The Amateur Sound: nonkeenby Marshall Yarbrough
Society doesn’t have much respect for amateurs. With the possible—problematic—exception of college athletes, our general attitude is that, if you’re not making a living off something, you’re not really doing it. You might be good at it, but it’s not what you do. This lack of respect extends from the practitioner to the work produced. When we speak of work that is amateurish, we mean it’s sloppy, unserious; we imply that the focus of the person who did it was on something else.
Contrast this with how we use “professional” as an adjective to mean (just cycling through my thesaurus here) “competent, able, skilled,” etc. “Professional” has such an authoritative ring to it that attaching the word to even marginal activities lends them an aura of legitimacy (see Tony Hawk Pro Skater). This is partially an issue of money, but not exclusively. Those kinds of work classified as “professions” get more societal respect, but aren’t necessarily more remunerative. A bartender might make more in a year than a teacher, but no one asks the teacher, “So what do you really do?”
Bourgeois professional identity replaced inherited class identity during the 19th century, with the rise of an increasingly dominant sector of society whose members no longer thought of themselves as dukes and earls but rather as doctors and lawyers. Having a profession meant having a specific slot in—and not having a slot meant being excluded from—society, but it also meant a narrowed area of expertise: doctors knew about medicine, lawyers about law. The result was a lot of anxiety about the implications for art. Professional artists working within the “artist” slot would, it was feared, produce a narrowed, self-absorbed art with no relevance to greater society—aestheticism. On the other hand, those working outside the narrow “artist” slot would therefore not, in society’s conception of things, be artists. They would be dilettantes—amateurs.
nonkeen is a German group featuring the trio of Nils Frahm, Frederic Gmeiner, and Sebastian Singwald. They are, in a sense, a bunch of amateurs. Frahm is a pianist, composer, and producer—a professional musician. Gmeiner and Singwald, however, pursue music unprofessionally. The three of them were friends in childhood, playing music together and experimenting with tape recorders. But the project that eventually became nonkeen didn’t begin until they reunited in their late twenties, casually playing together in Singwald’s basement and recording the sessions on cassette tape. The group’s debut record, the gamble, which came out in February on R & S Records, is culled from eight years of such recordings.
The album contains nine tracks of sparse, instrumental music. On tracks like “saddest continent on earth,” the music reaches peaks of quiet intensity—I’m reminded of late Talk Talk records. Throughout, the players seem content to improvise and follow their inclinations, letting the imperfect cassette technology add an element of chance. There is a modesty of intent here that extends even to the all-lowercase typography. The album comes across as a loosely woven framework of ideas hit upon in the moment, by players who know each other well and are performing for no one else but themselves.
As Gmeiner describes the band’s approach, “nonkeen was for a very long time just a hobby thing for all of us. We met from time to time in our rehearsal space in the evenings with a beer when we all had time.” He goes on, “But we never really talked about the music we played or had a specific plan or idea to follow. It was a bit like escaping everyday life with your best friends and with your instruments. Also not many people knew about the project—we didn’t even ha[ve] a real name for a long time, it was just for the fun of playing together.”
Singwald’s description is similarly casual: “We [didn’t have] any intention to record it for a specific purpose. Just collecting the magic moments we had. When the tapes were full or the room was blocked we went to Nils’[s] place, overdubbed the tapes to the computer, had some pasta and a glass of wine, and listened to the tapes. These were great moments when we discovered our own music, sometimes from years ago, like archeologists, discovering our dusty tapes with sounds no one could remember of what they are or who played that strange instrument.”
It’s easy to imagine the dismissive response to the band’s story: “You mean you and your buddies spent a few years dicking around in the basement after work and now you’re releasing an album?” The cynic in me is reminded of the blunt proclamation by F. Murray Abraham’s character in Inside Llewyn Davis: “I don’t see a lot of money here.” I present these possible responses because they are, from a societal perspective, understandable. But ultimately, they demonstrate the danger of taking an arbitrary system of values informed by a narrow notion of professionalism and applying it to artistic endeavor.
nonkeen is blissfully unencumbered by such limits. As Gmeiner says, “I think it helped very much in a way to find our own sound and identity that we didn’t [have] to talk about it and to describe it to someone else and by that also define it somehow.” Everybody gets asked the question, “What do you do?” Amateurs don’t have to answer.
MARSHALL YARBROUGH is the Brooklyn Rail’s assistant music editor.