Live Music + Gig Reviews

Nils Frahm @ Barbican, London

1 July 2016

Barbican Centre

Barbican Centre (Photo: Dion Barrett)

Nils Frahm’s 2014 show at the Barbican felt like a step up to headline status for the Berlin resident, an inevitable acknowledgement of a singular, mercurial talent. This time he’s curated a whole weekend of events called Possibly Colliding. Amongst concerts across several venues, it also features various films the soundtracks for which he has scored – including the Robert De Niro-starring short, Ellis, co-written with Woodkid – and his own headline show which sold out months ago. It’s billed as “a most ambitious concert” – fitting, for Frahm is a most ambitious musician.

Longtime fans are used to seeing Frahm play with the world around him, hammering piano strings, feeding synth loops through processors, creating everything live in mindbogglingly precise detail, showing off extraordinary musicianship at his piano, yet wrapping it all up in a humble, likeable personality. But it swiftly transpires that he’s latterly created his very own music world, and begun to populate it.

In his opening remarks tonight he describes his self-built pipe organ, which is in another room and wired up to a keyboard on stage so he can play it live. Other musicians might have found the pipe organ setting on a synth and had done with it; not so Frahm, who preferred to construct his own machine. Having already crowdfunded the construction of the world’s tallest piano for his Piano Day event, his pipe dream is but a further indication not only of his ‘because I can’ attitude to creating music, but also how easy he seems to find everything.

In previous shows we marvelled at his talent as a solo artist, and there’s time enough to do so again tonight. The sublimely hypnotic and retooled Says, with its cosmic enchantment and juno loops, unfolds beautifully over the first 15 minutes of the concert and receives the first of tonight’s many standing ovations. Hammers is extraordinary, suggesting its maker is less a man than a supercomputer at the ivories. Yet, while lightning quick and mathematical in its execution, there’s a sense of childlike joy in its performance, and of discovery too, which takes the audience along for the ride.

But this time he also has company. First of the guests to appear is longtime cellist collaborator Anne Müller, with whom Frahm made the album 7fingers. She makes her instrument emit extraordinary sounds opposite Frahm’s piano, and their 15 minutes together are gone in the blink of an eye. His childhood band Nonkeen – a bass and two drummers – join him for some choice cuts from their album The Gamble, released earlier this year. The drums bring a hitherto unheard side of Frahm’s music world to the fore, and the krautrock-ish direction makes sense in context of his later oscillation between intimate piano-based tracks and the dance-centric synth numbers.

There’s time too for introspective solo piano work, and a harmonium is pressed into service alongside it – a flag-up, perhaps, for tomorrow’s Penguin Café gig in the same space – reminding us of Frahm’s evocative soundtrack side. He changes tack yet again later, when a choir with microphones called Shards appear for a reworked outing of All Melody, the central loop oscillating between their voices and Frahm’s synth. They then come together for a new piece to follow which, Frahm tells us, he and choir director Kieran Brunt knocked up one Saturday in Berlin. Like everything else tonight, it is awe-inspiring.

Toilet Brushes / More provide respite from all the colliding collaboration and remind us of Frahm’s astonishing talent as a pianist, even while he sets aside mere playing of keys for hammering the grand piano’s strings and woodwork. A central memorable melody is swathed in propulsive rhythms all created with one instrument, live before our eyes, and he’s in total control throughout as his hands fly, fingers blurred by the speed at which they move. There’s a pause at the end while the audience dumbfoundedly absorbs what it has witnessed before exploding once more into a deserved standing ovation.

Anyone expecting an encore of solo Frahm is further surprised when the Stargaze Ensemble troops on stage to show off horn, trumpet, flute, oboe and more and shed light on yet another side of Frahm’s burgeoning musical personality, bringing to a close three hours that feel little more than one. It’s been an extraordinary evening in the company of a generous genius of a musician whose one-off talent is, on this evidence, astonishingly still in the ascendant.

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