The so-called ‘modern classical’ scene has furnished the world with a number of interesting and highly praised artists in recent years, but few have garnered a wider or more devoted following than Peter Broderick and Nils Frahm. Their respective solo work has charmed and delighted listeners of many different stripes, as has their recent collaborative release under the name Oliveray. It is perhaps only when seen in live performance, however, that the depth of their talent – and the strength and vivacity of their friendship – becomes apparent. We talked to the pair before their rapturously received concert at the Ambientfestival Zivilisation der Liebe in the old basilica of St. Aposteln, Cologne. Mass was being celebrated in the nave next door, so we had to keep our voices down…
2011 was a very productive year for both artists, with solo releases, their first album together as Oliveray, and a number of collaborations and live performances – a heavy schedule that suggests many nights spent working into the wee small hours. “We both could use a little more sleep than we’ve been getting…” remarks Broderick, prompting laughter.
“Your weekends are always kind of erased from the schedule,” Frahm agrees. “You never know when you’re working and when you have time off. Even when you travel on a beautiful ferry ride from Copenhagen to Berlin, you’re actually working but on the other hand it’s travelling. I visited Ólafur Arnalds for a couple of days in Iceland, and I was like, “….WOW! It’s amazing!” People say, “oh, you’re so busy!”, and it’s like, “yeah, but it’s also been pretty mellow”.
“It is like ‘holiday/work’,” Broderick explains with a smile.
Did any particular moments stand out from last year? “For me a highlight was definitely that we put out the Oliveray record,” Frahm says. “And also Peter invited me to come to Japan with him – that started the whole Oliveray idea, really. The contact [in Japan] asked if we were interested in bringing a tour CD or something like that.”
The pair are certainly not alone in facing an increasingly busy schedule of record releases, performances, and collaborative work, causing some to suggest that maybe there is too much pressure being placed on artists to produce new work. “I think there’s definitely something to be said about how quickly things move these days and how quickly things are forgotten,” Broderick asserts, “just because of the pace that keeps speeding up. But I don’t feel any kind of pressure. I feel more pressure to slow down, actually – that people are saying, “whoa, this is too much!”, you know, and that’s really got to my head at some point. And I thought “yeah, maybe it is a little too much”. And so I started to try to make an effort to slow things down in the future. I mean there is just so much music out there that a lot of things get forgotten about really quickly.”
With artists from all around the world making music with each other via the internet, it may appear that location is no longer such a restraint when it comes to finding a community of like-minded musicians. However, both Broderick and Frahm have consciously chosen to base themselves in Berlin. What does the city offer them that makes it such an attractive place to be a musician?
“It’s cheap!” they immediately declare in chorus, to more laughter. Broderick expands: “It’s great for travelling around Western Europe. If you want to fly somewhere for a one-off show, you can get cheap flights pretty much anywhere, for short distances.”
“A lot of people in Berlin seem to be looking for something,” Frahm muses. “They just live there from their mid-twenties to their mid-thirties, and just have the drive to do stuff. And they might go, and new people come, and other people just stay for a couple of months… You can just stay there and wait for people to visit you. It’s pretty comfortable. And I think we also like to collaborate in one room. I’ve just totally stopped this, “can you play piano on this track for me?” business…”
Broderick quickly agrees. “Email collaboration was really fun when you first start to do it. But then I would have this thing where I’d be collaborating with someone over the Internet, working on a bunch of music, and then you meet them in person and they don’t have anything to say to you, you know. And it’s like, if you can’t even have a conversation in person then… I very much prefer to make music with someone when we have a good vibe together.”
One suspects that it was the experience of working together that led them both to such a decision. Despite having only known each other for a relatively short time, it’s clear that a strong professional and personal bond has developed between the two, although they are by no means identical in terms of personality or musical background. Frahm’s dynamic approach to the piano is underpinned by many years of rigorous classical training, which prompts the question of what he has had to unlearn or re-imagine in order to keep on innovating. He sees things differently, however.
“I think I never have to unlearn things,” he declares. “A lot of my playing is probably because I never finished learning. If you have the perfect classical style, you can change your style in many different ways – I only have mine. You can play Mozart like that [mimes playing softly] or like that [mimes playing heavy-handedly]. And so when you’re only a classical player you spend your whole life learning different costumes to wear, and different masks, so that you can play different roles – like any good actor. I realised it’s too much to deal with, and way too hard at school. And so I stopped, and figured that I have enough intuition to just know what I like and not. So I just use that instead.”
Broderick’s own musical journey is in many ways very different. Inspired by a musical family, he picked up skills on a whole range of instruments, and this diverse approach has slowly come to characterise both his recorded and live output. Without a clear focus on a single instrument, as is the case with Frahm and the piano, this arguably makes the question of instrumentation much more pertinent.
“Well, I think the first real solo record I made, called “Float”, at that time I knew that I wanted to make this music that was based around piano and strings,” Broderick recalls. “Even though I played these other instruments I just wanted to use those. And at that time I thought maybe that’s the type of music I want to make, and the sound I want to have for a long time. But after I made “Float” I started to play live shows, and when I was onstage I realised I also like to sing and play guitar. So on the next record I said, ok, let’s see if I can make one without piano and strings, and then one thing kind of led to another. Most of the time there aren’t really any rules. If I’m working on a score project, sometimes they tell me, “ok, we want a score with piano and strings” or something. Otherwise I just kind of use whatever feels right. With the latest record I just finished, I made a conscious decision not to make any rules, and to just use whatever instrument feels right for the song.”
At this point Frahm interjects: “But also when you were travelling a lot you were writing songs on whatever instrument you were finding in places… ”
“That’s the thing, yeah, whatever was there,” Broderick agrees. “If I don’t have a piano available then I’m going to write songs on the guitar instead.”
With “Wonders”, the pair’s debut album as Oliveray, Broderick and Frahm have managed to capture some of the intimacy and directness experienced when two musicians with complimentary approaches work together in the same room. However, it is in live performance that their shared creative spark really ignites.
“That was also the purpose, to write some songs which we could recreate live,” Frahm states.
Broderick agrees. “Some of them were definitely just improvisation,” he explains. “What we do onstage is also improvisation, but it’s not really going to be the same thing. But some of the more ‘singy’ songs we do for sure.”
Judging by their performance in the cavernous, reverberate hall of St. Aposteln, it is to be hoped that this partnership will continue to inspire both artists for many years to come.