Stallitix, THRIVE Cincy and Elementz Produce Cincinnati’s First-Ever Hip Hop Orchestra

hip hop orchestra
hip hop orchestra
Photo Credit: Oussmane Falls

Though hip hop has a habit of sampling strings for an added dose of cinematic sound, it’s not every day that audiences get to see a full orchestra playing Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West. Alex Stallings – a.k.a Stallitix of Patterns of Chaos – is looking to change that. In partnership with Cincinnati youth outreach program Elementz, Stallings co-composed and executive produced the first-ever live-streamed production of THRIVE’s Hip Hop Orchestra, and he hopes the project will live on as a series. 

“We wanted to do something cool that brings people who don’t go see hip hop to a show, and people who don’t come see classical music to a show,” Stallings tells Audiofemme. “We’re trying to mesh those different worlds.”

Meshing the likes of Ye’s “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” (which samples Shirley Bassey’s “Diamonds Are Forever”) and Kendrick’s “LUST” (from 2017 LP DAMN.) into classical music is about breaking down each individual sound, says Stallings. “Hip hop itself sounds simple, but there’s a lot of things you can add,” he explains. “It’s the process of finding what sounds like the [hip hop] sound. If the song has an ambient sound, let’s see if violins can recreate that. Or, if you have a very low bass sound, let’s get a synth player to replace that. It adds flavor to it. It’s a very experimental process, finding that right sound and the right range for what sounds cool.” The performance took place December 17 at Cincinnati’s Music Hall and is still streaming via THRIVE Cincy’s Facebook.

The performance was also co-composed by Preston Charles III and featured musicians from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and beyond – several of whom played steadily in the city before the pandemic. “It’s a beautiful thing, bringing different people together to create something we’re all equally passionate about,” says Stallings. “We have a lot of diverse musicians: white, Black, women, men, people who identify as nonbinary. We have a palette of different people with different stories about why they like hip hop. They all come from different backgrounds. One person, their whole family plays classical music, and they just love hip hop. Another, their father was a rock musician in China, and they like hip hop… I think it’s a beautiful thing; we’re creating a conversation.”

Stallings, who leads Elementz’s THRIVE Cincy, first approached the hip hop-centric arts center with the idea not only to bridge fans between the two genres, but also to put the city’s musicians back in the spotlight. “It was very hard at the beginning of the pandemic, but we took the initiative,” says Stallings. Elementz, which offers music and other classes and serves as a home-away-from-home for many Cincinnati kids, has taken their courses and outreach mostly online amidst COVID-19. “I think this [performance] is one of the biggest buzzes we’ve had, especially for Elementz online. I think everyone should be impressed; this will definitely lead to something bigger – maybe a program or a series that goes on for months at a time.”

Hip Hop Orchestra / Elementz

On Instagram, Stallings has used THRIVE Cincy to support hip hop artists in the city while performances have been scarce. “Since summer, we’ve been putting out videos from different artists, playing their music and interviews with artists,” he says. “Next year, we’re moving into a different direction, where we’ll do one music video per artist and spotlight that. During the pandemic, there’s been no places to perform, so this helps them out.”

As for his own musical ventures, Stallings says fans can expect a new album from Patterns of Chaos – fronted by himself and Jay Hill – next year.

“It’s gonna be different than Freedom,” their 2018 EP, he says. “It’s gonna be fun and it’s gonna address some deeper issues like race, self and gender. It’s gonna be very experimental; you couldn’t really put us in a category, and that’s what we want.”

Follow Alex Stallings on Instagram and THRIVE Cincy on Facebook for ongoing updates.

PLAYING SEATTLE: Cellist and Activist Ebony Miranda Talks Resistance and Allyship Through Music

According to a 2014 study by the League of American Orchestras, less than 2% of musicians in American orchestras are African American, only 4.3% of conductors are black, and composers remain predominantly white as well. Hence, as a classically-trained cellist and person of color (POC), Ebony Miranda’s music career is in itself an act of resistance.

