Nils Frahm’s style is one that, for a critic, is an absolute pain to pin down. I’ve seen him categorised as indie classical (along with Bryce Dessner, Ólafur Arnalds, Nico Muhly, et al), neo-or-modern classical (which are both incredibly amorphous names for a genre), electronic (again, amorphous), and most surprising of all, ambient (think Brian Eno’s Music for Airports from the ‘70s). He’s released sheet music collections of his pieces, so it’s tempting to say at least somewhat classical, but there’s a heavy emphasis on synthesisers and electronic manipulation, which aren’t generally part of the trad classical concert pianist’s wheelhouse. I actually first encountered his music through producer DJ Shadow’s 2016 album The Mountain Will Fall, where Frahm featured on the track “Bergschrund”, so that’s a point for the electronic side of things.

Nils Frahm at QPAC. Photograph © Bianca Holderness

So, given all of these stylistic cross-overs, what exactly happens in his music? Well, Frahm’s “Says” from his 2013 album Spaces serves as a good case in point. Here, Frahm begins with a long looped synthesiser arpeggio that bubbles throughout the track. A single piano note pierces the arpeggio, before curving down into a gentle accompaniment. It repeats and repeats, ascending higher and higher, eventually crescendo-ing and joining with a rapid stream of piano semiquavers. After six minutes of this slowly building texture there’s finally (finally!) some chord changes, and in the tradition of the minimalists, that tiny change can feel as transportative as a movement of Mahler.

The QPAC Concert Hall stage was packed full of keyboard bits and pieces – there was everything from an enviable array of vintage synthesisers, to a Yamaha grand, to Frahm’s own modified upright piano with the front stripped away and felt added to the hammers. Even at rock gigs, you don’t normally see dozens of people clustered near the stage taking photos, but that’s exactly what Frahm’s unusual setup generated.

He’s nominally touring for a new collection called All Encores, which rather neatly collects three EPs (Encores 1, 2, and 3) together, but most of the repertoire was drawn from 2018’s All Melody album. As the concert began, Frahm gleefully bounded on stage, clearly excited to perform, and began with “The Whole Universe Wants to Be Touched” from All Melody. This is a gentle meditation of a piece, with a stepwise Renaissance-esque melody that’s alternately beguiling and eerie. He played this on a toy piano and what (I think) was a Moog Taurus, essentially a synth set of organ pedals. As on his All Melody album this segued into “Sunson”, a dance track with oddly stuttering flute synths scattered over it. Unfortunately, this highlighted one of the issues with the concert, although I’m not entirely sure whether the fault is that of Frahm or of QPAC.

Nils Frahm at QPAC. Photograph © Bianca Holderness

Here and in other places, the sub-bass was just outrageously loud. I’d been careful and brought my earplugs, which were incredibly necessary here and in any other tracks where the lower bass frequencies came into play, but the poor bloke next to me had his fingers in his ears at most times. I’m well aware of sounding like a fuddy-duddy by saying that it was too loud, but hey, I’m a regular at plenty of rock gigs, and I even play in two different bands myself. This isn’t a problem at any of the rock venues in Brisbane (The Triffid and the Fortitude Music Hall in particular have excellent amplified sound), so why is it that QPAC regularly hosts gigs where the bass is excruciating? Of all things, I saw a comedy gig at QPAC once that had exactly the same problem.

For Frahm’s gig, this was an issue since it ran exactly counter to the style of most of his music. Usually, Frahm’s melodies are laid back to the point of being horizontal, with a kind of gentle meditative vein in most of his tracks. Given that this vibe is the case even in his more upbeat music, it seems like feeling like you’re at the world’s most gentle rave doesn’t quite match.

The pieces Frahm played that didn’t rely on ultra-low bass were more successful. “Hammers” for solo piano from his 2013 album Spaces was hypnotically beautiful, echoing Philip Glass without becoming a pastiche. He concluded with an extended version of “Says” (mentioned above), although letting a tight six-minute piece run to 12 minutes made it feel like it had overstayed its welcome.

Frahm left the last 20 minutes for music from his Encores releases, and these were clearly his favourites. Playful percussive pieces performed inside the piano and experimental ideas abounded, and with a much tighter sense of propulsion than in some of the over-extended works earlier in the gig. So, a meditative evening of music that wasn’t, in the end, all that meditative, thanks to some sound issues.