Nils Frahm is the Future.
Well, probably not. But he is damned good.
The music of Nils Frahm may still not be everyday listening to the classical connoisseur, and we probably won’t be studying the compositional styles of Frahm alongside Schoenberg for a few years, but what he is doing for classical music has to be one of the most exciting developments since Stockhausen composed an opera that included four helicopters containing members of a string quartet.
He made music that people want to listen to!
And not just a general classical music audience. In fact, mostly not a classical music audience. Either played atmospherically at the back of a bar, sent via a YouTube link by a friend, or brought up in discussion, Frahm’s compositions are being absorbed by thousands of new listeners weekly. His ability to blend post-minimalist composition styles with electro/techno music styles (borne from spending his formative years in Hamburg and surrounded by this style of music) into a seamless, structured, and well executed musical experience, is truly incredible.
Frahm has sold out the Royal Albert Hall, given a solo performance at the BBC Proms, performed for Dance Music website Boiler Room’s opening party at the Dimensions Festival, performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival, curated a festival at London’s Barbican Centre, and recently sold out three dates in London alongside four sold out shows in Berlin. One would need to go back a few decades to find similar levels of enthusiasm for a living composer - at least as far back to those whose minimalist compositions seemed to have inspired him; Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Phillip Glass, et. al. Even then, it seems their popularity has grown with time, and that their initial audiences were very much in the underground mould.
Pieces like Says and Said and Done expose a truly masterful composition technique, with structural integrity that I believe pays homage to Wagner’s ability to create near orgasmic resolutions. Frahm utilises techniques and styles first explored by the aforementioned Holy Trinity in the 1960’s and 1970’s, with its focus on minutia and repetition - whilst also drawing a link to the post-minimalistic compositions of Julius Eastman (in his works Crazy Nigger and Gay Guerilla).
An important distinction (in the opinion of this author), is that this music does not fall into the lose-lose category of ‘crossover’ music. By progressively challenging musical norms, and not identifying with any particular movements in music, Frahm avoids the backwards looking style of crossover music (i.e. music that attempts to mix classical music into popular music, with neither style coming out superior). As opposed to crossover music, Frahm composes in a way that is not patronising or limiting, it does not pretend to be pop, nor does it aim to be the next Messiah. As opposed to other examples of ‘pseudo-classical’ music, (like Zimmer-esque film music), it does not look backwards, but rather embraces new technology in developing contemporary sounds.
His ability to develop and connect with audiences should be observed and absorbed by those working in classical music recording/concert industries. It is clear that it is not the contemporary listener who is incapable of sourcing new works; as it turns out, young people are not biologically unable to absorb ‘serious’ music. Instead, when presented with quality music, and the freedom to enjoy it in a wide variety of settings, they’re more than happy to enjoy actively listening to something new. And it’s not just the concert experience, it’s the entire image of Frahm: jeans and t-shirt, not afraid to speak about his music, and not feeling the need to justify his work.
And there are more like him; Nico Muhly is another composer breaking ground by making great ensemble music that incorporates his compositional voice - his recent collaboration with folk rock singer Sufjan Stevens and rocker Bryce Dessner from The National a truly satisfying musical achievement - alongside figures such as Ólafur Arnalds, Anne Müller, and Peter Broderick.
Whilst these musicians might not herald the great return of classical music into pop-culture - and who says it needs to? - it is heartening to see audiences in the 21st Century sourcing music that requires active listening, who just might be interested in furthering their exploration; be it through curiosity and exploration, or a related Spotify recommendation. By engaging with Frahm, new listeners have direct line then through to the Minimalists, who in turn lead to Morton Feldman, Sofia Gubaidulina, Arvo Pärt; in turn who lead to the mid-century compositions of Charles Ives, before moving onto the works of late-Ravel and Messiaen.
At the very least, musically it simply offers another option to the more progressive composition of new avant-garde composers; such as the great Harrison Birtwhistle, or those who are returning back to tonality-based music à la Fazil Say. With the majority of conservatoire trained composers still exploring traditional instrumentation such as small-ensemble or orchestra, the incursion of electronic instruments in a non-kitsch or novelty way offers a new world of sound for all composers. Another road has opened, and well, it is damned exciting to see where they can all lead.
And for those who declare that it can’t be termed as classical (see the first article in this series for a retort) because it uses keyboards and electronics, or isn’t notated down in classic or specific ways… well I think, Stockhausen and his four helicopters might have proved already that classical music works best when it breaks the rules.