words by Patty Riek
photos by Jon Bauer
Nils Frahm opened his Music For show on April 28, 2023, at the Fox Theater in Oakland by donning gloves with an impish grin, wetting them, and then playing his glass harmonica. The glass harmonica is one of myriad ways Frahm layers sound to create lush audioscapes.
For one piece, Frahm had half of the audience sing in their “angelic voices” (the note A, he told us later) which he recorded. He instructed the other half of the audience to create cozy forest animal noises. When the first iteration of the noises were a bit feral for his taste, he good naturedly reminded us that we’d be listening to these sounds for the next 20 minutes. His instructions yielded a second round more to his liking. After recording these two, Frahm employed his “studio trickery” to reshape the sounds and build loops to which he added his own piano, keys, synths to create a piece unique to the Fox show. This process represents Frahm’s musical alchemy: layers, loops, melding of the traditional and the avant garde.
Frahm’s instrument arrangement suggested an arc on stage. He completed the circle during the times he turned and spoke directly to the audience. Layers of lights around and above the stage coupled with the smoke/fog effect created the physical representation of the ethereal qualities of Frahm’s music. The physical use of space incorporated with the lighting suggested a musical cauldron with Frahm creating and stirring the various components of a work that wafted out to the audience and up to the heavens. Reminiscent of the cauldrons the ancient Greeks used as offering to the gods, at the center of the stage, much like the speaker in Gary Soto’s poem “Oranges,” Frahm was “making…fire” with his hands.
For one song, Frahm all but crawled into the piano to strum the piano wire generating a deep, reverberating component to the piece and reminding the audience that the piano is indeed a percussive instrument.
Always fun to see shows at the Fox, sometimes the energy of different genres seems out of synch with the setting. Frahm’s work perfectly complements the beautiful Middle-Eastern-esque interior. The statues flanking the stage with their eyes and hearts aglow seem to be other worldly beings enjoining us to look beyond the temporal world. The warm light show cast shadows on the walls and ceiling inviting the architectural details into the visual topography.
Close to the end of the show, Frahm joked that he had one song left, after which he’d go offstage, get a glass of champagne, then rejoin us for his encores, which he dutifully did to the audience’s delight. Evident in his stage presence, Frahm is grateful for the audience’s appreciation of music that brings him joy to create.
While the medieval alchemists could not transform base metals into gold, Frahm connects listeners to a spiritual alchemy. Like the images of the smoke wafting upwards from the stage, Frahm’s music accompanied listeners to a transcendent level of existence if only for a short time Friday night.