Music As a Memory Machine
German composer Nils Frahm can be, first and foremost, held as a classicist. Not only because he is an incorrigibly Romantic pianist, but also because his style is reverential towards the classic and well-trained. When he experiments, an event which, in recent years, has become increasingly recurrent, he still does not give up on the idea of control entirely. His style is calculated and, at the same time, emotionally raw. In other words, he’s a minimalistic composer at heart. Last year’s Solo, an album released in celebration of Frahm’s own Piano Day and shared for free via Twitter, corroborated this point: it was the classical music equivalent of the Quiet Storm. Raw and beautiful but mostly sparse art.
This is why nonkeen’s debut album, the gamble, can come off a surprise in a variety of manners. In a way, it’s a majestic work simply because of the story attached to it. That is because nonkeen comprises Nils Frahm and two of his childhood friends, Frederic Gmeiner and Sebastian Singwald. The trio started making music when they were pretty much infants and, after a tragic event, the band decided to put an end to their work. That lasted until their 20s, when the band reunited and started experimenting with music again. And, fascinatingly, the gamble is the outcome of many tapes that resulted from those encounters. And, as a piece of music, it is as adventurous as its decade-plus history is supposed to indicate.
the gamble mingles ambient, drone, free jazz and field music, among other styles that fall under the much mocked “experimental” tag. And there might be a reason for such a comprehensive array of sounds and styles. The tapes that make up most of the album are products of both present and past: Frahm, Gmeiner and Singwald used their childhood work, poorly captured experiments using four track tape recorders as a starting point, modifying them as time passed, sampling it and altering it. As it turns out, memory plays a big part in the album’s world in an almost dialectical manner.
That might explain why the gamble feeds upon both the familiar and the strange. The album works as a very calculated jam session: album opener “the mother invention” suggests well-known territory. A cascade of synths and drones bring back Nils Frahm’s 2013 opus Spaces, which saw Frahm hitting on others ways to use the piano while in companion of other more diversified instruments. The result in the gamble is that it is a hybrid: nonkeen are free from the Minimalist rules that permeated so much of Nils’ work thus far. This album, for this time, suggests warmth and more risky moves for the band.
Still, Minimalism can still be sensed in here, but in a different manner. While the piano is not the main instrument here in display, we’re left with free jazz and poignant synths and arpeggios that end up leaving the songs nowhere in specific. “the animal farm” owns a meditative quality, adding elements of folktronica to a pensive, steady beat. And in a track like “this elegant mess”, the band finally showcases its penchant for improvisation: the piano appears as a sustaining element, with the band emulating the rhythmic energy present in, for instance, Prokofiev’s “Precipitato” sonata.
Sometimes it becomes easy to get the (slightly misguided) impression that the gamble lacks cohesion. It is, to some extent, incredibly ambitious. Towards its end, we reach “pink flirt”, an ambient track that mildly recalls Boards of Canada in their Music Has the Right to Children era. Then, the piano returns in the aptly titled “re:turn” and everything is kept under the already familiar sounds of cassette fuzz. the gamble is, ultimately, a non-cohesive and often discomforting listen—and, in a way, so it should be: the album strives to represent memories and, to some extent, imprison them inside lost tapes that, now, gain new meaning.
We are, then, left at a crossroads. In theory, the gamble attempts to represent long lost sonic experimentations and, wisely, the band has never spoken about how much the tracks have been reworked or represented over the years. That is, after all, not a matter whose discussion is vital to the unfolding of the music here presented. But in practice, when listening to the album, it can—and it certainly will—come off as a well executed social experiment, which involves how a band that started in primary school now releases tracks that are part field recordings and part ambitious ambient music. Strip out of its very charming context and the gamble becomes a solid album about nostalgia and, more importantly, about how the passage of time interferes with music. And that is more than enough for a band that has relied too many times on taking risks with their instruments, their recordings and, now, their music.