Nils Frahm at The Barbican HallFebruary 23, 2018 at The Barbican Hall
There is a moment about half way through tonight’s sold out concert – the second of four at the Barbican this weekend – where Nils segues from a densely layered composition of electronic synth loops to a tempo-matched rhythmic figure on his acoustic piano that neatly represents the two musical worlds his music brings together. This crowd is perhaps most at home in either the formal concert halls of classical music or the clubs of electronic dance music. A seemingly incongruous mix perhaps but one that makes perfect sense in the dexterous hands of our highly personable host. There are surely few if any other artists who could guide a song from church organ to throbbing techno with such ease and confidence.
In order to replicate the sounds colour of his latest, most ambitious album, All Melody, Nils has built an adult’s sonic playground around himself on the Barbican’s grand stage. The latticed soundboard of traditional pianos, a Rhodes keyboard and what look oddly like filing cabinets nestle comfortably alongside expansive and expensive mixing desks, analogue sound-processing equipment, microphones, huge monitor speakers and of course a Steinway as the centrepiece. Play, of course, trivializes the serious experimentation of a musician and composer who effectively rebuilt part of the legendary Funkhaus studio in his native Berlin in order to best record All Melody. There is, however, definitely an element of play involved in Nils’ stage demeanour tonight, cracking regular jokes at his own expense about a supposedly failed, home-made pipe organ experiment that he triggers from backstage, or the self-described predictability of his best-known compositions. While performing, Nils is hyperactive, skittish, nodding and tapping along, bouncing between keyboards and constantly tweaking the settings of his equipment. But this doesn’t detract from his most sombre, delicate moments which usually occur when he is seated, electronic sounds and loops faded out, to play the solo piano sections scattered throughout the set. For all of his eclecticism and experimentation, it is Nils’ ability to play the piano with virtuosity and a sincere emotion that glues everything together. From the innovative percussion and rhythmically stabbed chords of ‘Toilet Brushes’ to the delicate, tender beauty of ‘My Friend the Forest’, Nils exudes an utter confidence and gravitas before the keys.
‘Human Range’, another stand-out track tonight, begins with Nils’ derided self-assembled pipe organ, but quickly develops into a complex and highly cinematic piece. This is music for heroic deeds or personal tragedies; music to narrate the movement of a slow-motion camera; music for moody, urban-noir films suggestive of brooding threat whilst almost breaking out into jubilation. Elsewhere his tracks provide an impression of surveying landscapes from the air, and of the warmth and natural beauty of the sun. Given his penchant for remixing and adapting his songs, Nils jokes that in the past fans have not recognized his popular material when performed live, assuming they’re hearing brand new tracks. We get a sense of that tonight, a feeling of hearing works constantly in flux, reshaped and reinterpreted under Nils’ restless command. On montages such as ‘For Peter – Toilet Brushes – More’, a track from Spaces already compiled from old live compositions, Nils’ piano-playing exudes the same rhythmic energy as electronic dance music, specifically the techno of Nils’ native Berlin, with rippling, repetitive grooves that slowly accumulate ever-denser emotional textures. It’s often the details that make a piece of music, perhaps explaining the appeal of Nils’ ‘All Melody’ where one note in particular stands out, a flat perhaps, or a note outside the expected scale, perfectly placed to convey a brief moment of unease amidst peace and tranquillity.
Nils’ cracks several more jokes about the contrived nature of encores, quipping that he has rehearsed the enjoyment of his applause meticulously, and promising that the encore – which arrives approximately three-quarters of the way through, comprising material from Spaces, Felt, and Music for the Motion Picture: Victoria – is in fact as long as the set itself. Still lively, energized and humble Nils eventually takes his applause, with the 2000+ crowd standing together for an unrestrained, euphoric ovation in appreciation for an evening of boundary-breaking and emotional musical journeys.