Nils Frahm, Spaces

Brian Howe

By Brian Howe

on 11.19.13 in Reviews


Nils Frahm

Berlin-based pianist and composer Nils Frahm is one of those crowd-pleasing young Europeans, much like his past collaborators Ólafur Arnalds and Peter Broderick, who fuses minimalist technique, neo-Romantic mood and indie context into serene, pretty music that evokes Philip Glass when single-minded and Erik Satie when preoccupied, often hemmed with glimmers of electronic disturbance. Prior albums such as The Bells, though lovely in places, also betrayed a tendency toward repetition so austere it was maddening rather than transfixing. In particular, the needling “Said and Done,” shaped around a relentless one-note palpitation, could feel like the pianistic equivalent of “Why ya’ hitting yourself? Why ya’ hitting yourself?” The piece fares better on Spaces, Frahm’s new album-length collage of recast or unreleased live improvisations on themes, where its antic onslaught has a stocked concert hall to menace instead of a private studio.

Antic onslaught balanced by surprising beauty and subtlety

“Said and Done” isn’t the only time that part of the thrill is wondering if the pianist will rumble himself right off the bench: On “Hammers,” a rubbery ostinato spouts manic ornaments in a bold endurance sprint, and “For—Peter—Toilet Brushes—More” is an epic 16 minutes of keyboard movie-cue music. But Spaces, naturally finding Frahm looser than on his studio albums, also includes pieces of surprising beauty and subtlety that dampen his bracing edge. There is the entrancing snowglobe music of “Unter—Tristana—Ambre” and especially “Says,” where Frahm plays silvery whorls over a twinkling synthesizer sequence for eight minutes, first icy and eventually molten. There is the deep chiaroscuro of “Improvisation for Piano, Laughs, Coughs and a Cell Phone,” where the jittery shards of a tremolo-smashed melody line are flung out in negative space. And there is the expressive lyricism of “Familiar,” where Frahm establishes his habitual insensate repetition before showing how he can also dance out of it, the piano stepping up through a sweet, simple tune, like a pair prancing feet.