The sweeping end of year–mood urges to sort through one’s life and prepare for the new year. Composer Nils Frahm decided to clear out his hard drives full of recordings and dug up accumulated musical treasures. This coming Friday, 3rd of December, he releases his fifth record in the past two years, Old Friends, New Friends, via Leiter, which also brought his previous collaboration record 2×1=4 with F.S. Blumm into the world. The new double record is a retrospective collection of the past twelve years presenting known as well as old-but-new tracks that haven’t made it onto any of his previous albums.
“I was going through everything, tinkering with my team in the studio, re-doing cables. Then I got to the computer cabinet where I noticed a few things I had forgotten about. It just turned into a journey of the past – like cleaning out a box of postcards”, explains Frahm the origins of the project to me.
Objects from the past often come with attached baggage. Some people even hide the memories in dedicated spots in their home, or throw them away. But for the Berlin-based musician sorting them became a necessity. What have I overlooked, what do I want to keep, and the motivation to protect the people close to me from having to go through all my stuff one day were the things driving the musician.
“I would feel bad if somebody had to rummage through all my unwashed socks. That’s why I think at some point I will simply delete a large part of my data completely. I’m also touching on the subject of digital hygiene. This is a topic that will be discussed in the future, when it comes to environmental protection and climate in regard to the digital world.”
Articles about how our digital lives impact the environment have started popping up on our newsfeed. So far one thing is clear; cryptocurrencies need a lot of energy to process data. (Just take a look at this more extensive article by Elizabeth Kolbert on the topic).
Apart from being conscious about his own digital health, there is a finality resonating with the thought of sorting through one’s remaining work. Some artists manage to sift through their belongings before they leave, others appear as an airy hologram without their confirmation like 2Pac or they stage their death like David Bowie. Nils Frahm’s intention is more somber.
Isn’t it a bit early to deal with your artistic legacy in your early forties?
“I think it’s never too early to philosophize about death. Especially when making art, reflecting on death is a great source of inspiration for me. Art is also about immortality, and about leaving something behind that will outlive you. It’s always about transcendence of death.”
Has death always been an inspiration to you?
“I have never felt a strong fear of death, rather a great curiosity. In general, the whole subject captivates me simply because it is so taboo. It’s a fascinating part of life, such an inhale-exhale dynamic, Ying & Yang – it’s a beautiful symmetry I like to ponder. It has nothing gloomy for me, but rather something up-lifting. I have a lot of trust in that. I often think about how long a song exists and at what point does a work of art exist at all? Art doesn’t exist because someone makes art just on its own, but because someone sees it. At that point I realised just leaving a work of art is not eternity. People looking at it, seeing it and understanding it as a work of art – that makes it eternal.”
A little more value
A concept closely related to immortality is timelessness. There are some things that are seemingly immortal but should’ve been abandoned many moons ago while other things withstand the test of time with grace. Nils Frahm has talked about his ambition to create music that lasts at various occasions. His concert film, Tripping with Nils Frahm from 2020, is one example that shows what it takes to achieving a lasting footprint in the art world. The pressure to produce better, faster, and without a break to please the (digital) audience has grown. Those are not ideal circumstances to create anything at all – what hinders lasting creations?
“I think it’s because in art if a piece of music is particularly beautiful or even feels timeless, the musician doesn’t go bankrupt. It’s actually great for the musician because even the heirs of the composer might earn from it.
But it doesn’t work like this in the economy. Let’s take, for example, a beautiful old pair of scissors, perfectly constructed, that lasts for a thousand years, you can’t break it. They were bought once and then they are inherited. That means if someone wants to make scissors today, they don’t have any orders, because everyone already has scissors. And that’s why timelessness doesn’t make sense.
It feels pointless that we just buy broken things and then throw them away. And that’s the generation we both kind of grew up in and it’s actually been that way since the ’30s that things are built to break. Probably for this reason, we have this consumer society, so some of us like to imagine making things that last, that have a little bit more value or longevity than most of the things we know.”
You open Old Friends, New Friends with a timeless song – John Cage’s 4:33min. Why did you choose this piece?
