Nils Frahm & Ólafur Arnalds Conversational Interview: Modern Classical Composers in the New Electronic Age
Ólafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm come from different backgrounds, and their musical trajectories have taken them on different paths. Yet, the two friends have remained parallel in step, both releasing fantastic new albums this year that each could be the defining albums of their careers. Arnalds, the Icelandic composer who used For Now I Am Winter to springboard his minimalist, modern compositions into more electronic and ethereal realms, and Frahm, the German pianist whose effort Spaces could be argued as his most accessible, most focused and most rewarding effort of his young career.
The youth of the two musicians is one of the key hallmarks of why they now find themselves taking on the roles they are — as the faces of a old, classical style of music presented to a new generation. Both Arnalds and Frahm have far-reaching musical interests outside of the classical realm, and it is their ability to experiment with a melting pot of influences that has helped turn the modern classical world on its head. Thanks to a dual U.S. tour the two embarked on this fall and their Decibel Festival date in Seattle, I was able to sit down and speak with the two of them — still noticeably jetlagged from their cross-global excursion — on their creative processes and their important role in the musical landscape.
“a2” from Stare (2012)
Ólafur Arnalds photo courtesy of © Marino Thorlacius / Mercury Classics
“Hands Be Still” from For Now I Am Winter (2013)
“Says” from Spaces (2013)
People might argue that classical music is undergoing a revolution of sorts, in that it is now becoming more incorporated into the indie world. Do you guys agree? Is there anything to make of that?
Yeah, I do agree. There has been kind of a charge in indie musicians using classical instruments a lot, and a lot more bands have been collaborating with string ensembles and orchestras. I think it means that both sides are kind of opening up and we don’t have to think so much in the terms of genres. It has just become music.
I agree, too. It seems that there is always changes between more guitar times and now there is a revolution of the piano — maybe also because of some soundtracks; the Amélie soundtrack, for instance, was really popular. The Gonzalez solo piano record helped a lot. I think we probably put some more nails in the coffin with our music.
Originally, classical music was pretty class-oriented, just because of the price of tickets to the symphony, along with many other reasons. You guys have, generally speaking, a younger demographic and fanbase than most classical music. There appears to be even moreso a crossover into the younger demographic with your guys’ newest albums taking in more electronic touches. How do your older fans react to the newer material? Or do you know or even care?
Yeah, both of our music is pretty dynamic. It is hard to say really. Because even though on my new album there are a lot more electronics, there is still a bunch of stuff that is quite soft, that is just mellow and just strings. So it is kind of, maybe, some of those people prefer to only listen to those songs, and some other people prefer to only listen to the electronic songs. I hope not. I hope people listen to everything, but it is really hard to read it.
From my experience, sometimes people come with their parents and their grandparents to the concert. Sometimes I see old grandmas closing their ears when I play the loud bits, but when I play the more quiet bits they are more into it again. So, yeah it is probably diverse.
Yeah, and also some people are 50 and 60 and grew up with the Rolling Stones and the Beatles and all that, they are used to rock music and loud stuff. So they appreciate it when we go louder.
Do either of you guys care about the accessibility of your music, as an end product?
Not really; it’s not something I think about when I write music. It might start being something that I think about when I think about how to present that music in the end, like in terms of bringing it to a stage, the artwork, the titles and all that. Generally, I would like to think that I am more driven from the fact that I am making music, and that it is just about the music itself.
Yeah, curiously enough, we decided to choose a non-vocal track for our first single. That was a big discussion. Of course it is more accessible because it is a vocal track, but do we want to send that message that we go for whatever is most accessible? No; we want to go for what is representative of the album the most, and represents my changes as an artist, which is much more electronic changes than the three songs I have vocals on. [The vocal tracks are] not a huge part of the album, although it has become the biggest singles and the biggest selling points for the more mainstream audience.
I’m driven by curiosity. There is always a point when the label asks me, “Which songs should we present as the first teaser?” You might choose one you think seems the most accessible, or the most catchy one, because you are just choosing one for presenting the album. You try to find some kind of single which is always fun. On Ólafur’s new albums there is some singing, and on mine, there never has been.
It always seems it is a big deal anyway when someone who does entirely instrumental music puts in any vocals. Everyone thinks it changes the world.
The way we wrote the songs — we didn’t think about the vocals as a new forefront of the music. It was just adding one more instrument. On the same album, I also added a lot of other instruments I’ve never used before, and no one ever talks about those. We never wanted the vocal to be the lead of the band in a way, neither of us. Not the singer either. So I think that is why we ended up choosing a non-vocal song for the single.
Did the incorporation of electronic elements on your new albums affect your composition style, or how you approach making a song?
