, November 21st, 2013 12:36
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. Now the gap is widening, and we’re listening to a copy, of a copy, of a copy. Ironically, the very concept of ‘liveness’ (and subsequent ticket sales) is perhaps what’s predominantly fuelling the current industry. The argument is one that "experience=legitimacy", and while the well-worn concept of the rock & pop ‘live album’ is now near-taboo (and almost exclusively used just to make money out of old rope), committing to tape live is still commonplace in the often improvisational fringes of music - coincidentally the home of Germany’s brightest young pianist, Nils Frahm.
Part-diary and part-documentary, Spaces captures the native Berliner’s formidable power and maturation as a solo live performer over the last year or so, while allowing the listener to trace the continually surprising trajectory of his music which, against all odds, continues to eschew its monochromatic potential in favour of colourful invention and a persistently appealing blend of multifaceted composition and improvisation. It opens with his most atypical piece - a 94-second twist on Jamie Saft’s "pianists-eye view" of dub called An Aborted Beginning - the effect of which, though somewhat comical coming from Frahm, is to open up our ears to this new setting for the pianist. Like sonar mapping a cave, the echoes of a sampled beat and reverberations of a keyboard in whichever of the dozens of spaces filled by Frahm in the last two years put right anybody expecting Frahm’s introverted intimacy and whet the whistle for his most varied - and brilliant - album yet.
Eclecticism is discernible via a glance at solo catalogue to date, but the recompiled concert on Spaces flaunts it all at once, the set comprising both old and new songs. Drawing from the signature solo piano pieces of The Bells & Wintermusik, to the almost confrontational intimacy of Felt and Screws, and even the veiled synthesizer ambience of Juno, it suggests perhaps that one can only adopt so many different personas on stage before your true self is revealed. While its aim (as implicit in the title) was perhaps to capture something of the recording locations, Spaces ultimately leaves the listener with what feels like an impression of the man himself, and perhaps his own inner Spaces.
It’s revealing to hear the way in which the album’s longer-serving pieces have developed since their studio incarnations were first released. 'Said And Done' has now almost tripled in length, extrapolating the romance of the original into an almost Reichian ten-minute tour de force. Conversely, the two misty synthesized tracks off Juno are abbreviated to about half their total size, with Frahm choosing to turn their basic and slowly unfurling themes from cassette tape mysteries into stadium-sized overtures. Elsewhere, the Felt pieces are presented relatively closely to their original versions with the help of a prepared upright piano and some precarious use of delay. However, Felt was never going to translate so simply, and ultimately the songs have changed from often charming and sometimes hypnotic recordings into what occasionally feels like something of a miracle of a concert, the entire titular space and its audience willing Frahm on with every single movement across the ivory. 'More' (the closing track from Felt) comes at the end of a 17-minute medley on Spaces, and unlike its studio forebear chooses not to drift off into oblivion, but rather to push to its logical limit and a breakneck conclusion amidst a climactic sea of echoing staccato piano notes. The brand new piece, 'Hammers' makes similar use of the stage to show off Frahm’s considerable chops via a high speed set of face-melting virtuoso arpeggios, while the spontaneous 'Improvisation For Coughs And A Cell Phone' sees Frahm sounding at his most Keith Jarrett-esque, albeit with enough humour to even allow gaps in the piece for the audience to fill with surreptitious coughs and murmurs (and at one point an unwelcome a ring tone).
This is no bland run through of pre-existing material, but neither is it a presentation of fresh new pieces. In my recent interview with Nils, he described how the second track, 'Says' was meant to be "a step back ... what can you do with one delay and an old synthesiser, no computers." The same sort of revisionist exploration permeates the entire album. What’s more, 'Says' is possibly the album’s best track, taking the simplistic means once used by fellow Berliners such as Edgar Froese and Klaus Schulze, and - now freed from the Berlin School’s restless need to explore - crafting an effortlessly simplistic piece, with a nonetheless heart-wrenching conclusion.
Restless reinvention is to be admired, but reconsideration and striving for personal perfection is to be prized. While Frahm’s previous penchant for the former has given him a brilliant and varied book of songs from which to draw, it’s his intense performance and passionate adoption of the latter which makes Spaces a work of gentle genius, and one of the year’s best albums.