September 28, 2013 was a day of rarity. Just as Portland was experiencing an unusually out-of-season record-setting rain storm, a big black van drove into Portland with two Erased Tapes Records artists, Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds. But the bucket-loads of celestial tears did little to dampen the spirits at Mississippi Studios. Every now and then, the intimate venue pulls out the chairs, and if there ever was an appropriate time, it was for these two extraordinary musicians from Europe.
In spite of the ticket price of $25/ pop (which is more than the twice of what a typical Portlander I know would be willing to pay for a concert), the show was sold out. The prominent piano, grand and prodigious on that small stage, loomed like a supernatural force in the lowly-lit room, as it silently waited for its operator. Cornered by an electronic and acoustic keyboards, Frahm looked as if he was an extension of the apparatuses. The Berlin-based composer’s improvisational technique creates a drama, keeping the spectator guessing with his every stroke. At times, Frahm would strike the inner part of the piano with mallets – after all, it is part percussion. Arnalds, joined him onstage for a piece. Seated side by side, the chemistry between the two as they played playfully yet masterly could only come from a deep friendship and a respect for each other.
Frahm exuded confidence in his abilities, yet seemed humbled by people’s attention to his music. Over a clapping and cheer that one expects at a rock concert, the performer modestly uttered, “Thanks for being here, and thanks for being so quiet.” His full-length LP, Spaces, a collection of live recordings spanning two years is not due out till November 18, but I’m sure many attendees tonight has already bought the album in their future.
Still in his twenties, Arnalds has been successfully sustaining a career as an ambient musician since the release of his debut album, Eulogy For Evolution in 2007 . With the latest full-length, For Now I am Winter (2012), the Icelandic composer has been on the road pretty much since March. If you caught Arnalds in Europe, you may have experienced a big production with mesmerizing visuals, and a full orchestra (as the album was recorded). For our little venue, only a cellist and a violinist could comfortably fit on the stage, accompanied by simple yet evocative projected abstract images.
If a bandmate doesn’t require a soul, a little machine called iPad deserves to be named the fourth member of the ensemble. Arnalds would record live sounds, then loop and layer to add a consistent background soundbed for his compositions. Using “Mr. Jobs”, Arnalds broke the ice by recording audience’s “aaaah” in C. The speaking intro that lasted about five-minutes revealed Ólafur’s humorous and sociable nature. As fingers fondled over the ivories, and bows glided over the strings, the pensive and ethereal sounds enveloped and suspended the listener in a psychic mid-air, where every note implored to hold our breath, lest we lose grasp of the beautiful universe.
Fellow Icelander, Arnór Dan (Arnarson), contributed vocals for few tracks. Conjuring his viking ancestry, the towering Arnór sang with a fragility of glass trembling in a storm. His quivering and sorrowful vocals recalled Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu at times. By end of the set, the stage housed five warm bodies and a tablet computer for an exquisitely woeful finale. After the show, the “modern classic rock stars” welcomed the attention for autographs and photos.
In an age when music has exhausted every genre and hounds for your attention with chaos of noise and profanity, Frahm and Arnalds prove that even a sound closest to silence can entrance a listener. Never has Mississippi Studios sheltered a beautiful paradox – of casual humor and high art, the delicacy of instruments and the fervor of hands, and the melancholiness of music and the joy of interaction.