Review: Nils Frahm

Making the familiar strange

By Caitlin McGrane

When we arrived at Hamer Hall the space was nearly empty and I took the opportunity to snap some photos of the stage where Nils Frahm would soon appear. His set-up is unlike any band or composer I have seen play live. There was a piano on the right, which I didn’t even realise was a piano until well into the show; a huge synthesiser; at least 3 other keyboards; and a mini organ that he introduced to the audience last year as his “pan flute army” because of the unintended sound it makes.

This is the second time I have seen Frahm play in Melbourne in Hamer Hall, and both times the music and Frahm’s performance reminds me of the reasons why his work means so much to me. Frahm’s ambient, electronic and percussive music has been my chosen soundtrack to long stretches of time spent in deep concentration – marking assignments, writing my PhD confirmation, and spending evenings lying totally still trying to stop my brain from fizzing. His music, fusing elements of electronic and classic composition are perfect for maintaining focus in the present. And yet there is also something about his arrangements that invoke a sense of reminiscing about the past and dreaming far into the future.

As the hall filled, the crowd seemed familiar, the ambiance was relaxed and possibly even aloof – classic North Fitzroy. Frahm came out on stage, he bowed quickly and warmly to the crowd, thanked them for coming by clasping his hands together. He sat down at the mini organ and began to play a gentle introductory melody; one that I might have heard many times before, from last year’s All Melody, but in such a way that gave me a feeling like it was new.

This feeling of what I can only describe as an internal ‘familiar dissonance’ with the music pervaded the entire performance. It was an extraordinary and exciting experience, and brought to mind the sociological concept “making the familiar strange”. To me it felt like this is what Frahm does with his work, only live on stage. In comparing last year’s show to this one, it seemed as though the tracks were the same, but somehow different, like they were in a different register, maybe a little ‘muted’ in places. I knew the melodies so well that my brain was anticipating them, but Frahm’s improvisational skills made each moment subtly different. It wasn’t until the last quarter of the show, during the encore, where I noticed how the muted quality had been underscoring the entire show. It felt like putting the final piece in place in a huge jigsaw.

During the show, Frahm, in his deep yet quiet German-accented voice, mentioned that this show was a continuation of the tour started last year and that he had played it many times, but that he still manages to make a mistake each time he performs. To me there seem to be very few, perhaps no, mistakes in his shows, but rather his admission was a peak behind the curtain of his creativity – something he seems to enjoy – and this may also explain why he often played with his back to the audience. Frahm, at times, asked for the help of Jonas, a sound engineer but, this to me also seemed part of the performance.

Watching him move about the stage, moving his whole body as he put the tracks together, it was clear that Frahm is a performer, and that every element was carefully and masterfully controlled by him. Sometimes during the bassiest of his tracks it felt a bit weird that the only person moving in the 2,488-seat room was the man on stage. But the lack of movement also made it much more affecting and pleasant to sit with my eyes closed and let the sound wash over me like a bath. Around two-thirds of the way through the show I felt like the boundary between me and the sound had ceased to exist. Seeing and hearing, on their own do not fully capture the experience of Frahm live. There is a proprioceptive quality to his shows where the whole body and senses are involved in the experience – like you can feel your body and the sound interacting. For me it is an incredibly enjoyable experience, and yet I can also imagine it being disquieting for those who like to keep things familiar. Frahm is a natural performer, and watching him move I could tell that he was moving not just to the sound he was producing in that moment, but also to the sounds he was planning several bars ahead. He was deeply present yet also somewhere deep in the future. And I am obsessed.

Nils Frahm’s performances demonstrate that he might be one of the most talented performers of his time. He has a deep commitment to the entire experience of sound and how it interacts, engages, and changes the body. If you can get to see him wherever he is playing, I strongly recommend that you do.

Nils Frahm will be performing in Sydney on 5 December at the Sydney Opera House. Tickets and more info: