When the phone rings I don’t recognize the number. “I’m sorry, who are you looking for again?” It turns out that Robert Raths, the owner and curator of Erased Tapes Records, is in town for a few days. We arrange to meet at WFMU Record Fair, one of the largest vinyl aficionado gatherings in New York. When I get to the venue, I receive a text from Raths informing me that he’s going to be late, and so I dive into a crowded warehouse in search of that one record which will become mine at whatever the cost.
Nils Frahm’s last album Screws drew strength from its sparseness. Written and recorded with a broken hand, Frahm was forced into developing more skeletal performances at the piano. The resulting half an hour of music was a gentle exploration of simple melodies, with a devastating sadness at its core. Two years later, Spaces feels the liberation of his physical recovery, and is the sonic antithesis to his last album in many respects: swelling to over an hour and a half, reintroducing electronic and percussive elements, and laying bedrocks of continual, rolling piano beneath the twinkling melodies.
Nils Frahm straddles a few musical worlds. The Berlin artist has released star-gazing synth epics ("For"), intimate solo piano pieces (Screws) and plenty in between, and he does it all pretty well. His live show lays bare the sheer scope of his work: he's usually got at least three pianos, plus an array of synths and other gadgets. These performances often show the true breadth of his talent in a way his individual records can't.
Nils Frahm‘s name pops up for multiple reasons these days. As a solo artist, the German composer (who is essentially three degrees of separation from Tchaikovsky, having studied with a student of Tchaikovsky’s last scholar) is the mind behind albums like 2009’s The Bells and 2011’s brilliant and beautiful Felt, the latter an album recorded inside a piano. The 31-year-old also produced of Hero Brother, an album released this year by Arcade Fire violinist Sarah Neufeld that was recorded in an abandoned geodesic dome and an underground parking garage in Berlin.
Nils Frahm's approach to making music has developed in line with his attitude to the performance environment, and the German composer's audience remains an integral part of his first live album. Spaces is, not surprisingly, something of a curveball; an unconventional "best of" field-recording illustrating the intense magnetism, humor, and personality of its creator better than any studio records could. .
Nils Frahm is one of a handful of young composers contributing to the quietly burgeoning reputation of avant-garde label Erased Tapes. Creaking floorboards and static crackle accompanied muted piano on his widely praised 2011 record Felt. Audience coughs, ringtones and other blemishes provide texture on these live recordings of new tracks that Frahm later pieced together in the studio.
If you've ever caught Nils Frahm live, you can attest not only to what a powerful experience it can be, but also how much his use of improvisation and the performance space can change the sound of his pieces from albums like Screws and Felt. As a response to fans wanting to take a piece of that magic home — many of whom he met at 30-plus shows over the past two years — Frahm decided to put out a live album. Spaces, however, is not your traditional live album, having been recorded on a variety of media — including reel-to-reel and cassette — and in wildly differing setups at venues across the globe.
Tight restrictions are a fundamental component of the music made by Berlin-based composer Nils Frahm. When he plays piano it sometimes feels like his hands are pulling rigid machine-based structures into a lighter, airier place. Frahm is a musician clearly enamored with benchmark figures from the minimalist tradition (Steve Reich, Philip Glass), artists who cross the jazz and classical worlds (Keith Jarrett), film composers that lean toward the tropes of early music (Michael Nyman), and electronic musicians with the lightest of touches (Thomas Fehlmann).
Nils Frahm’s recorded output in the last five or so years has included a couple of CDs on Sonic Pieces; Wintermusik, a gorgeous, intimate triptych of piano improvisations, and Felt, a series of compositions recorded in such a way as to afford equal prominence to the piano and the process of playing – the creak of Frahm’s stool and the intake of his breath. More recently, he’s released a synth EP and Screws, an album recorded in the wake of a potentially career-ending thumb injury. But anyone who’s seen Frahm live will understand that his records are only half of the story.
The recent history of music is one of digitisation and miniaturisation. The source of sound is becoming further obscured and separated from the listener as samples of virtualised versions of instruments become the modern day composer’s tool of choice, and the sheer scope of possibilities at disposal via effects and post-production gets equally daunting and unwieldy. Before, we would hear a copy of a copy.
Contractual obligation, stop-gap, fan-bait. The Foghat Principle. Over the years the live album has had something of a checkered reputation, and with just cause: too often these things can represent the low point in an artists catalogue, throwaway releases that do little for anyone but the hardcore fan-base or serve as a memento for those who attended the shows in question.