A classically-trained pianist, a multi-instrumentalist, a collector of eclectic vintage acoustic and analogue instruments, a piano designer and a sound engineer at heart, Berlin-based musician Nils Frahm is a trendsetter of sorts, leading the way and pointing many young musicians towards new sonic territories. Following on from an improvised solo piano album recorded on a custom-made vertical concert grand piano designed by David Klavins, a soundtrack and recent collaborations with Ólafur Arnalds or with his childhood trio Nonkeen, All Melody is Nils Frahm’s highly anticipated seventh LP album, released on 26 January 2018 last on the Erased Tapes label.
Very early in his career, Nils Frahm turned to composition while trying at the same time to develop a new sound. Continuing on from the long prepared piano tradition, Nils Frahm started adding felt strips to the piano strings, thus dampening the original sound and enabling night time playing. Slightly altering traditional recording techniques, the musician placed microphones deep inside the piano. This novel approach not only brought forward all the incidental noises of the piano mechanism, it also compelled the musician to privilege a more contemplative and intimate compositional style. The resulting recordings Felt (2011) and even more so Screws (2012) more or less opened the door to a new generations of modern classical pianists who also started delving into the sonic possibilities of the much loved age-old instrument along similar lines.
Re on solo piano from Screws (2012)
To acknowledge this new trend, Nils Frahm launched the first Piano Day on 29th March 2015, the 88th day of the year to celebrate the 88 keys of the keyboard. The objective of the event is to “celebrate the piano and everything around it: performers, composers, piano builders, tuners, movers and most important, the listener” along piano-related events around the world and an official playlist curated yearly by Nils Frahm.
The musician also collaborated with German piano maker David Klavins to develop the Una Corda, a new lightweight, upright and portable piano (64 – 88 keys) with no cabinet, a stainless steel frame and only one string per note. The new instrument was officially unveiled in June 2014.
Nils Frahm’s personal journey of re-discovering the piano evolved alongside his love for vintage and pre-digital era electronic instruments, especially electric pianos or modular synthesisers as developed and improved from the 1960s onwards by various (and now iconic) brands such as Fender Rhodes, Moog, Roland, Mellotron, Juno etc. These instruments of course defined the sound of the German Kosmische Musik/Krautrock movement which started emerging in the late 1960s and played a huge role in shaping Nils Frahm’s contemporary sound. All these instruments can be heard in Nils Frahm’s albums, especially in Spaces (2013), his collection of tracks curated from standout live performances over the previous two years.
Obsessed with acoustics and sound, Nils Frahm set up in 2008 his own recording studio in Berlin (Durton studio) which allowed him the space and time to work on his vision. The studio was used to record and master his own music of course, but the roster of contemporary musicians who availed of the facility is quite impressive too. Over 100 albums by Peter Broderick, Ólafur Arnalds, Deaf Center, Otto A. Toltland or Ben Lukas Boysen among many others have all been captured or mixed there.
In 2016, Nils Frahm was offered to move his studio to Funkhaus, the former East German broadcast centre in Berlin originally built between 1953 and 1956. The historical building included six different music studios all designed to accommodate different music styles.
Every application related to electro acoustics could be found in there, somewhere. It wasn’t only a place where the very first audio scientists began to think systematically about studio acoustics, it was also a test-bed for designing and building all the broadcasting equipment on site.
Nils Frahm moved into Saal 3 which was originally designed for classical chamber music, renovated, rewired the premises and built a new mixing console. The CD/LP cover and booklet beautifully showcase the wood-panelled premises, the parquet flooring, the control room, the recording room containing all the instruments played on the album and even the original reverb chamber which was used throughout to create a natural reverberation.
The music heard on All Melody is therefore closely associated with the physical location and space it was recorded in. The album was conceived in Berlin, a much quieter city than New York for instance in the musician’s own words, and entirely recorded in a historical building with a unique acoustic environment. The recording room itself becomes the storage space for Nils Frahm’s eclectic assortment of vintage instruments – a reconditioned toy piano, a pipe organ, a harmonium and his various pianos or synthesisers.
Everything you hear on this record has been recorded specifically for this occasion. It is all played or made with real things.
Like a jazz album, all tracks on All Melody were recorded in one take. Each track is essentially a live performance which sees the musician standing with all his gear and instruments around him, sometimes looking like a pilot landing a Boing 747. This physical attachment to “real” instruments not only stems from a perfectionist desire to re-discover the natural quality of acoustic and analogue sound, it can also be seen as an attempt to counterbalance the current and dominant clutter of digital technology – in musical terms of course, but also as a disruptive force in society.
The piano remains prominent (“My Friend the Forest” or “Forever Changeless”) and so is the pipe organ which is used as a percussive instrument in the dizzying crescendo of “Kaleidoscope”. But in a major departure from previous keyboard-based albums like Spaces, All Melody features a wide range of instruments and guests, thus expanding significantly the musician’s sonic palette.
It surprisingly opens with the sound of human voices on “The Whole Universe Wants to be Touched”. “Shards”, a 12 piece British choir ensemble was set up for the occasion and provides a recurring melodic theme on several subsequent tracks. Unexpectedly again, Robert Koch’s keening trumpet introduces “Human Range” and “Fundamental Values”. The album also features Anne Müller’s cello, the bass marimba of Sven Kacirek or the innovative percussions of Tatu Rönkkö among others.
Only twelve of the sixty odd tracks recorded during the All Melody sessions made it to the final mix. Meant as a companion to the initial record and released as a vinyl EP on 1 June 2018 last, Encores 1 adds five acoustic tracks to the Nils Frahm canon and hints at more to come in the near future.
The EP privileges contemplative piano, especially on the heartfelt “The Roughest Trade” and “The Dane” while the harmonium is given a chance to shine (and resonate) over the 11 minute long “Harmonium in the Well” where the well refers to a forgotten dry well located on the island of Mallorca which the musician used as another natural reverb chamber.