Switched On – Emika: Klavirni Temna (Emika Records)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Emika made her first volume of piano recordings available five years ago. The approach was straightforward, the aim of Klavirni to record instinctive and intimate thoughts on the piano and release them to a music-buying public, who greatly appreciated the headspace they provided. From the first collection, Dilo 7 remains Emika’s biggest track on Spotify, with more than 15 million streams.

Since then she has written a first symphony (Melanfonie) and added to a  flourishing output of electronic music. Yet the piano remains her most private form of expression, and five years on, she revisits it on record.

On Klavirni Temna we find an artist whose life has changed a great deal, with motherhood and relocation to a self-sustaining studio outside of Berlin just two of the biggest life changes. However she continues to find solace and inspiration from solo sessions at the keyboard.

What’s the music like?

Klavirni was released before peaceful piano playlists became a thing. With its sequel, the danger was that Emika would be making music that might be seen as derivative.

She cleverly sidesteps that possibility by delivering deeply felt thoughts on the piano that go through electronic studio trickery before reaching the listener, the purity of the sound effectively destroyed by extraneous glitches and pitch wobbles. In spite of this treatment they still reach the parts other solo piano records don’t, calming the mind with their direct musical language.

Once again Emika’s medium of communication is ‘Dilo’, the Czech word for ‘moment’, giving her the freedom to emulate fellow compatriots Dvořák, Janáček and Suk in writing sketches and character pieces for the piano.

There are passing similarities in figuration between Emika’s work and the shorter pieces of Erik Satie, the Preludes of Chopin, or the Metamorphosis works of Philip Glass, but ultimately her personality shines through. Most of the pieces are around three minutes, each acting as a concentrated musical postcard.

Dilo 21 begins at an easy walking pace but is deeply expressive, thanks in part to a vibrato applied to the piano sound. Its block chords have a gorgeous mottled sound, as though we were listening to someone playing the piano in the room next door.

This is a level of intimacy maintained throughout Klavirni Temna, where private thoughts are communicated directly to the listener. Dilo 22 flickers in the half-light like a resilient candle, finding greater brightness by shifting effortlessly into the major key halfway through. Dilo 23 is more propulsive, showing energy can still be found in this stripped back form of music.

On occasion the aural perspective shifts. Dilo 29 is airborne, with a touchingly sad melody of childlike simplicity. Dilo 26 shares that feeling of suspension in the sky, its higher arpeggios complementing an arching melody from the piano’s left hand. Most striking of all is Dilo 31, where the bottom literally falls out of the piano. As the piece progresses the pitch steadily drops, like a wind-up toy running out of power, until it sinks to the ground, helpless.

As the collection progresses the studio involvement intensifies. Penultimate piece Dilo 33 feels more physical but muffled too, the wall between listener and performer thicker than previously – a feeling reinforced by the flickering figures of Dilo 34, beautiful but otherworldly. These figures are eaten up, the destruction wrought by the studio now complete, leaving behind only static noise.

Does it all work?

Yes. It is a lot harder than you might think to write simple structures for piano that also carry emotional meaning, but Emika achieves that feat throughout Klavirni Temna. The electronic manipulations are both clever and sensitive, refracting the sound through improbable prisms but never distorting them to the point where it becomes illegible.
It helps to hear the physical process of playing the piano, too, the human elements brought to the fore.

Is it recommended?

Wholeheartedly. If you’re in need of time for contemplation, away from the relentless demands of technology, put this on. It really does calm and isolate the mind.

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