Before Nils Frahm takes to the Usher Hall stage, it’s obvious that this isn’t going to be a conventional piano recital. Dominating the space is a staggering assembly of synths, organs, pianos, drum machines, loopers and tape delays, all lying in wait under the modest arch of lights above. The diversity of the crowd is intriguing – young hipsters exchange whispers of excitement next to elderly couples dressed in their finest evening wear (who wouldn’t be out of place at the symphonies the venue frequently hosts).
Just before the performance starts, I hear someone behind me explain to the door staff that “Frahm is classically trained, but he’s much more than just a pianist – he’s actually a genius.” Usually, this could be brushed off as an exaggeration fuelled by pregig excitement, but as soon as the show begins, it’s easy to understand why this fan thinks so. The hall hushes to an almost uncomfortable silence as Frahm readies himself amidst his bespoke wall of machines. A minimal version of ‘The Whole Universe Wants to Be Touched’ playfully disturbs the quiet, building from a solitary toy-piano melody into a lush soundscape of vintage synths and throbbing kicks. The crowd seem to anticipate every note and – rather refreshingly – the usual chatter and sea of phone screens are absent.
By the end of this first piece, Frahm has displayed his skill as both a performer and a composer, as he mixes and layers his metronomic playing with ease. Frahm’s presence becomes increasingly physical as he continues, running from instrument to instrument, he plays stirring phrases with one hand and adjusts effects with the other, all while using both feet to operate Moog patterns and loop the entire arrangement.
While the word is clichéd, this is where the genius’ tag becomes understandable – it’s dizzying to follow each of his movements, but every single one adds a compelling layer to the music (for example, using beaters to pound melodies into the grand’s strings). Particularly poignant is ‘My Friend the Forest,’ where the microphone setup lets us hear every shift of Frahm’s fingers, and his breath gets audibly heavier as the piece intensifies. It’s this attention to physical detail that makes the concert so engaging, and by pairing this with a lack of laptop or backing, we get a unique sense of the human side of electronic music.
Between the long pieces, the composer repeatedly tells us how enthralled he is to be performing in the “beautiful venue,” and pleads with the Edinburgh gig-goers to invite him back. From these exclamations and a colossal smile, it’s clear that he’s intensely passionate about what he does, and he’s just as happy as we are. To emphasise this, before playing fan-favourite ‘Says,’ he claims he’ll begrudgingly leave the stage “for two seconds” as a symbolic encore – because he doesn’t want anybody to miss his last piece. This meticulous love for his art is what makes Frahm, indeed, “much more than just a pianist.”
Image: Archorta via Wikimedia Commons