The classical tradition has resisted the influence of black music and perpetuated white supremacy for hundreds of years, and as one of Cornish College of the Art’s only students of color in the classical program, Miranda fought for more diversity in curricula, the student body and staff until their graduation in 2017.  Years later, Miranda has also become a vocal organizer within Seattle’s official Black Lives Matter chapter, and their free improvisational solo project on electric cello, Undesirable Body, continues to explore and amplify the effects of racial oppression and the injustices faced by African Americans every day.

Ebony Miranda took some time away from supporting Seattle protesters on the front lines to speak with Playing Seattle about how music can be used as a tool in the fight against racism, their thoughts on the music industry’s blackout on Tuesday, and how allies in the music industry can step up to better support musicians of color in Seattle and beyond.

AF: Tell me about your background and how you go into music. Are you from Seattle? 

EM: No, actually, I’m originally from Southern California. I moved up to Seattle seven years ago to attend Cornish. I started playing cello down there, went to a music/arts high school and decided to pursue music for school. I came to Cornish seven years ago, graduated with my degree in music, specifically classical music.

While I was studying classical music I had opportunities to do jazz band and that’s when I got more involved in free improv, in particular. Which is sort of what really set the stage for the music I do now. I never thought I’d be doing any type of improvised music but now it’s almost exclusively what I do and my solo project Undesirable Body is exclusively improv-based. 

AF: And you decided to stay in Seattle. Did you feel you had enough of a community here? What prompted you to stay? 

EM: Definitely, from a music point of view, yes. I was able to develop a lot of really great connections at my time at Cornish, especially in the improv scene, and really able to connect with a lot of different people, especially with those associated with Cafe Racer and greater than that, [the label] Table & Chairs. So I’ve been able to be part of some really cool things like play in the Seattle Improvised Music Festival and host a few sessions as well. The improv community here, to me, has always been a positive environment and has been a really nurturing space for me to develop and explore new ideas. 

AF: What are some of your artistic inspirations? 

EM: I will start with some music influences – I mean coming from a classical background, yes, there are a few composers that stick out. Being a cellist, Bach is a huge influence to me especially in terms of like how I think about improv, and I’m a really big fan of using double stops and I think about intervals pretty much constantly when creating my music. Having learned a good amount of the suites there’s a lot of double stop work in there and a lot of chord work. I think that has, one, made my left hand very strong because I really like to push all the limits, try to get all the weird stretched out chords as I can. Bach is definitely an influence, and I’m sure all cellists would say that, just that kind of style of thick chords and things like that. Also, when I was younger, Shostakovich was a great – his concept of melody. He was someone who lived in extremely dark times, under Stalin and horrible government, and was experiencing great pressure in his life and oppression. You can really hear that in his music, so from an emotional standpoint he always stuck out to me. 

Sun Ra was a really great musical inspiration for me as well. My music may not be fully reflective of that – as a person and advocate for Black people in music. His love for our community. I’ve also sampled some of his work in some of my pieces as well. And really, a lot of what I’m putting into my music, the energy I’m putting behind it, is usually influenced – it isn’t even always necessarily events in my life, but just whatever I’m feeling in that moment. The overall feelings, my lived experience, if that makes sense. 

AF: Once, when I saw you perform, you talked about the tortured relationship you’ve had with the cello. At the time, you talked about how a lot of your music has come out of a desire to untangle cello from the history of white supremacy in classical music. Could you talk a little bit more about that?  

EM: So, at that time I had such a complicated relationship with my alma mater, to put it frankly. I had a complicated experience being one of the only black people in my department and knowing there was already a huge lack of representation there and just trying to find my place in the music world. I was really grappling with those feelings and trying to separate myself from the academia side of things and for myself realized what playing cello and music is about. From an early age I knew I was never going to be, you know, in the concert hall as a soloist, but I also knew I loved playing and for some reason people enjoyed hearing me play, so I think I was just trying to discover what was out there and possible for me as a musician. 

Over the past few years I’ve gotten more experience, which alone has helped. I also switched to an electric cello and that did a lot for me to expand my sound. Also, [the electric cello] had the potential to be a lot louder, which was something new for me as well. That really opened some doors to explore my instrument, because I was literally playing on a new instrument.  I [still do] some gigs where I play classical music or classical adjacent music or chamber music, things like that, but I don’t feel that burden anymore, that complicated relationship. I think I’ve been able to find what I enjoy most and really run with it. So when I do go back it’s like visiting an old friend – not to sound too corny. I am able to approach that style of music on my own terms now. 

