Nils Frahm, The Barbican

Nils Frahm, The Barbican, London, February 23, 2018

The last (and so far only other) time I’ve seen Nils Frahm in concert was at The Roundhouse, a standing concert, which had me retreating to a corner to sit down about halfway through. Not out of boredom, but just because a Nils Frahm concert doesn’t seem like a standing concert to me. But this time, touring his latest album, All Melody, he’s playing a seated venue, The Barbican. There’s no need for me to retreat to any corners, even though for part of the concert I kind of wish I could, because a woman sitting right behind my concert-going companion and me keeps breaking into fits of laughter for no known reason. Maybe she thinks she’s at a comedy show. Perhaps she hears the music differently than I do. Whatever the reason, the laughter doesn’t go well with the music and disturbs my enjoyment of the concert in places.

Luckily the laughter stops after about 30 minutes (or maybe I just blanked it out after a while), and either way, this is not about a loud attention-seeking audience member; this is about the attention-seeking (!) performing artist on the stage that we’ve all come to see.

Not Quite Classical, Not Quite Trance
The set-up on stage is pretty much what one would imagine Frahm’s Funkhaus studio in Berlin looks like, with its warm lights and homely feel. So when Nils Frahm enters the stage, it feels more like he’s arrived at his studio one evening, as if we’ve all been invited round to watch an artist at work, creating elaborate sounds in real-time.

His music is not quite classical, not quite trance. It’s like repetitive blocks of chords and patterns that translate into something quite meditative and beautiful, like on one of the first songs of the evening, My Friend the Forest, which evokes feelings of a walk through empty city streets or perhaps a desolate beach, or, indeed, a forest. However, there’s nothing desolate about a Nils Frahm concert. He has sold out all four shows at this residency stint at The Barbican.

It would be fine just seeing Frahm sitting and playing, but it elevates the live experience to see his very active movement on stage. Several times he gets up from whatever keyboard/harmonium/toy piano/organ/grand piano he’s playing at that time to go to his ‘soundboard’ to create his loops of beats and basslines and then rushes back to his keys and resumes playing. It almost gets comical at times; will he make it back from the soundboard without tripping over a monitor?

Dry Wit
Frahm is also an engaging and entertaining storyteller. He will pick up the microphone and tell us an anecdote throughout the evening. One is about the huge organ he’s travelling with (no pun intended), which is too big to make it to the stage. Towards the end of the concert, he tells the audience that he’ll be back in a moment to play, ‘A great encore set that I’ve prepared meticulously.’

His dry wit goes well with his compositions, which are in their own way, quite deadpan, perhaps best illustrated in the piece, For Peter – Toilet Brushes – More, where Frahm plays the strings on his grand piano with, what I assume are unused, toilet brushes (will his next album be called Music for Toilets?). The brushes create a more ‘plucking’ stringed sound than if played on the piano’s keys, momentarily rendering Frahm not only a key player but also a string player. 

This section makes me think of Steve Reich’s Clapping Music, which consists of hands clapping together rather than a toilet brush beating down on the piano strings. Still, the piece offers the same kind of break in the rest of the music – a toilet break, if you will – before Frahm returns to playing meditative patterns on the keys.

After the two-hour solo concert, Frahm comes out in the foyer to sign autographs. He is friendly and talkative, and full of energy. It takes a particular talent to do what Nils Frahm does on stage, but it also takes a particular person to be so forthcoming towards a bunch of strangers who all essentially ‘want something from him’. He doesn’t seem to mind. Sure, the concert is over, and he’s now working overtime, but he gets paid extra in the form of endless compliments and admiration. Not a bad way for him to spend an evening. And not a bad way for the rest of us either.

Nils Frahm setlist
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