A few years ago the German pianist/composer/producer Nils Frahm fell out of bed and broke his thumb. As he later recalled,
All of a sudden I had so much time, an unexpected holiday. I cancelled most of my schedule and found myself being a little bored. Even though my doctor told me not to touch a piano for a while, I just couldn’t resist. I started playing a silent song with 5 fingers on my right and the remaining 4 on my left hand. I set up one microphone and recorded another tune every other night before falling asleep.
If you click on the link above, you’ll see that you can download for free the resulting recording, called Screws in honor of what held his thumb together as it was healing.
I like Frahm’s electronic music very much, but it’s his solo piano work that really captivates me. He often uses an upright piano that he has modified slightly by adjusting the size and texture of the felts, though his wonderful 2015 record Solo was recorded on a unique 12-foot-tall piano called the Klavins M370. He can play loud and fast, but his best music is slow and contemplative, and has reminded many people of Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies, though when his improvisations get chordal they remind me a bit of Keith Jarrett’s quieter moments.
Maybe the most important predecessor to Frahm, though, is Glenn Gould — not in pianistic technique, but in recording technique. In his recording sessions, Gould famously insisted that the microphones be placed as close to the piano strings as possible, yielding a very intimate sound — one which was intensified, I think, by his spare use of pedals. Try listening to a random piece from Gould’s version of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and then compare it to, say Sviatoslav Richter’s (equally great) version, and you’ll immediately envision Richter playing on a big stage in a great concert hall. Gould’s music is for the private listener.
And Frahm takes this emphasis on privacy even further. He has fitted one of his pianos with a pickup that sits inside the instrument, so that you can hear the mechanism moving as the hammers lift and drop and as the pedals engage and disengage. You’re reminded that pianos are made largely of wood — Frahm seems to be playing a living creature rather than a thing. I am not certain that in recording Screws he had the mic inside the piano, but it sounds like it to me; and there are ambient noises from the room in which he recorded it too. In an interview a few years back he commented: “There is something very beautiful about a mono recording of a piano. ‘Screws’ which I just recorded was with one microphone, an old condenser, fed through an EMT stereo reverb and that was it. That was the whole process.” Simple, analog, warm, quiet, private. (Similarly, here’s Nils with one of his favorite toys.)
However: the benefits of such simplicity and warmth are not so easily accessed by the listener. Listening to Frahm’s solo music on a bog-standard pair of earbuds will not allow you to discern many of the subtleties that make it beautiful, and will reveal none of them if there’s any noise at all in the room where you’re listening. My hearing is not nearly as good as it once was, thanks to a youth misspent in too much rock-and-roll played at far too high a volume, but I’ve found that to get the most out of Frahm’s music I benefit from the lossless 24-bit versions he offers on his site, played through a DAC headphone amp and a very good set of headphones. So, as so often in our world today: simplicity and warmth are expensive, and increasingly available only to a privileged few.
But in the best way available to you, check out Nils Frahm’s music. It’s truly remarkable.