AF: Can you talk about being one of the only POC at Cornish College of the Arts? 

EM: It’s not just the music department – I think in general a lot of POC students at Cornish struggle to find representation not only within Cornish as an institution but also in the curriculum being studied. I think there was a general dissatisfaction with the lack of diversity in the material we were given. I actually formed a People of Color Union at Cornish, a POC Union to help group us together and discuss what the discrepancies were within our departments and within Cornish as a whole. To put it simply, it was just trying to challenge either certain policies that the school had instated, or encourage diversity in curriculum and staff as well. One of our biggest achievements was being able to get a therapist of color on campus, which was a huge thing for us. A lot of universities and colleges, any sort of institution—they could always use a little… input. 

AF: You’ve talked about using music to transform and heal. How do you think music can be used as a tool to fight what’s going on in the world right now in terms of racism and unrest? 

EM: I feel like this can go so many ways. There’s the literal application of putting your personal political beliefs within music. Either through words, or making it a concept, really stamping on, like, ‘this is my statement.’ Literally using the music to fight back or to encourage change. But I think there are other avenues as well, and part of that is representation. Even if the people on stage may not be giving a political performance, it’s also very encouraging to see people that look like you or who are in your community expressing themselves as well. Someone like me, I make strictly instrumental music for the most part but I still get told that the energy I have behind my music, the values I have as a person are very prevalent. I feel just as much whether you have a verbal effect, you also have an emotional effect as well.

Even if it’s for the purpose of just bringing people together. For example, I hosted a fundraiser a couple years ago when all of the protests were happening at the detention centers. I hosted a fundraiser for Northwest Immigrants Rights Project for when the movement of families belong together was happening. But yeah, I hosted, I performed along with two of my friends and it was great. We definitely had some good messages in between. We had a wonderful host that reminded everyone why they were there. But at the end of the day we didn’t necessarily have anything to do with immigrant rights or detention centers but it was just having music there in that space, that energy present really made an impact for folks. 

AF: When did you start considering yourself an activist and getting more involved? 

EM: I mainly started getting involved in things when I was around 19 or 20 – really the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole got me more politically involved in things. I remember I hosted a silent protest once, just me and one other person. That was the first time I did a political action, if you will. And I also participated in a lot of the protests that were happening in 2015. That must have been the officer who killed Mike Brown – that was a big, especially here in Seattle. There was a really big explosive impact and was kind of the start of BLM activity in Seattle. That was when the original chapter was started. So I started getting more involved that way and participated in some protests. There I mainly focused on ways I could act within Cornish since that was the context of most of my life – that’s when I created the POC Union and we put together a yearly show for people of color there and that was really great, and I was in a lot of meetings with administration really trying to push for change there. At my last year at Cornish in 2017, I was an organizer for the Women’s March on Seattle, the first one. For me personally it was a big mess, but it made me learn a lot about grassroots organizing, what I like and didn’t like about it, and got me back into getting more involved in the political scene, since I was finishing school at the time.

At the end of 2017, myself and two other individuals founded Black Lives Matter Seattle – King County as the original chapter had been long gone and dissolved by then. Myself and two others founded that at the end of 2017, and we created our board, got incorporated and got all the official business out of the way. We do go by BLM-Seattle too, for short, but in our mission we incorporate all of King County.

AF: I saw you posted on Facebook about protests – I’ve heard that the BLM activists weren’t involved in a lot of the Seattle protests over the weekend, is that true? 

EM: It’s about half and half. It’s been hard to decipher information, but essentially there was one protest – well, let’s back up. There was a protest happening on Friday that was organized by local anarchist and leftist groups. There was a demonstration on Saturday at noon that was being put on by a white ally [who] brought in some people from the King County NAACP [to speak]. And then there was another one that happened later that day that was hosted by a black organization called Not This Time, and they’re most known for putting on the campaign to get I-940 passed, that’s what they’re connected with. And then there’s another demonstration happening on June 14th, that claims to be the original BLM “chapter,” but it is an individual who was involved in those movements back then. He essentially hosts the majority of any protest that we’ve seen with Black Lives Matter. You know how they have the Black Lives Matter Friday and things like that? He is hosted those events. He’s an individual, not a chapter. There’s a lot of confusion. 

