Scene opens: An ocean, vast, shimmering, seemingly eternal, not so much stretching to the horizon as melding with it, such that the blue of the waters and the blue of the sky blur into a single gargantuan U-bend, curling over and around you. At your feet: sand, shallows, seashells, crabs, oysters clustered against old wood, glimpses of fish. It is not, strictly speaking, unique to set a contemporary classical/New Age/ambient hybrid record in these environs; the associations of the sea and its life to those aesthetic spaces is profound and seemingly unending. But at root, that’s because the Sea, not just the phenomenological reality of it but its totemic force, its crenelated material reality full of loam and silt and tides and mineral deposits and massing microbes swelling to give birth to life, not to mention the ultimate symbol of sea-as-first-womb, the initiating waters of return, make it a fairly obvious touchpoint for music of this stripe.
It pays, though, that Nils Frahm is a sensitive composer, impressionistic in his movements rather than strictly driven by the metronome and the perpetual drive for harmonic or melodic motion. Some of these pieces are mighty in their length, three hours all told over the span of 10 tracks, with some stretching up to half an hour. At these lengths, your prone body in these pools of sound certainly feel the gentle tug of the arriving and departing tide, like weak fingers trying to pull you out, but their sheer length is enough to make you close your eyes and find yourself dragged much further from shore than you anticipated, feeling the lurking black hole beyond the periphery which slumbers at the bottom of the sea, waiting to drown you. These aren’t moments of terror as depicted by Frahm; most of the titles are references to animals, stones, squares, lemons. There is brightness here, focused on the fuzzed out singularity of some tangible object against which the songs billow and dance. This is precisely where the line between ambient and New Age, ambient and contemporary classical begin to blur. These are not merely shapeless expanses of sound (not that we’re opposed to that here). No, these have microstructures, but ones that connect over geological scales, all in rubato. It reminds, of course, like the sea; not without its rhythms, but rhythms which are not as rigid as ours, with mathematics that roll gently into the worlds of calculus far from our arithmetic rhythmic shores.
These pieces don’t follow a programmatic direction, to be clear. Instead, it’s best to think of them somewhat closer to the practical reality of people who play piano or guitar for a long, long time. You sit down, a melody in your head, a scrap of song, maybe an old piece, maybe something you don’t realize you’re creating, and you play figures around it. It’s a dance, implying, playing partial snippets, simmering and cooling, fingers across the keys with the sustain pedal depressed, in meditation against a chord. These are often songs, admittedly, more in the way tuned windchimes on a southern porch than a concert pianist performing a recital, but that lazy Sunday afternoon sentiment provides the strongest appeal of this material. Ambient/New Age of this stripe, after all, is driven almost more by mood, the interior zen it cultivates in the space within the songs rather than necessarily the music itself. Brian Eno famously titled his first ambient record Music for Airports, describing it as “wallpaper music,” music for other things to happen to. Thank god we here at Treble don’t balk at this phenomenology of music.
Similar to our beloved TENGGER, Music for Animals creates songs that are more like rooms you pad through. Especially given the length of this record, not to mention specific tracks, it can often feel like a measured stroll through a museum, wide windows and the glint of the sun against the surface of the water illuminating the light hardwood floors and off-white walls and sectioned artifacts. This post-structural approach to music, unspooled and organic, is a departure for Frahm, who typically produces shorter and more traditionally structured pieces of music. You can almost hear him thinking on this release, producing pieces that are the sonic equivalent of watching the gears turn in his head as he sketches out the vast mountainous (or perhaps oceanic) skeletons of song that never cohere.
This is rewarding both on its own right, delivering a shockingly accessible record despite its vast lengths and scales of song, as well as a piece within his broader body of work, seeing him challenge his typical form and still finding a lingering sense of reverberant consonance even as he departs further and further from typical melodic intent. What he retains, however, is that career-long capacity he has demonstrated of exploring music-as-space, giving it a true sense of depth and height and width, such that you feel quite literally in a room of song rather than following a linear pattern. These are certainly hazier sketches than the clearly drawn lines of previous records like Solo or All Melody, leaning closer to Mikko Joensuu’s similar deconstruction of alternative rock into winding 20-minute post-rock spirituals on Amen 3. But that compelling core of Frahm as a composer, that spacial component, remains. Having applied it now not only to his home but to the whole of the sea, it is interesting to contemplate where he might aim that sight next, or whether his next work departs from that guiding structural intent entirely.
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.