Same here. My first album didn’t have any electronic sounds, but it was almost written in a sequencer, or using an electronic approach. I wrote the strings, I didn’t have Sebelius, the notation program. I actually used Pro Tools to write the string arrangements, and then I just printed it out and made the players watch the sequencer notes. The approach has always been very electronic, even though the sounds don’t sound very electronic.
On my record, Felt, there were electronic elements too. For me, the piano turns into electronic music once I recorded it. The way I work in the studio — and probably Ólafur too — we use the studio as an instrument in a way that The Beatles or King Tubby made use of compression and effects. To make it part of the composition, maybe we put a delay on the piano, and it just alters the whole feel of the song. I think for me, I always work with electronic elements.
I kind of like the in between — the acoustic and the electronic sounds. Record a harmonium, put some effects on it, and it sounds like a synthesizer. Also, a sythesizer can sound like a harmonium. So there is some in between. I like when synthesizers sound acoustic and when acoustic sounds almost synthesized.
“A Stutter” from For Now I Am Winter (2013)
“Snippet” from Felt (2011)
Ólafur Arnalds & Nils Frahm – Live improvisation at Roter Salon, Berlin
Were there any lessons you guys learned about your own creative processes as musicians as a result of collaborating together?
Oh yeah. In a way, we do have quite different approaches to composing, even though the style is the same hat. We come from very different backgrounds. Nils is a jazz pianist, and I’m a drummer. Our approach to making music is completely different — and that is why it is so much fun to do it together; because I can learn a lot from his approach, and maybe I can teach him some things.
Yeah, the evening that we made the first song, we weren’t thinking, “Hey, let’s make music together.” It was, “Hey let’s order some pizza,” and then at the end of the night we had two songs ready for an EP.
Of course — and also, collaborating is mostly about having a good time together in the studio, having fun. I think that is for every good collaboration, that is the starting point, where you don’t feel like it is work. When we started doing that, we did it for no purpose.
We just had days off, and when Ólafur is in Berlin, he sleeps at my place. We just cook and talked, and after a while we thought, “Hey, let’s put some microphones up.'”
What are some of the major similarities between your creative processes?
I think we are both pretty anal.
What I really like about Ólafur’s work is that he just takes care of all the little things, which probably nobody really knows. But he feels it, and I see myself in that. I also work hard to achieve something which sounds really tiny, little and effortless, and it can be so much work.
We are both very annoying!
Also, we are both recording engineers; we both come from a recording background. I worked as an engineer before music was my job, and he has a studio as well, so we both approach it from an engineer’s approach. Everything is about sound and frequency, rather than melodies.
What were your major differences?
There aren’t many! I use a different approach, like I explained.
It’s not major – [but] the only small one I really kind of notice is how, when we’re jamming, you improvise more throughout the whole thing, while I spend the whole time trying to achieve this one minute detail thing, thinking about these tiny details. Usually we have two pianos, and we each sit down at one piano. I spend the whole time working on this one motive, while Nils is kind of developing throughout the whole thing.
We eventually meet somewhere in the middle. But the songs still end up at 14 minutes. That is the curse of whiskey.
No, I don’t think that we have major differences.
I think that is right. When Ólafur starts with eight minutes of ideas, he condenses it to three minutes. And I start with three minutes of ideas, and extend it to eight minutes.
For the collaborative song writing process, it was just a casual affair. What made you determine that you wanted to do a physical release?
Because we had it. We had the songs, and we liked them. They were different from what we were both doing at the time. And [founder of Erased Tapes,] Robert [Raths]’ birthday was coming up. We kept it a secret, and we gave him the final master.
Hey Robert, you owe the mastering guy and the artwork guy a couple of thousand, but here, it is a present for you.
Yeah, with the artwork. We kind of did all the work for him in terms of production, and the only thing he had to do was pay for the whole thing.
After doing the collaborative effort, did you play that anywhere live?
We haven’t actually, not those particular songs. We’ve collaborated a lot live, but it is usually improvised.
There is one song on YouTube, which we played in Berlin together, and it got quite popular. I think that one was a starting point where Ólafur said, that worked out nicely. Obviously, our fans love the idea of seeing us together. That encouraged us, definitely, to work on something.
Nils – have you been commissioned for any soundtracks?
Yeah, there have been some offers and a lot of people use my existing songs for films but I never really agreed on doing a full feature film. I think the right thing didn’t come up yet. I’m basically open to that too, I think I would need to feel that I could work it in my way.
Ólafur, you have film scores under your belt, most recently with Broadchurch. When you do a soundtrack of that sorts, do they — the producers or whoever — come up and say, “We need a song that sounds dramatic”, or, “We need a song that sounds happy”? Does the creative process change all for you?