AF: It is really confusing. It all gets muddled on social media too. Can you tell me how the George Floyd protests have affected you, and have you been involved in any of them through BLM or individually? Can you clarify your BLM chapter’s stance on protesting during the pandemic? 

EM: It was a pretty tough decision – a lot of events were popping up this past weekend, and as we’ve seen continuing throughout the week, so as an organization our board is not currently hosting any in-person protests for a couple reasons, the main reason being we’re still in the pandemic, COVID-19 is still extremely vicious and prominent within black and brown communities, and as an organization we figured it would not be best to encourage our community to go out and protest. We are a thousand percent behind those who do feel the need to demonstrate and we’re not going to tell people not to protest because we fully understand why people do, but if they’re feeling on the fence about it, we want people to know we are understanding of the fact that we are still in a pandemic. We do care about our community first. In lieu of that, we have mainly been working behind the scenes to provide support for those who are deciding to protest. So, we have created our bail fund which got fully funded, and which I am extremely excited about. We created a protester safety guide that is on our website. It has COVID safety information as well as a lot of different resources for folks that are going to be out there. And then, with the bail fund we are also working on helping bail out protesters who are getting arrested. That’s all happening right now. 

It’s such a weird juxtaposition  of feelings — there’s so much crisis happening, I’m emotionally exhausted and there’s so much grief happening, but at the same time it has been extremely encouraging to see how much community support we’ve been getting. Our [local] chapter has not gotten this type of attention ever really and we’ve been around almost two years and have been doing a lot of really great work. It’s been really incredible seeing people come out to support us and support the work we do [and] we’re still with our community and still want to support people in any way we can. 

AF: What can the music community do to support BLM and more broadly, POC musicians? 

EM: I have a lot of different thoughts pop up. I think a really great example is the Seattle Symphony hosting a march, which I was really shocked at! I thought it was really cool. It goes back to my personal experience – there’s still a lot of racism and sexism within music community, especially in the classical music community, and there’s always so many talks about how we create diversity within classical music, whether it be on stage or in the concert hall. How do we do outreach, how do we make this music accessible to people? Performances are going to be on hold for a long time so this is the perfect time to really strategize on how we can make classical music in particular more accessible to marginalized communities, whether it be in education, or performance, or just accessibility to hearing that kind of music. A lot of symphonies and organizations and music unions and educators should be thinking about those things. It’s really reflective of the amount of time that I’ve been criticized because I couldn’t afford lessons, because my mom was working two jobs so I could go to my arts high school. Lack of resources [is something] a lot of young Black and POC kids experience when trying to pursue a field that’s incredibly expensive. I think this is the perfect time to think about that.

In terms of the greater music scene, especially when we’re all starting to really feel the effects of COVID-19 in terms of our work, supporting Black and POC musicians, making sure their music is getting played and they’re getting the support they deserve. Again, it just comes back to that – even in mainstream festivals, there’s still a big lack of diversity. So again, how do you make sure you’re curating your venues to really be diverse – not to just tokenize, but truly be diverse. What audiences are you really advertising towards? Who’s your audience and why? What crowds do you want in your establishment? There’s still gatekeeping in that sense. I can very much tell if the space has me in mind or not, whether I’m playing at a venue or attending one. 

AF: Speaking of taking advantage of the pause, what do you think about #theshowmustbepaused social media campaign? 

EM: It turned into a giant mess. I didn’t even actually know that it was started by the music community. I think people very quickly realized how damaging it could be to fill up a very relevant hashtag with a bunch of blank images. I think people understood the harm that has caused, but to the original purpose of it, what it was meant to be, it wasn’t anyone’s fault that it got misconstrued. That’s just how social media works at times. From what I remember from reading, it was a way for the music community not to promote anything and really pause everything to honor POC.

My personal feelings on actions like that, while I think the visual and yes the more performative aspect of those types of actions can have a lot of impact on people, for someone like myself who’s been doing this work and been involved in this type of environment for a long time, concrete action and consistent concrete action is always the most impactful. I always tell people, any action you do, you can do one really big action but it may not be as worthwhile as even like a smaller but very consistent action. As we always say it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. In two weeks, Black people are still unfortunately at high risk of getting killed by police in this country. These record companies want to take a stand – that’s great, but again, you really need to apply that in all elements of your company. Who you’re signing, payment of your artists, the money they’re able to make from you and feel supported and feel represented as well. 

