Established in 2001, the Late Night Tales series invites musicians who might be best-described as “classy motherfuckers” to dive deep into their sonic collections and take listeners on a journey through the wee hours of the morning. When the outfit tapped Berlin-based pianist/composer/producer Nils Frahm for a contribution, what they got was less a compilation than a composition.
Frahm’s Late Night track selection wears its demographics on its sleeve. John Cage, Miles Davis, Boards of Canada, Nina Simone, Four Tet, even the ethnomusicological detour into East Cameroon–there’s no reason this comp shouldn’t do brisk sales among overeducated NPR-types closing in on middle age. (Full disclosure: I am this type.)
What Frahm does with all of this tasteful material is far more interesting than simply listing the tracks would imply. He has manipulated each of the recordings, which are drawn from sources ranging from 78s to WAV files, and inserted ambient sounds, like the purring of his girlfriend’s cat, in between.
Taken as an uninterrupted, unfolding whole, Frahm’s Late Night Tales seems to be asking us if we believe in ghosts. If not ghosts, then he’s aiming for a close approximation of our state of mind between wakefulness and sleep.
He has created a dream archaeology of sound technologies over time, or, perhaps more precisely, of the ways we receive sound over the course of a lifetime—semi-awake in an apartment with paper-thin walls and a Reggaeton-loving neighbor, straining to hear foreign tongues over the shortwave, or as low-res MP3 files imploring us to “shut up and dance” at summertime weddings.
While I don’t believe in ghosts, I do believe that humans endow objects—record albums, cassette tapes, even iPhones—with meaning. That’s what culture is—the meaning-endowing, language-comprehending 2% difference that separates us from the chimpanzees with who we share 98% of our genetic code.
I am not an audiophile, but I will go to bat for the beauty of a phonebook-thick 78. When I put on my 78 of Oscar Levant performing Gershwin’s piano preludes, I’m not just hearing the last of America’s great mordant wits play Gershwin through a lot of snap-pop-hiss imperfection. I’m hearing time and history and all that weird ghostly stuff that Frahm seems to be in touch with. His Late Night Tales outing is beautiful and interesting and worth your time. Give it a listen this September 11th.