A hiss pervasively hangs in Empty as Nils Frahm’s fingertips gently explore the piano in the way one’s hands would revisit the pages of a fragile journal. Reminiscent, curious, and present, the play between high and low notes arouses lost memories into an emotional and cognitive space between nostalgia and reflection.
The piano is recorded so intimately that the instrument brings a mechanical timbre to Frahm’s exposition. The quiet recording is so loud that Frahm’s breath is audible throughout. The hammers, as they lift with his hands, provide percussion like rain falling on leaves before a storm. Occasionally, a pedal creaks. You can hear the fabric of his clothes fold in rhythm as he puts his essence into a beautiful, vulnerable, and solitary recording.
Within Empty, life persists in moments of epiphany. Frahm sometimes muddles through and other times dances along the keys, and he does this while containing his freedom inside shifting chromatic winds. He’s playing in the rain, the gusts, the inevitability of life’s descents, and an optimism that all weather is good weather despite gray skies.
Still, while he brings us near his subject, the muted tones leave one feeling disassociated. He presents a sound that appears to be a dream experienced from the other side of a glass wall. Here but not. There but here. Together but separate.
The silence is intense. The hiss of the recording is interrupted by the feeling of accidental discoveries on the keys and the action of the piano itself — like listening to a man scrape a porcelain bowl with a spoon and chew cold cereal for breakfast. Not alone. But not yet lonely.
All of this until we arrive at “A Shimmer.” Frahm emerges from the depths to see the sun break at a single spot above him, the water folds the light like silk tulle in a boundary between isolation and hope, and he comes up for a single breath wanted in such earnest that the inhalation would be conscious and uncontrollable. Deliberate and unintentional.
He kicks and he paddles, but the weight of some gravity pulls him under. Every few fathoms up is a struggle against being pulled fathoms down. He is exhausted. “Maybe that world isn’t for me,” Frahm posits. Pausing in the twilight, neither rising or falling, the music comes to a slowing resolution and sinks into the obscurity from which hope comes; and then, he descends into darkness.
Frahm closes out with “Black Notes.” His melody and harmony set an agenda to discuss the preceding half hour of his contemplation. It sounds like he is saying, “We have all been to the shadows of empty. It is not for nothing. I will show you why if you follow me.”
A creak of the piano here, a pedal there, microscopic sounds all around, and Frahm’s inhalations give us a sense of where he catches his breath to emote through his instrument. His soul is engaged.
4 minutes and 54 seconds in, Frahm states a question. He asks for a revelation. He calls out into the dark. His pleas echo from oblivion, which means something must be on the other side of this seemingly infinite emptiness.
It’s 30 seconds til the end, and the hissing fades out — a noise that you didn’t know was there until it was gone. The silence is deafening. Frahm eases into a finale that provides a still space where a listener can have an honest conversation with the self after an otherwise tenebrous prayer.
Surely, a place is not empty if I am in it. Empty space is the only place where I can place myself when I haven’t cleared the space in which I reside.
8 songs, 36 minutes
Released 28 March 2020
© 2020 Erased Tapes Records Ltd.