Subtitle: Who the hell is Nils Frahm and why haven’t I heard of him before?
Seattle’s Decibel Festival turns 10 this year, which means it was born just about the same time I quit following electronic music. While I wasn’t paying attention, Decibel grew into a world class celebration of underground and experimental electronic music. The only reason I went this year was to see Ólafur Arnalds.
Performing in a hoody and sneakers, Nils Frahm was on first. Having never heard of hime before, I had no expectations. Frahm played two pianos (one upright), and two keyboards wired into a processor of some kind. He used them all to make sounds persistent and abrasive enough to make noise rockers jealous, often simultaneously playing the most lovely piano melody. You could hear the hammers returning to rest on the upright piano. You could hear the piano stool creaking as he stomped on the wooden floor, keeping time with his foot. All of that was part of the composition.
Ólafur came out wordlessly, carrying two glasses of wine. He gave one to Frahm and sat at the grand piano for one song. They toasted in silence and drank in unison. Pauses to tip their glasses fit seamlessly into the music. It was often impossible to tell whether the music came from the piano or the processor because Frahm could make the piano sound so unlike piano. At one point, he beat a bongo rhythm on the strings inside the piano with mallets. The final song began simply. Beautiful and traditional, it imperceptibly built in speed, tension, and dissonance until Frahm’s hands looked like a photograph taken with insufficient shutter speed.
At 6:30 on Friday night I didn’t know who Nils Frahm was. At 7:30, I knew Nils Frahm was one of the most incredible composers alive, but I was no longer sure that I knew what music really is. Frahm made it so much bigger and more profound than I thought. Not only are the boundaries of genre imagined, but the boundaries of music and noise are arbitrary.
I’ve described Ólafur as experimental in the past because he uses an iPad for live-looping and layering, and because he blends electronic elements with classical composition. But compared to Frahm, these are just new techniques for writing traditional music.
Ólafur took his time getting started, telling stories, cracking wise, and recording the audience singing a C note on his iPad. He looped the recording to drone during the first song, joined by a violin and cello. Both string players made sounds that I didn’t know their instruments were capable of; sometimes the violin whistled like a flute, or the bow expectedly slipped. But it was never a flub – entire melodies were crafted out the chatter of the bow bouncing along the full length of neck of the instrument. The violin was mic’ed through Ólafur’s laptop, and sometimes would swell to multiple lines as Ólafur programmed string loops on his iPad. Sometimes he played drums on the iPad with his left hand while playing the grand piano with his right. Throughout the show it was often impossible to tell where the music was actually coming from. That uncertainty created an edginess that belied the peaceful sounds and sent my mind spiraling down many an existential path. The visual artists projected smoke patterns on the back wall, and the entire hall was sucked into the exquisite, sad beauty of Ólafur’s music.
There is an Ustad Ali Akbar Khan raga with such a powerful narrative that it forms an entire world in my head every time I hear it. Ólafur’s music is like that, too. Cerebral in concept, the sounds are so emotive that you can close your eyes and live another life in every song.
Arnór Dan came on stage to sing the title track to Ólafur’s new album. Keeping double-time in sharp, jerky movements with his body while slowly pulling our hearts out of ours, Arnór’s soaring notes would be falsetto in anyone else’s throat. He sang “Old Skin.” Then he left the stage.
It was so refreshing to be in a Seattle venue where everyone listened attentively. Even when the music reached intensities that demanded a cheer, everyone remained silent for fear of missing a single note. There were pauses at the end of each song, as the room savored the moment before erupting into exuberant applause. I imagine this might be what it felt like to attend the old European salons of the past; to spend an entire evening in collegiate company, intensely focused on some of the brightest, most innovative and creative ideas of our century.