“With 4:33 I wanted to nod to this whole rework/remix culture. It may not be such a huge issue today but it was a few years ago. I was constantly getting requests for remixes… This is my way of looking at it humorously and thinking, this is the piece I want to remix the most because then I can do whatever I want with it. My interpretation of silence is exactly the piece that I did at the first position on the CD and with that I also show that a remix should always be a new piece and that we actually, if we already do a new piece, it really doesn’t have to be a remix. Then you just make a new piece.”
For those who might not know 4:33 was originally performed by David Tudor in 1952 and the composer described his first idea of it as ‘uninterrupted silence’. Cage wanted to challenge the concert hall etiquette and the listener’s reaction and highlight the significance of length. It was a radical piece when it was first performed and it is still relevant as a statement piece with varying interpretations, not only for Frahm. In October 2020 when the next lockdown was announced, it was performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker to draw attention to the difficulties of working musicians and their lack of income/occupation at the time. Another song that stood out to me for a different reason is The Idea Machine. One Google search reveals an endless amount of articles on how to become, stay, and live as an idea machine and there are websites which generate prompts to spark inspiration.
Does the composer who has such a high creative output and who seem to effortlessly bring an array of creations into the world, consider himself an idea machine and has cracked the code?
“’Has the idea machine broken down’ was an article I read, one or two years ago. It was about how people try to force innovation through political initiatives or the EU or lobbyists and about how do we get ahead? How do we get new ideas? How can we find answers to whatever problems and so on? I also think that we have more and more problems to radically reimagine things. Simply because of the overwhelming reality around us. And sometimes I imagine that as artists, we’re still lucky or as musicians we are especially lucky that we can create something new that isn’t necessarily ‘useful’ or ‘supposed to work’. I don’t think I see myself as an idea machine.”
“I’m just lucky to have worked so long and so much as a musician that I’m sitting on a large pool of ideas, which is exactly what I’m proving now with this release.”
When the songs/names are not inspired by something else, how do you choose the title?
“At times I choose Stanley Kubrick’s method for it, to generate a feeling with words which is actually not in the music. Just to stretch it out, like he did with the music in the films. Or underlining the feeling that you can hear in the music. But sometimes it’s also just nonsense.
Through music I express things that are very untargeted, so I myself am often surprised about what I hear. I want to create images that you can’t see. With the music I like to initiate a feeling or an impression that we can’t have otherwise. My biggest inspiration from film is Ingmar Bergman. Bergman makes films which clash with reality and yet you fall for his films. I worked on ‘Victoria’ myself. It’s a film that wants to be exactly the opposite of Ingmar Bergman, it wants to be as real as possible. Which is also my main criticism of the film. I find it very, very hard to completely recreate reality and make it authentic.”
While preparing for this interview, I read a lot about music’s ability to communicate without words – this universal quality that can connect people of all cultures with each other. As a person who chose language as her most prominent way to create, I sometimes wish there would be a way to say the un-wordable or to find a simpler method for nuanced expressions. The subtleties of disparate kinds of sadness find a home in Frahm’s music.
What does melancholy mean to you?
“I think melancholy as opposed to depression finds some kind of beauty in suffering. We can hurt in melancholy and we still feel the magnificence of agony. For me that is the crucial moment where creativity emerges. I think the difference between depression and melancholy is probably hope. But when hope disappears, the pain quickly turns into misery, depression, or something that is just destructive. I think we all have to be careful that we don’t go there because there is nothing left to work with. I find that fighting sadness doesn’t help me. When I feel sad, then I have to make it nice for myself.”
So is making music a way for you to turn depression into melancholy?
N: “I can’t really say because I don’t know myself when I’m not playing. I don’t know who I would be if I had never played. But I do think that making music constitutes me to a level where I still feel myself and feel good. I would say I’m a happy person, Sunday’s child. I’ve been very fortunate and I’m just very touched to exist. I have an immense idealism that I can’t justify or explain, that’s in me and that makes it somehow bearable. I feel things very intensely and if that was just a bit out of balance, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. But I’ve managed to kind of put two eggs on top of each other and neither fall into mania or depression, but try to stay there and always be able to move in all directions without tipping over. Keeping that balance and finding that balance, that’s where music helps me a lot and that’s my goal as well.”
