Pictures from a conversation
Curtains up. Full house. A quiet mournful minor loop of low piano chords drifts through the air, mingling with the chatter and rustling of programs: white noise in an air of expectation.
Two seats up on stage. It’s to be a duet. Designer Johannes Erler of Süpergrüp and Nils Frahm, the pianist, synthesist and composer. We’re gathered here to listen to them perform a conversation about creativity and making new things in the world. This is a design conference, but this (Süpergrüp) series of talks is all about hearing the voices and the insights of creative people from other disciplines. In this series case, we’re waiting expectantly for the first words of a man with rolled pants and checkerboard socks and one hell of a gift for music. Johannes waves the setlist: a sheet of 55 questions. Nils settles in.
The set kicks off with a back and forth beat of question and answer, question and answer. Small talk stuff, really, but they’re establishing a repartee and a rhythm and warming us up. Eventually the trivial gives way to something deeper.
Talking about his concerts, Nils says, “when thousands of people come together you need to build a connection first, a common energy.” And so, when he plays, he starts off by repeating one note, over and over. Softly at first, and then louder and louder to create a rhythm, a focus, a magnet that draws everyone in, calms them down, and builds anticipation of the performance to come.
Nils recalls sitting with designers as they showed him designs for an album cover. Image by image, one after another, starting quietly with the ones that were just okay, and getting louder, building up to the reveal of the one— the best one, the one he was meant to choose. Johannes asks if he prefers rhythm or melody, and he answers, “Both.” He also elaborates to say that “they’re both present in this approach, and they’re both present in all of our work—in the designs themselves, and in the performances we have to stage to present them most effectively.”
Music, or even just sounds – they influence the soul.
Johannes works in a new riff, exploring the power that we have available to us, as designers and as creatives. That’s something Nils appreciates and he goes on to say that “music is not something to be treated lightly, because it is so powerful. Music or even just sounds – they influence the soul.”
He then begins to speak about the white noise that’s all around us, the combination of every colour of sound all at once, and about how the musician’s job and the composer’s job is to reach out for that white noise like a sculptor. The act of creating – it’s not just about making things new, but about filtering what’s already there.
The white noise already contains all the sounds and all the songs. The musician has to pare it down and shape it like a potter into something that can touch the soul. It’s something that takes knowledge and skill, but what it really requires, is feeling and intuition. Embracing that intuitive sense of what and how to filter is something Nils emphasises. In some sense, everything we need is already there. That sounds mystical, but it’s not, not at all.
We all have access to a toolbox full of tried and tested tools. As Nils points out, there are seven billion people in the world, and for all of them, a major chord is always happy, and a minor chord is always sad. It’s just intuitive and something that touches us all.
There are toolboxes full of tools that we, also as designers, should feel free to pick up and use. Some of them are old. So old that you may think are not worth using anymore. But that’s not the case at all according to Nils. Take him for example – he’s a classical musician at heart. There’s nothing old about what he does – the synths layered with piano, looped, deconstructed, the rhythms – there’s nothing there that cries out ‘classical music!’, but that’s still his wheelhouse. He says the challenge is making new things from the old and that “the key is using those old, proven tools, with all of their deep and layered cultural associations, to speak your new message.”
Nils tells Johannes that the form language of classical music is more developed than many people realise. The classics are so deep that there is still so much more to be done with them.
And so, the title of this talk, “All New, Always”, is a misnomer. Nils makes the point that it’s not about making everything new. There’s no reason to throw out the major and the minor chords – or their analogues in design, the arts, or whatever you practice. They work so well, touch the soul so deeply, and are so intuitive. It’s just about finding a new way to use them.
We’re coming up fast on the end of the hour. Johannes waves to signal the closing measures. Da capo, we return to the opening theme of design. Nils says that design is a way to go deep. His father was a photographer, so he’s been interested in images from an early age and his work and approach to creativity embraces interdisciplinary. He works together with the designers designing the covers for his albums and the filmmakers cutting together the videos for his songs. He’s even delved into making books. There are so many levels of expression.
For Nils, when you make a song, the song says a lot, but it doesn’t say everything. You finish the song and you design the cover which says more about what you’re trying to express, and that’s just at the visual level. Then you get closer and there’s the feel of the object itself. This is about printing and materials after which the text can be added. And finally, there’s the talking about it all afterwards. As he says, “there’s no end to the contextualising that you can do. There’s no end to what can be done.”
And then the duet really is done, and all that’s left for us to do is talk about it afterwards. Adding more sounds and words and inspiration to the white noise around us and finding a way to filter out what matters.