The theme of the evening was drama. The stage was all dark, except for several bright, round spotlights lining the ceiling, shining down on three different pianos; there was an upright, an electric keyboard and a baby grand all crammed on stage. But that wasn’t the remarkable part. The two acoustic pianos had their tops removed; shells of their former instruments, their insides laid bare with microphones hooked up so close to the strings you could almost hear them humming with the passing breeze.

Nils Frahm
Nils Frahm

But then the first set began and you realized it wasn’t about the three pianos (yet). The show began with Dawn of Midi: a pianist (Amino Belyamani), drummer (Qasim Naqvi) and bassist (Aakaash Israni), whose hands must have been made of stone. Captivated throughout their performance, I completely lost track of time, but the opening piece could not have been less than 40 minutes. And with all of the plucking, sliding and slapping, Israni never lost his nerve.

What struck me were the very obvious nods to contemporary minimalist music masked by a pseudo-electronic sound. Sitting there at (Le) Poisson Rouge, there were parts that sounded more like a dubstep show; the bass was so loud my heart felt like it was beating out of its chest. Even the candle on our table was flickering to the beat of the song’s percussive underbelly.

But there were also hints of a piano phase, interlocking rhythms and tonal lines that moved in and out of sync with each other, crafting wholly new melodies without losing their basic framework. And there was no tonal tension or resolution; this piece thrived on constant, ever-changing shifts away from the tonal center. And just when you thought you had the trio pegged, the downbeat was lost and Israni swooped in with a swinging new line. Suddenly, the piece was transformed; it felt jazzy and almost bluesy. During these rare moments, the trio played perfectly in sync, almost as if this was their cue to return to center, much in the same way a jazz band riffs off one melodic line, and then gets lost in improvisation only to make their way back to the theme and regain momentum. This cyclical pattern occurred three times throughout the piece, but never got boring.

However long the first set was, it was an incredible triumph for these young musicians and a delight to my ears. I couldn’t wait for the second half to begin.

The second half was another marathon performance. Celebrating his newly released album Spaces, pianist Nils Frahm took command of not one, but three pianos on stage.

It’s hard to talk about Frahm’s music without talking about microphones. Although he did have an electric keyboard and a laptop, the other two acoustic pianos – the upright and the baby grand – had microphones placed so deep inside the piano that they were nearly touching the strings. And this was done intentionally. In an attempt to practice quietly in his apartment in Berlin, Frahms made the pleasant discovery that the piano sounds beautiful with a damper. And so his sound is tinny, hollow and hushed. But it is also magnified because the microphones are so close you can hear Frahm breathing and panting when he performs; you can even here the piano creaking and shifting.

This also meant that in Monday’s live performance, you could not only see, but also hear Frahm’s every move. Whether he shook off his left shoe (to better play the pedal) or nearly slid off the bench (to move from one piano to the next), you heard it. Even when his hands were racing – there was a moment when Frahm’s right hand was actually blurry – you could hear each heavy tap of the repeated ivory key.

Talent aside, Frahm draws you in with his simple, melancholy music. Even when he is hammering out repeated notes or a complicated, fierce rhythm, this repetition is eventually bowled over by a heavy wave of sound. It is never frivolous or petty; rather, the sounds are tender and delicate. Think Terry Riley transformed into Chopin. It sounds impossible, contrite even. But Frahm discovered the honesty in romanticism and in the raw sounds of a dampened piano. The effect is enchanting.

*****