirations?
There is always collaboration between the instrument and me. The music always depends of the instrument; you are nothing without the instrument. When I started making music I thought about what was really my input into the music I was creating and what was the instrument’s part. I felt I had to pay as much attention to the instrument as to my playing and my aesthetic. So I tried to develop both sides: my soul, my heart and my creativity as an artist as well my technique. I modify my instruments so they work better for me, I can really feel one with them.
Maybe you know that Montreal has an important laboratory on music perception and cognition in McGill University. Using theories of neurosciences and psychology, they study how the brain perceives music. Is the way music affects the brain something you are interested in?
I thought about that of course, but I like it to be a kind of miracle! Even if a scientist explains to me in every detail how it works in the brain it still doesn’t explain why it’s here. It’s interesting to have more knowledge about it; it can even help you to be better technically, but it’s impossible to say that everybody reacts to it in the same way. Some of it is also cultural and a form of conditioning.
So you would not associate music more to the brain, the body or the emotions? For you it is a kind of mix of the three aspects of the perception?
Well it’s just me guessing! For example we often say that a major cord makes people happy and a minor cord makes people sad. But is that something we simply got used to because it was always associated to those emotions or is it something physical? Why do we put the emotion into sound? For me it’s totally fine just to wonder about it and making use of that intuitively. You can tell a happy story, you can tell a sad story and you can tell everything in between. But the story is not narrative; it’s something you have to experience. It’s a form of communication, it can’t be fully understood and it can’t be misunderstood. For me it’s the prettiest language of them all!
Repetition takes an important place in your work. It is definitely something crucial in electronic music. It leads to a hypnotic and sometimes trance state, a state that humans have been seeking since the cavemen. What does repetition mean to you?
I think it’s something that had to be developed because of all that surrounds us. If you look at today’s architecture for example, if you take a big skyscraper, every window has the same size and the same shape and there is hundreds and hundreds of them. That is repetition as well. Everything that is factory made and mass-produced; one piece is exactly like the other. We live in a time where we can replicate things; it’s kind of the contrast of nature. There is also some kind of beauty in this and that was the inspiration for minimal music. It’s all part of our progression as a society; electronic music was just a logical step. The concept of patterns and repetition of the digital age is really inspiring for me, because now duplication really is perfect. I like transposing that concept of a digital device to a classical instrument, a bit like a bird would imitate a cell phone.
You were certainly a highlight of Mutek in 2013, you played three times, what do you remember of the festival? What do you think about the festival?
I remember everything; I’m really good at remembering! There were all fantastic shows. The Boiler Room was hot and chaotic (laughs). Mutek is my favorite electronic music festival. It has a nice family vibe. The programming is really good, they like to push cutting edge electronic music. They gather people who are interesting in new ways of making music.
Speaking of Boiler Room, you recently did a live set for Boiler Room at the Dimensions Festival. Do you think it makes sense to play live in front of an audience that is not there? Do you think it transmits the same energy?
It’s limited. You are missing something of course. But it’s another way to make people experience it, I can’t play everywhere! Maybe in a perfect world I would not do this. Maybe I shouldn’t let people upload videos on Youtube which they took with their Iphone, but it’s just part of our reality. So at least if the show is well recorded it gives people an alternative to the crappy self-made internet recordings.