Stay tuned to Ebony Miranda’s website for ongoing updates and new music.

PREMIERE: Fay Kueen “Atmospheric Zebra”

Experimental pop artist Fay Kueen enjoys blurring the lines between classical music and indie rock. The video for her latest song “Atmospheric Zebra” bends space and time, following Kueen around New York City as the city morphs and twists around her. The song was written in 2013, during a time when Kueen’s US citizenship was in flux (she was raised in Bejing). The video makes a clear delineation between Kueen’s avant-garde sound and her struggle for naturalization: disorienting turns, barriers, moments of confusion and panic followed by long stretches of uneasy silence.

It follows, then, that “Atmospheric Zebra” has an off-kilter vibe, with cryptic lyrics and lots of tension. “Ten islands in silence. Nine cats in the bed. Eight birds in purse. Seven days without jays. Six months chasing over five nightlines. Four souls in three bowls. Two horses play morse. One man with no hands, he stays,” Kueen titters slowly into the camera, her vocal patterns playing out like a cat sneaking up on a wounded bird. Kueen plays with that feeling of anxiety, winding up the listener to an almost uncomfortable point, never quite letting you settle in or make yourself home.

In an interview with Audiofemme, Kueen explains that the discomfort is directly tied to a period in her life where she was without a home, feeling lost between two continents – a theme that runs throughout her forthcoming EP, A Place Called Home Is Not A Place, out December 4. Watch AudioFemme’s exclusive premiere of “Atmospheric Zebra” and read our interview with Fay Kueen below.

AF: Your mom was a soprano singer and your dad is a musicologist. Would you say that your initial interest in music was mostly a familial shove or were you always drawn to it?

FK: Doing classical music definitely came more from a familial shove. I grew up listening to lots of classical music and started playing piano when I was 4, but I was never really drawn into the music. I appreciated it but it never felt personal to me – perhaps it just doesn’t fit my personality and vibe. With piano, I was one of those kids that didn’t really like practicing other people’s music, but was always improvising tunes and little songs. With singing, I grew up hearing my mom sing opera, but starting in middle school I got much more interested in trying to mimic pop/rock singers. My dad often bought me western pop records from abroad, and I collected cracked CDs from indie record stores in Beijing myself. I wouldn’t say that it was so much a teenage rebellious thing to be drifting away from my family’s tradition, more a natural process of self-discovery. Classical music is very prim and proper, but I like things that are free, wild and don’t restrict my body, emotions, or senses.

AF: You studied at Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music (the composition program). During those years, you said you hung out with “Chinese hipsters” and listened to a good deal of Western indie music. What artists were inspiring to you back then?

FK: After getting into the composition program in CCOM Beijing, I started appreciating contemporary classical composition more. I got to know lots of modern composers’ music, which was much more intriguing to me than traditional classical music. I became friends with electronic musicians, sound engineers, and rock instrumentalists. I had a few casual bands that played regular gigs at bars and hotels. Back then I was really into bands like Radiohead, Portishead, Pink Floyd… more on the moody/intense side. A lot of big-name female rockstars from the last generation like Bjork, PJ Harvey, Patti Smith, Kate Bush, Tori Amos… also influenced me a lot, as well as younger ones like Fiona Apple. Me and a group of my friends were super nerdy about the Japanese rockstar Shiina Ringo and we even had a band that covered her songs.

AF: What music artists do you have on repeat nowadays?

FK: I listen to different stuff depending on my moods and what’s going on in my life. I often like playing down-tempo trip-hop tracks on loop when I’m cooking. I have a playlist of walking music, which includes music from Kendrick Lamar to The Prodigy. I still like listening to Radiohead’s later records and recently I’ve been really into some vintage disco music from the ’80s. When I’m depressed I tend to listen to dark music to be healed. This past summer when I was feeling somewhat hopeless, I was listening to David Bowie’s last album before he died a lot, the soundtrack from the German Sci-fi show DARK, and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s latest solo record since recovering from his cancer. Recently I’ve been looping songs from Mitski’s latest album, as well as the new album of my friend’s band San Fermin.

