Nils Frahm’s music is palatable. It lingers there, on the palate, like hard candy, with uncomplicated bliss. It leaves you satisfied; pleased, not dazed; comforted, not displaced. His pieces occupy spots on many Spotify “Chill” playlists — “Peaceful Piano” and “The Most Beautiful Songs in the World,” which includes “True Love Waits” by Radiohead and “The Quiet at Night” by Mary Lattimore, songs that are “beautiful.” These playlists have hundreds of thousands of followers who yearn to possess beauty in three clicks. Brian Eno’s dream.
Frahm is aware that the compositional achievements of his music often take a backseat to sheer tastefulness. At concerts, he has dropped down jars from the ceiling to winkingly “take” the breath of his audience. His solo piano works aim to please without obstacle, though they are not without experimentation, however subtle.
The experiments are often done with medium rather than form. For instance, Frahm released a live album, Spaces, which utilized different methods to record his performances — reel-to-reel recorders, old-fashioned portable tape decks, etc. His studio albums, too, display the same fascination with the ether that surrounds the musician, often featuring in the recordings the sounds of shuffling paper, shoes stepping lightly on piano pedals, even the light breath of the keys as they rise and fall. “Every space I performed in has its own magic and spirit,” Frahm has said. He is interested not only in what a piece of music communicates on paper, but also how it disturbs the air.
This fascination with aura and timbre is very much present in the recordings of nonkeen, the group Frahm assembled in 2015 with childhood friends Frederic Gmeiner and Sepp Singwald. Frahm controls various synthesizers; Gmeiner and Singwald form the rhythm section. Oddments of the Gamble is the trio’s second album, and while it is ostensibly a collection of tracks that didn’t make the cut for the band’s early 2016 debut The Gamble, it is actually a stronger album, at once more delicate and more whole. Both albums were recorded to tape — live jams that were spliced and edited into proper pieces — and the albums luxuriate in a warm hiss that underlies all of the music, acting as the neat boundary of this world. Each of the pieces seem to radiate out from their centers of alternating chords and snaking arpeggiated figures. They are collective improvisations, without solos, and their main accomplishment is mood.
Most crucially, the format provides a new context for Frahm, whose compositions occupy new dimensions here. In some instances, this is due chiefly to the presence of Gmeiner and Singwald, who give Frahm a new dimension of movement — “Diving Platform,” for instance, which translates Frahm’s rippling piano techniques into larger, lapping waves of brighter color and complex texture. But, ironically, in the album’s most powerful moments, bass and drums are either not present or inessential. “Back and Forth” is quiet, with Gmeiner and Singwald fully subdued, and it brims with the shimmering, retro warmth. As the piece levels off, Frahm’s arpeggios become long exhalations, pushed gently along by the bass guitar. Elsewhere, one could imagine “Monkey in the Machine” as a solo piano piece, but it benefits greatly from the frayed, distorted tones on Frahm’s keyboard, as well as the rising and falling synth tones that paint the landscape behind it. Similarly, “Schwertfisch,” the closer, meanders sleepily, with a soft drone keeping the scenery locked in a fluid, dreamlike environment.
So while this new group configuration is what takes Frahm furthest outside of the boxes, it’s really the power of the synthesizer that allows his playing and compositions to breathe, to carry the music into the z axis. And while this new dimension may not present much in the way of a challenge for Frahm or for us as listeners, it’s chill indeed, and also beautiful.