Review: Nils Frahm’s show was riveting, and a big feather in the Englert’s cap

Composer Nils Frahm performing at the Englert Theatre, March 28, 2018. — photo by Zak Neumann

Some things about the Nils Frahm concert.

That it happened is completely down to the fearless advocacy of Chris Wiersema, Andre Perry and others. Iowa City is actually a very small market for a show like this, and booking Frahm was a risky act. It shows that the Englert (and Feed Me Weird Things) are seriously punching above their weight. Deepest gratitude.

Frahm is a gifted composer and performer, but what was most engaging about this concert was the simplicity of the music he presented. The closest comparison would be Philip Glass, but Glass can try my patience, and Frahm instinctively knows when to ride a static groove and when to switch up. There were moments that reminded me of the music of seminal New Age pianist George Winston, but Frahm’s music never felt as blandly soothing as Winston sometimes is.

There were some subtle backing tracks, but also (I believe) live looping, so I’d estimate 80 percent of the music coming out of the speakers was handmade. It wasn’t perfect, but the ways in which it came close to falling apart were more thrilling than a mark of potential failure. There were moments that felt like watching some of those insane skyscraper parkour videos.

Again, Frahm’s musical simplicity was the star. Even when he branched out — and he did — it was done with such a deft feel for harmonic progression that it left me gobsmacked. Anyone with any training in music theory should be bowing down before Frahm. He did something that almost made me laugh, where he would start from a simple and familiar set of chord changes, and then when your ear was expecting a resolution, he’d slip in a related but unexpected chord.

Then when you thought “Now he’s going to resolve to the tonic!” he’d modulate again to a related but unexpected chord. He kept this up occasionally so long you would forget where the root key/tonic chord actually was. But then he’d finally get there, and it would be like a flock of geese all landing at once on a pond.

The occasional self-deprecating monologues — particularly the one about the encore being a mandatory part of the event — were really funny, and won over the audience. Frahm knows how to stretch an audience’s idea of what is pleasurable music. Many in the audience had never been exposed to the minimal techno (the trademark sound of his beloved Berlin) that he fell into in between his more warm, lulling moments, but how he got to those massive beats brought them along.

I have never heard sound so fantastically tuned to the space. I don’t like to criticize sound engineers, because they’ve got the performers, the hall and physics trying to make them look like chumps. But what happened in that room last night, at least where I was sitting, was superlative. It was the best the Englert has sounded.

After the concert, the senior bus rolled out and took away 20 or 30 of Iowa City’s eminence grisés, and I was really glad that they lived long enough to experience this concert, because it was both something they probably never heard before, but rooted in sounds and harmonic tropes with which the human soul has always been tuned.

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