AF: Give us a glimpse into your writing process. Do you keep a notebook with ideas? Do you normally have source material you draw from or is your work more autobiographical?

FK: When I have immediate ideas in terms of song structures and arrangements, I’ll type those down in my phone. When vocal melodies come across my mind, I’d record them with my phone too. When I’m writing something like an orchestra piece, I write a sketch or short score using keyboard to try out chords, and then expand and orchestrate using a scoring program. When I’m producing songs, the vocal lines and the chords often come into existence together – they can’t be separated, since the chords contain the signature colors for the melodies. Then I arrange the whole song in an audio workstation, usually Logic Pro. The songs often have a basic theme first, but the detailed lyrics actually always come after the music.

The content of my songs goes in phases. I’d say most of my songs so far are autobiographical. They are always about a personal experience, an emotional state, or how I feel after watching/attending something. Some of the lyrics that I wrote for my Chinese pop songs are more like contemporary poems. But you could also say that there is source material that I draw from, since there is always a subject or a character in each song, such as a samurai, a dream interpreter, etc. The songs in this EP are more abstract, and I was influenced a lot by surrealist artists. Each song has a lot of objects and images in it, each of which has a story behind it. Right now I’m working on a new set of songs that’s more influenced by modern social events, culture, and common psychological issues within different groups of people.

AF: “Atmospheric Zebra” has such beautiful tension in it, this kind of winding up it does throughout the piece. What was the idea behind the video?

FK: I wrote this song after I left Yale and was basically homeless, moving between temporary places while going through an intense breakup and other personal crises. The song’s lyrics are a bunch of unrelated objects that form the shape of a larger object, inspired by Dali’s surrealist paintings. I named the song for a zebra because of the animal’s black and white looping pattern, which – like a tree’s growth rings or a time tunnel – represents Nietzsche’s idea that with infinite time and a finite number of events, events will recur again and again infinitely. In the music, these loops are represented as multi-layered repeating patterns in the background of the song. The second part of the song kind of falls apart, then puts itself back together for a last chorus, echoing the way I felt my own life moving into chaos and self-destruction, then putting itself back together again.

The video was shot in multiple places in NYC within 24 hours. My composer friend Pugan Zhang carried one camera and one stand. This was his first video work – he filmed and edited everything himself. We treated the video like an experiment and a game. I brought a few dresses with me, dressed completely different styles in different locations and times. We started shooting at abandoned buildings in Brooklyn, in subways, and in central park. The fun part was shooting the scene at Time Square next to the policemen and cars. There were a lot of people running around us and we had to find the right timing to take the quick shots without annoying them. The video has lots of sections and fragments of various lengths and paces, which are all shuffled up: some are flashbacks, some are flash forwards, also fast forwards and reverse in different paces, to match the time theme of the song.

AF: The song was written in 2013, during the time you were struggling with your immigration status. Can you tell us more about the themes on your upcoming album A Place Called Home Is Not A Place?

FK: As an immigrant, home doesn’t feel like a physical place, but an inner space that contains a feeling of security, or an individual that makes you feel like home. The title track is like a spirit flying across the world, observing and experiencing all the natural events – the lives in the Dead Sea, the wolves on Siberian Plain. One of them was actually a real story – the “suicidal” cows that threw themselves off a cliff in Lauterbrunnen. And eventually when the human body and nature become one, “home” is ourselves and is everywhere on this planet.

[The lyrics for] “Larpo Neptune” are a set of self-conflicting activities/ideas, representing the struggles between oneself and the surrounding environment. “Bunny Bastard” is kind of playing with that same idea of juxtaposing conflicting ideas – gentle bunny vs. evil bastard – and the title is a homophone of Honey Mustard.

AF: How are you planning on performing this album? Will you have a band tour along with you?

FK: Me and my dudes – guitarist Brendon Randall-Myers and drummer Mark Utley – are playing a show as a trio on November 20 at Berlin Under A in New York. We might keep this set for a while. When it comes to tour, I hope to add one more player in the band. If it’s a bigger space, I’d like to have a fuller set and maybe include a couple of classical instruments.

