There are moments in life when the traffic clears and the streets quiet and the ten thousand things fall away from us. Life comes briefly into focus. Often, these moments are so fleeting that we miss them even as they happen. Maybe this is why it’s so shocking when, halfway through his new album Spaces, Nils Frahm experiences one of these moments and captures it, forever, on record.
The moment: the young pianist pulls his hands off the keys and picks up two brushes (toilet brushes, actually) to bang out a polyrhythmic beat on the hard wood surfaces of his grand piano. As the tension escalates, he reaches his hands deep into the heart of the piano and plays the strings directly with the brushes, completely bypassing the instrument’s keys. I recently saw this all happen, in front of an audience that exploded in rapturous applause. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have believed it possible. It’s a moment of ecstasy, one in which the German composer seems to be reaching through his instrument, losing himself wholly in the search for pure sound, music with no restrictions: a sense of total freedom.
But freedom isn’t something easily won, especially in this day and age. Maybe because freedom is something that only comes with an understanding of confinement. Without rules, restrictions, limitations and disadvantages, is it ever really possible to understand the ecstatic bliss of freedom? Does it carry importance? Does it have emotional weight? Or is it just another simple distraction? Another trivial delight?
See, Nils Frahm understands confinement, restriction and control better than just about any musician on the planet. To start with, he comes from a classical background, one in which thousands of hours of practice are a prerequisite to even study the piano seriously. After all, he studied under Nahum Brodski through whom he can trace his musical lineage to Tchaikovsky. The modern classical music movement that he’s quickly taking by storm is one that requires a broad and detailed understanding of music history, theory and technique and it’s clear from the first frantic notes of the stunning “Hammers” that he is as comfortable with “Flight of the Bumblebee”-level dexterity as he is with the gentle romanticism of his own pieces, like “Over There, It’s Raining.” Indeed, Spaces repeatedly reinforces the idea that Frahm has mastered every rule he’s ever broken. He knows his modified grand piano by heart; he knows the pressure that makes each key sing and the point at which it breaks. You hear Frahm’s very body in every note that he plays.
But Spaces, his sixth full-length solo album, isn’t simply about transcending formalism. In the world outside the shelter of conservatories, the world that values rebellion over discipline, that wouldn’t be much of a feat. No, on Spaces Nils Frahm has a much wider, more human task. He is transcending his own mortality. This may sound like an insane and overblown statement. But consider the circumstances surrounding the record. Before he recorded his last effort, last year’s Screws, Nils broke his left thumb. He was told not to touch the piano for months but, of course, this was impossible. So, instead, he developed a devastatingly spare record of lonely aches. A haunted place. Incredibly, he found his voice in the process, his broken hand revealing a broken heart. Screws would be unbearably sad if it weren’t so beautiful.
Of course, there was a fear that this minimalism would be lost when his thumb recovered. And, yes, the minimalism is indeed gone. But in its place, beauty explodes up out of every corner of Spaces. You can feel the exhilaration of release in the wild abandon of Nils’ acrobatic ten-fingered playing. You can hear the months of staying indoors while his friends went wild without him and you can hear the primal scream bursting forth as he rushes out the door to meet them. You can see orchestras in his right hand and rock bands in his left, the last ghost of the duality of his youth. He was classically trained but played in experimentally minded, expansive bands growing up. You can sense that, even in restriction, his mind was never at rest.
On Spaces, Nils Frahm triumphs over his body, that fragile and fallible instrument. He triumphs over classical forms and delivers a record that’s tonally and compositionally fresh. He triumphs over the limitations of his chosen instrument, the piano, by banging on it, singing into it, looping it, distorting it and generally reshaping it with his imagination in ways that no one else has. Finally, he triumphs over the recorded medium by capturing these tracks live, as field recordings, in various “spaces,” over the last year. The rapturous applause of an audience reminds you that all these triumphs are more than simple studio trickery. This whole thing is human and that’s what makes it so special.
Frahm doesn’t take his freedom for granted. It was hard won and it’s not going to be wasted. Instead, on “Says,” he loops a hypnotic keyboard figure until it becomes a part of the atmosphere, the space that we’re all floating in. When he introduces frail notes over this loop, we can see a lonely, lost soul wandering through this atmosphere, looking for something, anything. In place of stranding this figure, like he might have done on Screws, he lifts the entire thing with the first chord change of the album: six minutes into “Says,” Nils Frahm reminds us why people call space “the heavens” and transfigures the looping atmosphere into a new, unexpected place full of wonder and redemption. It’s such a human fucking moment and it matters. His triumph is so beautiful because he had to fight so hard for it. And it gives us hope.
It’s sentimental. Maybe it’s naïve or uncool. But it’s true. Spaces is so beautiful because it reminds us what it means to be human. It reminds us that we all have cities inside us. Frahm takes us repeatedly through those interior spaces: streets with sirens and bar fights and bad luck and secret lovers and dirty thoughts and empty rooms and, maybe sometimes, even hope for something more. When “Says” ends on the glory of the minor fall, the major lift, and the audience explodes, it’s a reminder that we’re all alive right now.
Don’t waste it.