Stepping away from the piano
Another essential element in each person’s life to keep the balance is friendship. Friendships are the most important relationships we have when it comes to our overall health and happiness throughout our time on earth. The title Old Friends, New Friends was a key choice for Frahm because the people who have moved him during the past decade were a constant presence throughout the creation process. But contrary to what many of us would like to believe, friends are not necessarily forever and that is actually not a bad thing, as he tells me:
“Friendship is exciting. Friendship has something eternal and something short-lived. The memory of a past friendship is still like a friendship, even if the bond doesn’t exist anymore. While I was listening to all these songs, I was thinking about people that I’ve spend a lot of time with, met during a particular time but also about the ones I haven’t seen/talked to for a long time. The title is an extremely personal statement – it’s dedicated to my old friends, people I’ve lost because of carelessness, not having enough time, or losing interest. You always want to keep friends but only if you lose friends, you can meet new people. You only have a certain capacity to care about people. And I thought that is exactly the title for this record. My mother, who is very emotionally intelligent, because she is also a therapist for family therapy – she once described to me that relationships between people could be imagined like a marketplace, where people exchange the things they have for the things they need. And when a swap is complete, you look further.”
“That’s the beauty in this, we lose friends, which tills the soil for new friendships and that’s the fruitful thing about it. That’s how I felt when I was making this record, and I said thank you again to all the companions, even if they are not present for me anymore.”
What’s the last thing you’ve discovered for yourself that is timeless or something you just made friends with?
“That’s actually nature. Now that I’m getting older and trying to give myself more rest between work, mainly for the reason that I want and need to take care of myself, I’m spending a lot of time in nature and just relearning to stand in the garden and do small things there. That feels timeless to me. I feel like that’s something we should all be doing more of again, if we can. We need to touch the ground that we walk on. A lot of the things we’re suffering from right now, people in the city and people in modern professions, is this feeling of insecurity because they’ve forgotten the important thing and the important thing is actually being able to take care of yourself in the broadest sense. That’s what I like to deal with right now. Of course, I also make music and work on my technique. But for me it is spiritually and philosophically essential to find support, especially where there is so little reason to locate oneself somewhere. You just have to build something.”
So, you are actually taking a break?
“Yeah, it’s good for me to forget the instrument every now and then, because then I also forget things that creep in as new routines. Of course, when you don’t play for a long time, you also forget the stuff you are good at and have to relearn. When you delete all that, you start listening again and start playing anew. That’s always the moment when I develop new colours, new sounds or new ways of playing. How did I play again? How does that work? That’s like a shock therapy for me, as if one were to jump into the deep end and learn to swim.
It is crucial for me to feel what I am playing and you can hear that. When I stop feeling, which happens after extensive tours, though I’m technically brilliant at that point, the music lacks its luminous core. I have to start compensating for it with technical refinements or with other moments. But I actually want to reach people through an intensity that has to arise in myself and is transmitted to the audience. This intensity of feeling dulls at some point if I play too much. I learned at some point that it’s better for me to have intensive phases where I almost only play and then have intensive phases where I don’t.”
I’m not sure if Nils is actually going to take a break or if we’ll have another release in a couple of months but one thing is certainly coming to a halt – the Christmas mixes which have been established on Mixcloud in 2013.
I have been designated to inform the people that the coming holidays and probably the following ones won’t bring anymore one-hour-long, down-tempo, multilingual xmas fun because there is simply no new material. He says that he also wishes it’d be different but all Jenga towers must fall eventually. There are eight ones in the archive waiting to be re-discovered and a new record out.
I think many of us have experienced sorrow and grief in the past two years and of course, there is no encouragement to leave this unchecked or trying to gloss over real pain. What I talked about with Nils is about a tilting your perspective if you’re in a good state of mind and how so many beautiful, timeless things are invented out of pure spite towards death. And how, even if it’s hard, it’s worth it to find something positive in the things we feel and can’t always control.
Nils Frahm‘s new record Old Friends, New Friends is out on December 3 via his own imprint LEITER