Due to the strike by CSO musicians, this program has been canceled. Patrons who purchased tickets online with a credit card will automatically receive a refund. Additional information is available at cso.org or by calling Patron Services at (312) 294-3000. For additional information about Nils Frahm and his upcoming tour dates, please visit www.nilsfrahm.com.
Classical fans might watch Nils Frahm jamming onstage with a stack of keyboards, spinning repeating patterns with slight variations, and think of John Adams or Philip Glass. Ravers might watch the same thing and think of the last techno club they visited. But Frahm, who appears in an SCP Special Concert on April 5, is walking a path all his own.
“I was never really talented in genre. I felt my talent was to find a thing that wasn’t there, something that was not in my record collection,” the Berlin-based keyboardist said after a recent concert. “It’s hard, because there’s already so much out there. Any genre has been influential for me, even the ones I didn’t like. I’m curious if there’s something I missed out on.”
At this point in his career, he hasn’t missed out on much. He has been in the public eye for more than a decade, releasing albums and touring extensively, creating improvisations on a nightly basis that no audience has heard before or will hear again. “Frahm is a polymath with few peers in music today,” August Brown wrote last year in the Los Angeles Times, noting that he “wasn’t just an incredible player across a range of instruments, any one of which requires a lifetime to truly understand. He was almost like a surgeon who knows just how all these systems keep a body alive.”
Improvisation, Frahm said, is “like learning a language. It’s a conversation with music.” Speaking by phone from Frankfurt at 1 a.m. local time, after finishing the last concert of his European tour, he said, “Everyone said I was doing a lot of new things tonight.” As usual, he spent an hour or two meeting fans afterward — an activity that he finds much more congenial than pushing his own career on social media.
If a jam on a particular night goes really well, it’s tempting to want to re-create it, or wish that he could have it back. “A great improvisation makes every other version feel like a cover,” Frahm said. “Sometimes you can convince yourself that you just played the version.” And on the next night, for a new audience, it won’t be the same, but “it makes you believe in a new idea.”
His concerts are recorded, so theoretically he could go back and try to re-create something accurately, but he doesn’t want to take the time for that. Instead, he’s always moving forward, jotting ideas in a notebook or playing something on a keyboard and saving it to a computer file.
Frahm began playing piano as a child, reaching up to the keyboard at age 4, and figuring out on his own that “if you push down two keys and leave a white key between them, it sounds pretty damn good.” He studied classical piano for most of his childhood and adolescence, a background that he still finds valuable. “Without classical, it’s hard to even learn piano,” he said. But he always wanted to “play my music, the music I wanted to play.”
He separates himself from the minimalist school of composition by noting that he doesn’t actually write anything down. When he works with other musicians, he just gives them directions on how to improvise. “That way you have a chance to get excited to hear something for the first time,” he said. “You found it, it’s yours.”
Along with a conventional acoustic piano and the latest electronic equipment, Frahm also has a reputation for working vintage electronics into his shows and recordings. “You come across some old synthesizer and wonder why it sounds more powerful or has more range,” he said. “And then you wonder why each decade had its own paradigm about how to wire circuits.” The answers — not necessarily better or worse, but different — mean that he is always ready to try old equipment with an open mind.
But he does not view himself as the performing equivalent of a vinyl-LP purist. “Just don’t listen to bad digital,” he said. “Respect the output and the input both.”