It can be like that, but usually, like Nils said, I don’t want to take projects that are like that. I want to be able to work them on my own terms. Actually, I was at [Nils’] place when I got the offer for Broadchurch. I went and met with the guys in London, and they were so cool. They basically got the message from ITV that we are not going to touch this. Be as bold as you possibly can; do whatever you want. We want there to be strings and them to be amazing. They said that to me, and I said, “Okay, I’m in.” I just got the scripts and the rough edits of the episodes, and of course we met; it was a collaboration. Every week I would fly to London to meet with the director and the producers, but they were not telling me what to do. We were discussing together what we want to do the scene. We would watch the episode together, and they gave me complete freedom. There was never one point where I felt it wasn’t working.
Yeah, it is a slippery slope to start going down.
The problem is, with that kind of stuff — I’ve worked with documentary films, when you do something and you have an initial thought, and somebody tells you that isn’t it. Then you try to guess what they want.
Yeah, it doesn’t get better. Because then you aren’t doing it for yourself; you are doing it for somebody else. Trying to translate someone elses’ ideas is usually not fun. My favorite soundtrack is Neil Young and Jim Jarmusch’s [Dead Man,] where Young just watched the film and improvised. The whole thing was done in a day, and it’s an amazing soundtrack.
Neither of you started out making classical music. What pulled you guys into the more classically-oriented sound, and what has pulled you slightly out?
I’m not sure “out” of it is the right term. I think we just developed it. For me, it was film scores, initially — just the fascination of something that is so different, in a way. For a 14-year-old kid, this seems very different and gusty to do, in a way. Originally I wanted to be a film composer; I wasn’t planning on making records. I just wanted to compose and hopefully get some film jobs. In the end, it went the other way around. Because I did records, I got film jobs.
Yeah, it is funny. The film composers that I know that have only done films, they’re treated much differently and they are much less likely to get these jobs where they have freedoms. One of my best friends, is a very successful Hollywood composer, and he told me — I’m not going to mention his name — he told me in confidentiality that he sometimes feels like a cash register for someone else. He is just doing a job; it doesn’t feel like an artist sometimes, and it is bugging him a bit. It is because he went that way into it, through being an intern, an assistant, a programmer, and then finally he gets his own job. You are going up the ladder like you do in a corporate office.
That is a way better situation; I know so many people that are great musicians and great composers; they go to school for film, music and writing school, and they try to get jobs — but because they aren’t known as artists for their own material, they don’t really get treated as artists in their own mind and own vision. I think it is easiest to develop your own profile, as a musician and an artist, and then maybe go into the industry.
For me, I was classically trained, but I listened to jazz music at home. So for me, the idea of improvising is always key. I really like the idea of improvising and playing into nothing. That is maybe the jazz thing. But, pop music is rooted in classical music, harmonic wise. All C, F, G songs are basically Mozart songs of some sort. There is a strong connection between pop music and classical music, in terms of originality. I mean, Vivaldi is pop music. When I was listening to electronic music, the first things — all the drum n’ bass from London, really early electronica, the first Boards of Canada, and all that stuff — I felt like this was a revolutionary sound. I was going down that road for a while, only doing music on a computer, before I turned back to a piano. And then I treated the piano differently because my head was full of electronica; that made me come up with new styles on the piano.
Does the environment that you preform in affect your performance at all, in the sense of a symphony hall versus a club, have at least wildly different acoustics.
On this tour, we have been mostly playing halls. Last night, in Vancouver, we played this hip-hop club with a Funktion-One soundsystem. It was really a club, and it was kind of bustling in there and loud in there. I got on stage, and I made everyone sit on the floor — the dirty dirty floor — and people happily did it. The whole room was completely silent for a hour. As opposed to a theater, this becomes a surprise in a club. “This is strange, and something special is happening right here.” That definitely affects how I play, how my mood is, how I talk between songs. While in the theater, you expect everything to be quiet, and it becomes more formal. I find it sometimes is harder to be free, like if I’m improvising, I take less chances.
I listened to Ice Cube once when I was playing. I was playing, and you could hear him saying, “Yo motherfucker”.
Ólafur Arnalds: I do the opposite. I get quiet. I like the tension of that, and it requires people to really pay attention. If the room is loud, I play quieter…
There is something beautiful about changing the different types of venues — for me, at least. What Ólafur said — yeah, the preconception of a rock venue is different than from a symphony hall. Having a piano show in a symphony hall is way more normal, and less of a happening than it would be on a festival stage. We’ve played open air festivals or festival tents, and next is the big stage is a banging rock band.
Haha yeah, and then you play louder into the PA, to make people hear the music. Really changes it.
Do you prefer playing in a hall versus the small club versus an open air venue?
Yeah, the mixture is great. The halls have better technics there. We can more easily put on our production with the lights. Things will be a bit more perfect. But, when we only do those, I find myself missing the club atmosphere and the lightness of it.
The mixture is great.
It is really nice to be in between scenes with our music. We meet all kinds of genres, people from the rock world, people from the electronic scene. It is really in between everything, so it is nice to represent it all with a choice of venues.