“…my piano asked me to be quiet and sensitive. It told me that if I would touch it softly that it would sound amazing and powerful and it kept its promise.”
— Nils Frahm, interviewed by themilkfactory
It’s a gimmick, sure, but it works. Nils Frahm wanted to compose and play on his instrument of choice in the middle of the night, without breaking the stillness of the hour or the patience of his neighbors. Apparently deciding that a brick on the soft pedal wouldn’t be enough to accomplish this, he put felt on the strings of the piano, dampening the instrument’s sound while still ensuring that it remains playable. Then he played. Slowly, quietly, Nils Frahm played his newly modified instrument, and out of that instrument came the sublime and the beautiful.
Felt is a humble little masterpiece, an exploration of the tiny dark corners, the cracks in the concrete from which grass and the occasional flower appear. When Frahm is playing his piano, we hear the piano as beautifully and clearly as we would if he wasn’t dampening the sound, but he offers hints as to just how quiet that piano is by accentuating just how loud the rest of the room is. The felt itself is an additional instrument, a scrape of percussion as each key is played and released. It is the piano whispering to the listener, telling secrets beyond the tale that Frahm has composed. The creak and thump of the pedal is audible, as is the sound of Frahm shifting ever so slightly in his seat.
When Frahm breathes while he is playing, he breathes in through his nose, and out through his mouth. You don’t hear it often over the course of Felt, but when you do, that is how it sounds. These are details you don’t need to hear, necessarily, but they are also details that bring you into an experience that has become more than simply a piano making music. It is an album about a certain time of night, about purity and isolation.
None of this is to say that Felt is a static album. Opener “Keep” and closer “More” both have long stretches of quickly-played, pulsing sixteenth notes, the constant din of raindrops in slowly growing puddles. The felt itself is a brushed snare on these tracks, a little bit of extra percussion resting on top of the muted tones of the treated piano. In other tracks, it fills in the gaps, little extra beats as Frahm lets go of the keys or moves the pedal in between chords. There are other instruments as well: An almost startling harmonium solo opens the pensive “Old Thought” while a distant spray of electronics is heard toward the end of the same track, and celeste and marimba make their way into the mix of a couple of tracks as well. Mostly, though, the album is dominated by Frahm’s piano, and his devotion to his instrument is to Felt‘s credit.
It’s in the piano that the sound is richest. It’s in the piano that a track like “Familiar” can sound alternately like pop balladeering and soundtrack-esque atomsphere. It’s in the piano that “Kind” finds a series of mysterious and creepy melodies, and it’s in the piano that we hear just how accustomed we had become to the sustain pedal when Frahm finally lets it go halfway through “More”.
Felt is a short album at only 44 minutes, but it almost has to be. These are thoughts as much as they are songs, and forcing them to overstay their welcome would only be excess. What we are left with instead is a brillant, beautiful album whose very nature allows it to work equally well as music for the background, where it serves as utterly unobtrusive wallpaper, or the foreground, where the little details can be noticed and treasured. Frahm has outdone himself.