AF: Do you ever have difficulty translating studio work to the stage or do you work with other musicians in studio already, making it more seamless?

FK: The arrangements of the studio versions are often different from their live versions. I do basically all the studio arrangements myself. My husband Brendon records the guitar parts, and my long-time collaborator producer Mark Lee does all the mixing and mastering and has a lot of input on the programming/production side. I always need to do new arrangements for the live shows. When I have good musicians, they will have awesome ideas themselves after hearing the recordings. I really like working with Brendon and the other Mark (the drummer) – I feel like musically we understand each other and cope with each other easily.

AF: What advice do you have for a young musician just starting to find their voice as an artist?

FK: I’m not a very good advisor since I believe that I’ve made bad choices in my life before, and I’ve been really slow on getting things done. My music career has gone in many directions to fit my different needs and tendencies. I’d say always follow your intuition at the moment and never doubt your abilities, never wait or be distracted by others’ comments. Everyone’s different, and it’s important to find what type of artist you are, whether that’s a multi-phased experimental artist, or just digging deep into one thing. Focus on the characters that define the real you, and don’t hesitate to look for the right way to amplify them.

A Place Called Home Is Not A Place is out Dec 4th. Follow Fay Kueen on Facebook or @fay_kueen on Instagram for ongoing updates.

ONLY NOISE: A Love Letter to Nils Frahm


I like many used to work an insufferable desk job. To most people, it sounded very interesting, but it was not. It was bland, canned stew disguised as top sirloin. To paraphrase a brilliant Bruce Eric Kaplan cartoon: I grew tired of clicking things all day. My only refuge was that given the oppressively repetitive, brainless tasks I was to perform, I could listen to music for nine hours straight. So in a sense, without 40 plus hours of weekly tedium, it is quite possible I would have never heard the stunning music of German composer Nils Frahm.

It was Thursday, August 6th, 2015. I was dutifully at my desk, clicking away, and occasionally writing down the names of any great bands I heard on BBC 6 Music, which I frequently listened to. There was much talk on the radio about The Proms…it was Promming season after all. I remembered The Proms, as just two years prior I had been in attendance. The Proms is an eight-week summer streak of daily classical music concerts in London. Founded in 1895 with a heavy emphasis on strict classical, The Proms of today are far more hip, featuring contemporary composers and even deviations into the world of ambient/electronic music. When I attended, the compositions of Phillip Glass were the focus of that night’s performance at The Royal Albert Hall.

Although it sounds fancy, The Proms is one of the most democratic music festivals out there – an appraisal the world of classical music desperately needs. Provided you don’t mind lining up for a little while, you can snag a standing position on the Hall’s balcony for only £5, and hear some of the most renowned orchestras in the world.

Unfortunately, I was no longer in London for the 2015 Proms. I was at my desk, remember? But listening to the BBC broadcast, I pretended I was there. I closed my eyes, and smelled the musty carpet of the balcony floor, and tasted the less-democratically priced gin and tonics my friend Alice and I acquired at the downstairs bar. And as I drank in this memory, I heard something so sparkling and beautiful – the creeping in of quiet piano keys, building and turning over with waves of synthesizer crashing atop them. This was, as I later learned, Nils Frahm’s Proms performance of “Says.”

I was dumbstruck and intrigued, and as it goes with intrigue: I wanted more. I devoured everything I could find that Frahm had recorded. Having never in my life been this passionate about instrumental music, I surprised myself in this devotion. Writers find solace in words, and yet I had finally found something that was all the better for their absence.

At first, I merely listened and followed up with watching countless videos of Frahm performing live, which absolutely did me in. Watching Frahm play is almost like watching an athlete. What other pianist works up a literal sweat during their set? He is dynamic, often hopping between a grand piano, Juno synthesizer, and a Fender Rhodes keyboard, all of which he specially mics and prepares for each individual set. In this 2013 video performance of “Toiletbrushes” and “More,” Frahm is mouthing some unheard gestures, looking a bit like he is in pain…like he is not playing the song, but birthing it. His tendons and muscles are visibly strained as he plays like it’s an extreme sport.

