Is It Classical, or Pop? Nils Frahm Is Worried, but Not About That

BERLIN — It was a few days before the pianist and composer Nils Frahm’s latest album release, and the ideas of the German philosopher Theodor Adorno were weighing on his mind.

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Is It Classical, or Pop? Nils Frahm Is Worried, but Not About That
, New York Times

BERLIN — It was a few days before the pianist and composer Nils Frahm’s latest album release, and the ideas of the German philosopher Theodor Adorno were weighing on his mind.

Frahm, 35, who is also German, was sitting in his spotless midcentury studio, an elegant hideaway in an industrial part of the Köpenick district, in the southeast of Berlin. He said he was troubled by global issues including nuclear waste disposal, the regulation of weed killer and carbon emission targets.

“Adorno asked, ‘How you can write a piece of poetry after the Holocaust?'” Frahm said. “How can I write a calm piano piece in a time when all these matters are so important?”

Since 2015, Frahm has been on a break from touring, holed up in the studio working on his latest album, “All Melody,” which was released Jan. 26. The record will be accompanied by a world tour, including performances in the United States, dates for which sold out before a note of the record emerged.

Since Frahm’s breakthrough album, “Felt,” was released in 2011, he has become the face of a new breed of musicians who combine elements of electronic dance and classical music to produce a new, more contemplative kind of pop.

Often branded “contemporary classical” or “neoclassical,” his tracks feature alongside artists such as Max Richter, Olafur Arnalds and Brian Eno on playlists created by Spotify with names like “Late Night Synths and Strings.” Frahm has played concert halls, including the Barbican Center in London and Philharmonie de Paris, as well as music festivals including Dimensions in Croatia and Primavera Sound in Barcelona.

Frahm’s music is often led by him on the piano, supplemented with electronic textures from synthesizers and drum machines. It’s melancholy, but also euphoric. “All Melody” opens with a haunting, wordless choral number (a collaboration with Shards, a British choir), followed by the percussive second track, “Sunson,” that would not be out of place on a nightclub dance floor.

The BBC radio presenter Mary Anne Hobbs, a highly regarded musical tastemaker in Britain known for supporting experimental artists, said that Frahm was “the single most important artist in the world right now.” Hobbs has championed Frahm’s music on her radio show since 2013, and in 2015 she invited him to play in a concert she was hosting at the BBC Proms, a festival mostly dedicated to classical music.

“We stepped across a boundary that night,” said Hobbs. “We showed that music with classical roots can be taken to a whole new generation who want to experience it, and it can be interpreted in such a radical new way by Nils.”

Frahm himself shied away from discussing genre. “Describing my music with genres is a helpless approach,” Frahm said. “I won’t ever fight against it though, I think it’s fantastic. It just tells me that a lot of people are still stuck not being able to choose for themselves.”

The Icelandic producer Olafur Arnalds, a longtime collaborator, was more pragmatic. “I’m not a fan of the term of ‘neoclassical’ at all,” he said. “But there’s definitely something great happening right now. It’s a mirror on our society; people are seeking this more contemplative type of music.”

Frahm’s childhood in Hamburg, Germany, was filled with eclectic sounds, courtesy of his music-loving father, he said. “My parents were hippies, but they bypassed all the clichéd rock stuff,” Frahm said. “No Eric Clapton or Pink Floyd, which I really appreciated.” Instead, Frahm’s father introduced him to jazz by artists like John Abercrombie, Horace Silver and Keith Jarrett, as well as classical music.

His brother would be in one room of their family home playing techno, and his father in another with his own music on. “I was sitting in the middle, and it noodled together,” Frahm said.

Bringing these sounds together is what Frahm has been working on in his studio at the Funkhaus on the banks of the River Spree. A former headquarters of the East German state broadcaster (funkhaus means “broadcasting house” in German), it is a vast, imposing building, with a brutalist exterior that gives no hint of the opulent recording studios and performance rooms within. Frahm’s studio was originally built for the recording of chamber music. With its golden wallpaper and parquet flooring, it is an obscure piece of German musical history preserved in amber.

Frahm had already held a number of recording sessions in the space, including for the soundtrack of “Victoria,” a 2015 thriller directed by Sebastian Schipper as a single continuous take, when the building’s new owners invited him to house his studio there. In the two years since, he has filled it with a huge collection of synthesizers, pianos and custom-built instruments.

When Hobbs visited the studio in February 2017, she said Frahm was in the middle of making “All Melody,” and he had taken to sleeping there. “He’d made a tiny makeshift bed which was little more than a blanket folded over and a pillow on the ground,” she said. “The place of rest he created for himself was so humble and simple by comparison to the beautiful environment he made for his instruments.”

Reverence for instruments started in Frahm’s youth, when he learned the piano from Nahum Brodski, who Frahm said had been taught by a student of Tchaikovsky. “It was nasty learning piano, boring,” he said, but he was disciplined in his practice.

“I understood that you have to suffer for something which is beautiful,” he said. “This is my biggest criticism in our age, that we try to erase suffering and hardship from our lives in order to just be left only with beauty.” Frahm was about to play the final show in a four-day run of performances at the Funkhaus, the first leg of his world tour, and he turned to ruminating on how the concerts had gone so far. “These people have wet eyes and they look at me all smiling, and I feel like it’s my birthday every day,” he said.

“But it makes me very skeptical,” he said. “It can’t be my birthday every day.”

Frahm said that he didn’t think he could make music forever. He’s too troubled by the ills he sees in the world, and making music doesn’t do enough to solve them.

“I’m already thinking of when the right time will be to change jobs,” he said. “I still feel like I have a little bit of potential, but when I feel like I’m fully blossomed as a flower, I will cut myself down and something else will grow.”

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