Felt up 

Nils Frahm brings improvised classicism to Colorado

The photo is black and white and skeletal all over. A detail of an X-ray, it shows a few fingers, and dead center are five tiny metal screws: dark, hard parallel lines amid the soft grey bone.

The fingers belong to Nils Frahm, for whom a broken thumb has particular consequences. This is because Frahm is a pianist.

Frahm took the recent incident in stride, posting a track online called "Song for 9 Fingers," an exercise in making the most of what he's got. (The X-ray image accompanies the piece.) Calling from his home in Berlin, the 29-year-old artist offers a status update for Colorado Springs residents enthusiastic about his upcoming performance: "For the last 4½ weeks, I've had to say goodbye to my thumb. I started rehabilitation, and have begun to get feeling back. It's quite challenging to work around it, but quite interesting, too."

Adjustment to the temporary diminishment came naturally for Frahm. His subtle, unassuming recordings regularly display a penchant for making the most of the fragility of his instrument. His playing tends to eke out the rough textures of the piano: the creak of a bum key, the soft pumping of a pedal, as well as the echoey reverberations of the rooms in which he records.

Frahm's melodies draw on romantic classical gestures as well as minimalism's propensity for heady patterns. For his most recent album, Frahm used a layer of felt to dampen his piano strings, making the sound softer and more delicate. The muted tones on the resulting Felt, released last year on the London- and Berlin-based Erased Tape Records, give his impressionistic compositions a delightfully musty mystique.

The pianist's local appearance comes during a watershed year for experimental-piano nostalgia. Glenn Gould, the instrument's famed classical shut-in, would have turned 80 this year, and its two foremost technical innovators — John Cage, who helped give us the prepared piano, and Conlon Nancarrow, maverick of the player piano — would have turned 100.

Frahm is of a generation that benefits quietly from their accomplishments, much as musicians like James Blake and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, among others, have amassed pop-music followers while drawing from avant-garde techniques.

"He's a great conceptualist," Frahm says of Cage. "Reading his theories is often more interesting than listening to what he did. Obviously he was amazing on the piano. I love his prepared piano, especially 'Imaginary Landscape.'"

On his current tour, Frahm will have to adjust to a different piano at each show, which he sees as part of the excitement. "Pianos go out of shape," he explains. "They have 88 times of the same mechanism, and usually one or three aren't working. I tweak little things, modify slightly. Otherwise, you deal with the character of it, and get in a dialog with a specific instrument to make it an unforgettable night."

He compares himself to a cat lover: "You appreciate meeting all sort of cats. Some are cuter, some are shy, some are more annoying, some are just really cool. And yeah, since I love pianos, I am very curious, sometimes blown away by the instrument."

While he won't be using felt preparations on the tour, Frahm does employ extended techniques: "I will touch the piano inside, yes. I always try to push it to its limits and over the limits of what it's capable of."



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