But the most characteristic detail is that he plays half the set with actual toilet brushes, used to bang on the exposed strings of the open piano. This reminds me of two things. 1) That the piano is after all, a percussive instrument, and exploring that aspect can open a world of possibility, and 2) that Frahm is aiding in the democratization of classical music and the piano itself. His approach is curious, inventive, and entirely unpretentious. Whether he is melding the worlds of classical and electronica, or discovering that an overlooked household object can be the perfect mallet for a grand piano, Frahm is truly one of a kind.

At this point in my discovery, I knew very little about Nils Frahm the man. But his compositions so moved me, that within a week of first hearing him I had purchased a keyboard and booked my first piano lesson.

Few things have stirred me to such an extent. When I finally got a gym membership it came from a place of motivation, but not of inspiration. Watching certain movies makes me want to write a screenplay – but I never actually do it. At the most, I will buy up every record an artist has released within a short amount of time…but picking up a new instrument at 25? I was possessed.

After a year and a half of closely following Frahm’s career (and SLOWLY learning the piano), it seems as though the composer’s raison d’être is to captivate listeners to the point of great emotional response. As he told The Quietus in 2013:

“I’m interested in how human beings react in certain situations, and what music does to people’s emotions. How we can change people’s attitudes with tones. After I’ve played a good concert, people leave the room happy. This is something we can give back to the world. When people feel down and like it’s all going to shit, at least we can give them some music and change their attitude so people don’t think it’s all shit.”

It is rare to find such idealism spouting from the mouth of a professional musician. But Frahm’s optimism seems wholeheartedly sincere, and it is reflected in his actions. In March of 2015, Frahm gave us Piano Day, which celebrates his beloved instrument by sharing its immensity with the world.

In a statement on his website the pianist poked fun at his own fixation with the ebony and ivory:

“Beloved planet,
Don´t think I am completely pathetic, but I am here to tell you about a new holiday.”

Frahm proceeded to explain that Piano Day existed to celebrate any and all things Piano, and encouraged participants to create anything in that realm of possibility.

“Please dress up that day (don’t play any guitar) and prepare some presents for us all and don´t forget to share them with us. Any piano related creative idea will be honored and seen by the lovely people around here and myself. Thanks for your participation and spread the word, in a couple years I want PIANO DAY to me more important than Xmas and more stressful than Thanksgiving.

Anyways, enjoy this little present of mine, it is a snippet for more to come.

Nils Frahm (has lost it completely)”

Frahm’s “present” was a free release of his 2015 album Solo. I realize now, listening to his annual, hour-long Xmas mix, that Frahm often gives music freely to his fans. It is something he has always done and it has probably been a partial cause of his steadily growing fan base.

The mix is more wintery than Christmas-y, but cozy nonetheless. Snippets of recordings by Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Lee Hazelwood, and Marlene Dietrich seamlessly float in an out, enveloped in the warm crackle of a record playing…or is it a slow burning fire? Either way, it is toasty to the ears.

I’ve been sitting on this desire to praise Frahm in long form for quite some time now. “Should I wait for his birthday?” I ask myself. “What about a new release? How can I make this relevant without simply sounding like a wide-eyed, drooling fan-girl?” But it was the Xmas Mix that did it, because it seems to represent the simple, fervent mission Frahm has of sharing music, and that moves me as much as his playing.

It is evident that this is a man hopelessly in love with music, and devoted to sharing it, whose career reflects a monastic approach to “success.” In 2015 Frahm spoke to Resident Advisor of his booking process:

“I only want to play if someone invites me. Don’t ask for shows.” I don’t want to use the piano as a money-making machine. This is what I tell my whole team: when someone asks, be nice, but don’t try to push people with my stuff.”

He continues by telling aspiring musicians that they shouldn’t focus on getting successful; they should stay at home, get really good at what they do, and wait for someone to notice their hard work.

In his typical, philosophical manner of speaking, he wrapped up his Quietus interview by saying:

“The only thing we can try is changing people’s attitude, but not with words. I don’t want to be Bob Dylan, I can’t express it through words but I can express it through emotional experiences. All the answers you need to know you have inside yourself and all you can do is inspire these sorts of answers, perhaps by conversation or by music or by looking at a piece of art. I only have one lifetime to do it and it feels way too short!”