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Nils Frahm’s Music For Animal

“When you have animals, you probably know that they react to music.”



German musician and composer Nils Frahm is known for combining classical piano with electric experimentation and beyond. From his vivid scoring for cinematic experiences like Victoria (2015), to multi-artist collaborations like Piano Day Volume 1, his career continues to expand outward. Nils opens up about the artistic challenges of touring, giving undiscovered artists a platform, and why his latest album, Music for Animals, is perfect for both you and your canine companions to chill out to.

sM | How did the concept for Music for Animals begin for you, and when did you know it was something you wanted to expand into a full-length recording?

NF ─ It began with the purchase of an


Nils Frahm ©LEITER

instrument, which is an odd one, called the glass harmonica. Just imagine wine glasses tuned chromatically and put together on one metal axis, and they rotate. You can wet your hands and touch these glasses with your fingers. And that was a wonderful starting point for a new record.

My wife came to the studio one day. She saw the instrument and played a couple notes. It sounded beautiful. She’s not a musician at all. I was recording what she was playing and made it into a droney song. I showed it to her, and I told her, “This is your first recording you’ve ever made.” That was the beginning point for our collaboration on this. Improvising with somebody else is really like a conversation. You have a conversation when you play with the instrument, a dialogue. And if there’s another person involved, it becomes a much larger conversation.

Nils Frahm in the Studio ©LEITER

sM | The album is three hours long. Without a piano, and at this length, how do you plan to translate this album in a concert setting when you are on tour?

NF ─ Yeah, that’s my usual problem. I realise that, for live performances, the songs need to be changed or altered in a certain way in order for them to make sense, which in its own way becomes a song writing process. I usually take some of these album ideas or songs as a starting point for some live reinterpretation. And in the case of Music for Animals, the live versions will differ quite a lot from the album because the album is intended to be a home listening experience. And you need to listen to the album to understand that in detail, the album is long. It has tensongs. The songs are often 20 to 30 minutes long, and they’re very repetitive. Your consciousness will go in and out of focus so that you lose the overview of the music, and you start experiencing the music almost like when you stare into a fire. Similarly, it’s very interesting for me also to just watch the river flow or watch the waterfall because it's always the same but always different. And cloud formations work like that too. And I wanted to make music in a similar style so that you are not experiencing the music as something human-made, which I would say could be a little bit artificial.

Nils Frahm

sM | You’ve said that the animals you spent time with over the last few months have really liked the album — what kind of animals?

NF ─ I've only played it for two dogs and cats. Some of my friends had the album earlier, they also have a dog, and they gave me feedback similar to what I've experienced. The dogs really liked to relax to the record or hang out and sleep around the music. When you have animals, you probably know that they react to music. They have their own taste. They might not be great music critics, but at least the material resonated with them.

sM | You founded International Piano Day seven years ago — what’s surprised you the most about the growth of this holiday?  

NF ─ It is incredible to see the positive reaction from the whole piano community to this idea, which started a bit as a joke. Honestly, I was just in my car, listening to talk radio similar to NPR, and there was news about some international flower day or the international day for this and that. And I always thought that was funny to make an international day for something. Some days have serious origins, and I don't wanna make fun of that because, obviously it’s a good way to give things visibility. And on the other hand, it's also a little bit unoriginal to make an international piano day, so I was like being half serious about it and half joking.

That is why I feel like it is a great success because it was never something we tried with great ambition. We always felt very light about the idea. But it became quite a big event. Every year there are more people hearing about it. And when Paul McCartney sent a photo of him sitting at his piano and said, “Happy International Piano Day, guys.” I was really feeling like, wow, this is going somewhere.

Nils Frahm ©LEITER

sM | For this year’s Piano Day, you released a double LP entitled “Piano Day Volume 1” — what was the selection process for the 32 songs and artists on the album?

NF ── I never felt like I needed to curate too much. I also never wanted to feel like Piano Day is about me, or is through me, or is something I did for me. Piano Day has its own thing. It is free. Nobody can own it. I also didn’t want to curate the record by myself. We did it with the team at our label, and I love the people who work there. The selection was not about what I wanted to have on that record, but it was about who cared the most to contribute and get in touch with us first and be a driving force. We had to choose certain things because we had way more requests than we could deal with, but it was very important to us that people who have great talent and no career yet would end up there because it needs to be a platform for exploration.

"Music for the Motion Picture Victoria" Cover Art

sM |  Speaking of the record length of Music For Animals, you wrote the score for the film Victoria (2015), which holds the world record for the longest single shot in cinema at 138 minutes. How did you get involved in that project and what caught your ear about the story it was trying to tell?

NF ─ I remember the time, around 2014 when Director Sebastian Schipper got in touch and asked us to come for coffee to talk about a film project. He’s a guy from Hamburg, the city I was born in, and he did some smaller films about Hamburg, which I think are fantastic.

He showed the whole shot to us without treatment. No after effects, no sound effects, almost no music, but yet the film had strength and power. There’s some real emotion in that movie, and I was so in love with the film, but yet terrified too. As a composer, I felt I could only water it down. I was almost wanting to tell them: “You don’t need music.” And yet he was convinced it needed music, and it was good that he convinced me too.

When you make music for film, when the image cuts, you can also start and stop the music. In Victoria, it was very difficult because there’s no cut in the image, but the music stops. I had a hard time bringing out the music in moments of the film. Bringing in something was always easy but then turning down the score and leaving the movie alone without music, that was something we worked quite hard on.


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