Three years ago I had a transformative experience in Rough Trade East record shop on Brick Lane. Placed on a listening post was a CD called Felt by a German pianist called Nils Frahm. I liked the album cover but it was the description that drew me closer. It described how he dampened the sound by layering thick felt in front of the strings so he could play in the dead of night without disturbing anybody, and how he placed microphones inside and could only hear what he was playing through headphones. It said the only way you should listen to this album is with headphones.
I put on the headphones, turned up the volume and was transported to Frahm’s attic in the silent night. Every sound from the birds outside at dawn to the creaking of the piano stool to Frahm’s deep relaxed breaths appear throughout the album, along with the ambient melodies captured from the heart of the piano. I wasn’t in the record shop anymore, I had been transported away.
When I removed the headphones a wall of noise and chatter hit me from the outside world and I felt as if I’d discovered a magical secret. The final track ‘More’ would stay with me for years to come.
Fast forward to the present day and the reason I find myself in Berlin; Nils Frahm live at the Berlin Philharmonic. Set up with two pianos, two keyboards and a collection of devices and dials that warp and loop sound, he starts with an electronic track creating vibrations that leap out of centre stage and into our bodies, making us feel connected to the song.
He plays a piano and keyboard simultaneously, each one having a purpose and sound of its own. The grand piano with its lid removed takes centre stage during ‘Toilet Brushes’, a masterpiece beginning with Frahm using toilet brushes as percussion instruments on the open strings of the grand. Around three quarters of the way through the long piece there’s a sudden but palpable build up to a sweeping break of notes so perfect it gives me chills. I know it’s coming, and the anticipation is as powerful as the break itself.
His set is varied – pure piano melodies, then electronic sounds, then a mix of both as he glides around the stage adding notes and loops, building up the layers of sound and balancing all the elements to make something really special. It feels like he’s a pioneer and a genius. To hear the melodies I know and love, and to be able to see how he experiments with sound right in front of me in a place designed to give everyone the best sound experience possible is something I’ll never forget.
Thank you Nils Frahm, and thank you Berlin.