After narrowly missing previous Nils Frahm performances in London and at this year’s Dimensions Festival, the prospect of seeing him at the Barbican was even more alluring….
Surprisingly only just over 30 years old, the grade II listed building on Silk Street, East London is currently home to the London Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and has – or will see – the likes of Theo Parrish, Fuck Buttons, Julia Holter and Mount Kimbie grace the stage of the Barbican Centre in 2014. After walking to the venue on a brisk winter evening this grandiose concert hall, hedged in by the surrounding brutalist architecture, proved to be the perfect environment to experience Nils Frahm’s very individual take on modern Classical music.
We took our seats in good time and soaked up the stunning sight of his stage set-up, sat patiently draped in warm spotlighting. The vast preparation that goes into Frahm’s live show is evident, if this recent video recorded at at Admiralspalast in Berlin is anything to go by.
A pressing intensity filled the room as a one-shoed Nils entered the stage and triggered the circling arpeggio of ‘Says’. The initial thought was the sound was too quiet, but as the peak of the song’s crescendo swept intensely across the 2000-strong audience with swathes of tape delay, it seemed ridiculous to ever have doubted someone in such complete control of their performance and its’ sonic dynamics. This merged into a jaw-dropping performance of ‘Said & Done’ – a compositional masterclass.
‘You’, lifted from 2012 album ‘Screws’, was delicate and moving performed by Nils with his back to the audience, arched resolutely over his upright piano. ‘Screws’ – recorded over 9 nights on just 9 fingers following a freak bunk bed accident that caused him to badly break his thumb, serves as enduring evidence of the artist’s skill and commitment in the face of adversity.
Things then shifted a gear with a rendition of ‘All Melody’ and ‘#2’, the two tracks that feature on his recent RA Sessions video, Nils stooped centre stage over his control panel like a possessed hunchback. His manipulation of drum machine, Juno, Rhodes, tape delay and Moog Taurus over the course of these two tracks is nothing short of flawless, all as if his leaning dashboard is challenging him to a duel. This is about as ‘dance’ music as proceedings got, with a 4×4 pulse and fragmented anaolgue effects injecting an element of Techno into the mix – considered and complimentary rather than a cheesy pastiche. You can envisage the endless, misty-eyed jam sessions that lead to the creation of these tracks.
Next was a Nils Frahm work-in-progress, apparently him having some fun with two synthesisers recently purchased in Australia. It was great to see the presentation of these raw ideas but, unfortunately, this was the one weak link in the show. Although there were glimmers of Nils’ genius throughout, the straight 4×4 beat, dry hats and snare – in my opinion – just don’t sound at home in his music. To be fair, he revealed his doubts about the track to the audience prior to playing. This was the only time the all-consuming grip of the performance loosened somewhat.
‘For-Peter-Toilet Brushes-More’ took hold with nearly 20-minutes of pure, gutsy concert pianism – Nils taking two toilet brushes to the inside of his grand piano, creating a lattice of masterful yet playful polyrhtyhms before slinging the brushes abruptly to the floor towards a rapturous crowd. His encore ‘Unter-Tristana-Ambre’ was a real thing of beauty and nostalgia that allowed time to reflect back on what had just happened and beyond. He even managed to insert the notes to ‘Happy Birthday’ into the final moments of the song following an earlier requests session with the audience. Through his interaction with the audience we saw a slightly edgy but wholly endearing character, with all the quirks of an artist who has talent in spades.
In 2011 Nils Frahm played to 100 people at Cafe Oto in Dalston. In 2014 he sold out the Barbican Hall nearly a year in advance of the show. Considering the recent kudos for Ólafur Arnalds’ Kiasmos project and A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Robert Raths’ Erased Tapes can consider themselves one of the premium peddlers of independent avant-garde music, with Nils Frahm as the unassuming poster boy.
Words: Josh Thomas
Photography: Mark Allan