I have a profoundly narrow scope of music I listen to, although over the past 5-8 years I have been consciously trying to expand that. I recently was looking at a new release of IA Writer Pro for the Mac and iOS devices, and in their introductory video, they had a compelling soundtrack by Nils Frahm. His album Spaces contains that track, entitled Hammers.
When I think of repetitive music, and would be called to give examples, I might cite Ravel's Bolero, a baroque piece with a repetitive bass, perhaps, like Sonnerie de St. Genevieve, or if we were more modern, the music of Glass or Einaudi. Frahm's music could very easily move out of an "art music" realm to an electronic/dance category if he wanted it to, but he stays in the art music realm using synthesizers and piano. In place of what might fit in as a dance beat, the textures in Says, one of the tracks from the album, gains a rhythmic edge through the different electronic timbres utilized. What remains is a texture-rich soundscape.
Interesting, is that at the end of the track (and others, too), we get cheering and clapping, revealing the live performance of these pieces. Which, I think, is interesting given the ability to fully sequence the music on a computer.
The musician writes:
I recorded over thirty live concerts in the last two years, and the music on this record is my personal selection of what I feel are the best bits. You may wonder why I recorded so many concerts? To be honest, I don't feel skilled enough to perform all the songs and parts to my own satisfaction in one go.
Said and Done starts out on a repetitive pounding on a single note, but we're not sure if it's a piano, a treated piano, or a synthesized instrument. The timbre of the note changes as it is played, eventually that novelty wearing off when Frahm decides to add something else to the texture, in the form of more interesting things played on piano. That single, repetitive note keeps going, however, and what's interesting to me is how edgy is sounds; it's a hard attack and pierces the texture almost to the stage of annoyance. At some three minutes in, he adds full chords to the single repeating note, with the hole lot repeating. It could be terribly bad, but the treatment of the piano timbres gives an almost holographic quality to the sound. And just again, at about the point where it could get annoying, he introduces some warmer synthesized bass to the texture, giving some harmonic rhythm to the piece, before introducing more piano notes at the higher end. By the piece's end, the repeating note falls silent, while the more interesting chord progression finishes the piece, quietly.
Went Missing is a quiet piece for piano, and I'm guessing one that again uses a "treated" piano voice, either acoustically or electronically. It channels for me, a bit of Einaudi, but with far less predictable harmonic progression.
Familiar mains the mood from the previous track, again channeling Einaudi. Even, perhaps, a little bit of Philip Glass's solo piano. Frahm however is able to take the repeating pattern to a new place, with a distillation of the harmonic underpinning and non-traditional piano color, breaking the "minimalist" repetition machine.
Then there is a series of oddly named pieces: Improvisation for Coughs and a Cell Phone which takes off, perhaps, like one of Keith Jarrett's more ambitious solo conclusions in one of his improvised solo concerts. The comparison, however, is not totally fair, though, to Mr. Jarrett, as Frahm's musical content and ability to maintain the interest with the energy falls quickly to something less grandiose. The free form presentation of ideas, however, is a good contrast to the next track, Hammers, which is my favorite (yet one of the shorter) tracks on the album.
Hammers gets interesting towards the end when you realize that at least a portion (or all of it) is being performed live, and when vocals come in, which helps drive one of the contrapuntal lines more clearly to the ear from within the tight texture of fast notes. I really like the texture of the piano(s) here, the pounding bass notes, and the progression of chords. It's a really fun piece! I'm guessing it was all performed live, as the musician writes that it's "a workout" in the album booklet.
For - Peter - Toilet Brushes - More goes back to the odd name category. I am sure there is a story, but here Frahm uses synthesizers in comforting warm soundscape to (hopefully) relax you. Then the texture of rhythm comes in with tapping, helped by some interesting reverb treatment. Is this "Peter" or the "Toilet Brushes"? Who cares… pitch eventually comes into play with the rhythm, giving us a "world music" flavor for a minute before higher-pitched repetition replaces the rhythm, all the while keeping the same pulse. This momentum builds up through different timbres for some time, and you'll certainly notice your foot tapping as you wonder where it's all going.
Unter - Tristana - Ambre, Over there, it's raining, and Ross's Harmonium are quiet pieces, which I think collectively are less successful. The harmonium sound, for one, is intoxicatingly rich, but I wish there was a little more to be said with this instrument.
Me is the final track, and is marketed as a "bonus" track. It's again is soft and quiet, but for me contains a lot more "material." Its character encourages us, perhaps, to finish the album late at night before bed, or at least at a point to retire to something where we are satisfyingly relaxed or renewed. The track acts, for me, as a benediction, and it rightly ends on its own, without applause.
I'm glad I came across Nils Frahm's music, and especially his album, Spaces. I look forward to learning more about this composer/performer and his other albums soon.