Pianists's fingers knurl and bulge with the same blunt mutantcy as freshly-dug jerusalem artichokes.
Easy as it is to imagine the rigours on the hands of Prokofiev's yard-long keyboard swoops, or the Jerry Lee Lewis bludgeon approach, it is less obvious to acknowledge the same strain in those fragrant Debussy pieces stinking up hotel lobbies and club class airport lounges.
The piano though, is a muscular instrument, requiring an application of force which turns fingernails into ingrown claws, and forearms into knotted-rope sculptures. Powering an unamplified instrument, moving the volumes of air needed to flood a sold-out concert hall with sound, takes the strength of an irate axeman.
Getting the microphones deep inside the guts of the beast it is nigh-impossible not to envision its groans
Concert pianist, Paul Lewis, playing Beethoven in the Auditorio Nacional in Madrid some years ago, played a Steinway grand piano. Over the course of the piece his playing displaced the heavy instrument by at least a foot, simply through fingertip pressure.
Nowhere is this robust aspect of piano more obvious than when a piano player works at an electronic keyboard, routing the sound to headphones. For the observer in that circumstance, the thudding rhythms of fingers on keys is suddenly percussive, stripped of its melodic aspect and distilled into an exhibition of the player's sense of time. It can be a cruel test – any irregularity is immediately obvious without the sustained musical swell which would otherwise mask the player's mistakes. The same irregularities of timing, or of hesitancy in a player's expression can also be heard in a piano played conventionally, but are most audible in slow, contemplative pieces. Whilst the fast, frenetic Chopin etudes are a test of a pianist's dexterity and brute speed, it is in the slow movements that any failing in the musician's expression is screamingly obvious – there is simply nothing to hide behind.
And so, Frahm.
If slow piano movements are where the pianist feels most uncomfortably exposed, and if the percussive creaks and thuds of a piano's non-musical components are the usually-hidden giveaways of sloppy technique, then it is not surprising that the buzzword surrounding Felt is 'intimate'. To an extent we can blame German laws on noise pollution, or perhaps the simple fact that Nils Frahm strives to be neighbourly. Whichever of the two, Frahm's decision to baffle the strings of his piano with wadded felt has resulted in a happy sonic accident of benefit not only to his sleeping neighbours, but to his ever-growing fanbase too.
The mechanics of a piano rely upon felt already. Wool-wrapped hammers strike tensile steel wires every time a key is pressed. What is illustrated by the Frahm record is that, on muting the resonance of the vibrating wires, the instrument can lay a claim to being a percussion unit. If you remember that old soundbyte about a Frank Bruno punch having the same power as a sledgehammer wrapped inside a pillow, the very same applies here. Folding felt cloth into the gap between hammers and strings, whilst it allowed Frahm to play late at night without disturbing his neighbours (we hear them talking in a passageway midway thorough 'Unter'), masks nothing of the kinetic forces he marshalls in striking the keys. The piano groans and creaks under the onslaught, his own breathing joins the soundscape. The actual melodies of piano are included in the whole, but as a component – not as a dominant or overwhelming aspect.
Folding felt cloth into the gap between hammers and strings
It is pleasing to imagine Felt as the result of a single recording take, coming as a feverish catharsis direct from the soul of a pallid, tortured, idiot-savant, amongst the debris of a fifty-two hour abisinthe and laudanum binge. But Berlin is not Bohemia, and whilst imaginary narratives unfold themselves on listening, there is also a lot of post-production applied to Frahm's improvisations. The initial conceit is that, by damping the piano's action to quieten the sounds of the strings, the rest of the instrument is laid bare. Getting the microphones deep inside the guts of the beast (for it is nigh-impossible not to envision its groans and exhalations as anything other than the sounds of an animal) brings an attached intimacy to the recording, as if the listener is actually inside the piano too. That said, the final product is not as simple as all that.
On the opening track, 'Keep', a flitting staccato synth commentary persists for much of the piece. Whilst it is expansive, and fills the top end of the mix nicely, it's somewhat superfluous to the overall effect. There is more than enough interest in the pulsing percussion of keythumps and the bright energy of the melody to suffice. Adding the digital component seems, to these ears, to be too much – bringing a frenetic aspect to the tone which, oddly, evokes Mike Oldfield. Nevertheless, if it serves one purpose well, it is to provide a sonic chaff to be blown away by the track's periodic booms of bassy left-hand chords. These are so deep, so satisfying, that there is no doubt whatsoever that the more erudite dubstep fans out there would know exactly what was happening in this construction of insistent tempo, jittering melody and well-placed bass bombs.
If you remember that old soundbyte about a Frank Bruno punch having the same power as a sledgehammer wrapped inside a pillow…
Elsewhere, 'Less' shows the vast sweeps of emotional range that can be developed by a musician who is unafraid of silence, and subdues any doubts that may have been raised by the busy opening track. It is a piece which burrows into the listener – deceptively simple, exquisitely weighted and the object-lesson of why timekeeping is so important in analogue music. 'Snippet' conveys a hard-earned, worldly hopefulness with its augmented chords and treble motif, whilst 'Familiar' brims with a barely-contained joy which is simply infectious. Singling out individual tracks from the album is futile though, the album is an immersive experience to be taken as a narrative, your own imagination will doubtless provide the pictures.
Nils Frahm – Felt is released on Erased Tapes, October 10, 2011