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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Talking Heads: Emika

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Most people hate January…but then, from early on in our chat, it is clear Emika is not one of them. “I love January, it’s the one!” she gushes. “Everyone’s moping around, but I’m just on it doing all my work so I can relax in the summer! Everywhere is cold and dark in Berlin currently but I really love it at this time of year.”

We have connected to talk about the many and varied musical projects in which she is currently involved. Head of the queue is new piano album Klavirni Temna, a sequel to 2014’s Klavirni – about which she became Arcana’s very first interviewee in 2014. A lot has changed in her life since then, in particular the arrival of a baby girl. The new addition is heavily connected to Klavirni Temna, of which more later – but first Emika is talking about how her music is developing.

“My creativity is getting a lot worse now I’m a mother! I’m doing more and more, I’m collaborating a lot more. I have a new label concept, working with a lot more artists, and working in much more creative zones. There are things that don’t fit my Emika project but I can do them on someone else’s record. I call it having music kittens, lots of them!”

Klavirni Temna can be thought of as the pedigree in the litter. While the new release schedules and streaming platforms are packed with solo piano records, it has a distinctive voice of its own, and when heard on headphones (listen above!) it is like having someone in the room next door. “That’s what I wanted”, she affirms. I like the feeling that someone’s actually performing, a person in a time and a moment. All the pieces and improvisations are ones that didn’t have mistakes in them, and they were recorded on my phone. Then I went back to them, racked up on a lot of things and recorded them properly.”

Emika was effectively recording for two. “It’s a particularly interesting record because I wrote it while I was pregnant, and I could feel how the baby was responding to the music. When it went too dark I could feel the baby didn’t like it, and it got more uncomfortable! I finished the record and was in a rush, so I whacked plug-ins on it and thought it would be nice, I could put it out, and concentrate on becoming a mother. But when I’d had the baby it sounded rushed and clean, and not really me. I re-did it and used broken, dirty, dusty tape compression and delay. I wasn’t sure what to do, I had the test presses and didn’t know, so I put the test presses on and my daughter came in. She was listening, and then came over and tapped my stomach and said ‘mummy sound’! She understands the piano as being home and me. Forever we have this sound connection, and it’s one of a kind, a strange musical thing.”

Her Czech musical ancestors wrote similarly intimate pieces for piano, the likes of Dvořák, Suk and Janáček putting down some of their most private thoughts in suites and individual pieces, such as the Janáček example played by Piotr Anderszewski above. Emika is no different. “The piano’s my notebook. It feels like a black pencil and a white piece of paper, and it’s how I can set down to work.”

Each of the pieces is identified as Dilo, which means ‘moment’ in Czech. “It is exactly like that, and I feel akin to it”, she says. “Janáček made a lot of pieces for his children, and that was a big confidence boost to me. If he’s done it I will do it! Since the first Klavirni album solo piano has become so popular and trendy, and that’s why I wanted to develop the sound this time. Usually my music is not so trendy but this feels like the height of the trend! And it is five years since I did the last Klavirni album. It’s cool – it could have gone either way, but this release makes the other one safer if you know what I mean.”

There are unexpected twists and turns as the album develops, meaning the listener is kept on their toes while experiencing the darkly meditative scores. Dilo 31 is an example, dropping in pitch as it progresses in an affecting and slightly disturbing way. “The engineer couldn’t believe I wanted it that way, he was really confused! I think bending the piano’s pitch afterwards rather than playing it live is cool.”

Emikae loves the escapism playing the piano affords. “My studio is close to a forest, and that’s what I see when I’m playing, with the weather changing. The piano is right by the window, so it’s connected to the outside world. I’ve shifted from a dark Berlin room to a lofty space outside. The studio is a work in progress, and it’s really inspired by Earthship. I saw how Michael Reynolds builds houses from trash, using glass bottles and tyres. The houses capture energy and heat from the sun and have their own ecosystem, and you can grow food too. I’ve been researching solar power, and the goal is to have somewhere sustainable, rather than being part of a grid system. I am trying to downsize, to not use too much energy and to do more with less. The piano is the ultimate instrument for that…synthesizers, not so much!”

Her enthusiasm for the move is contagious. “The first step was to move out of the city. Then I wanted to look at designs, and to get architects. I’m really inspired by the Tiny House movement, and I would love to build a tiny house studio. You can run them with solar power, and reuse your waste. It’s all about getting ready for the next era of survival and energy, and it’s making me think very differently about shrink wrap, vinyl and all those things. It’s difficult in the digital age to replace that with something meaningful, but we will find a way!”

Now she’s fully installed in the German countryside, Emika can devote more time to her second symphony project. “It’s inspired by the economist Jeremy Rifkin, who delivered a talk with VICE on YouTube (below):

I looked him up and just e-mailed him. I let his chief of staff know that I wanted to do a piece of music inspired by his work, and to my surprise he got back to me! Melanfonie, my first symphony, looked back to the past, but this one is looking 300 years into the future. I’ve been experimenting with using Maxim SP to play synthesizers, deciding what they play with a set of conditions that you program in first. It plays for half an hour, and I’ve got about 80 recordings, each one of them getting better with the process. Now I’d like to get the orchestra to play those parts.”

Emika’s willingness to embrace both the analogue sounds of the piano and the future digital ways of working is inspiring, each complementing the other in her music. “The more we understand technology, the closer it’s getting to nature and feels like it will save it again. I would like this symphony to be a live process. With Melanfonie everyone got it on the CD after, and didn’t get the live experience. For this symphony the idea is to do it in front of a live audience, with no click track or headphones. That creates a lot of pressure, but if you’re going to do it it’s the best thing you can do. This time I want to have synthesizers and to perform with the orchestra. That was the feedback, to have some bass-heavy, epic stuff going on!”

Klavirni Temna, Emika’s second piano album, is released on Friday 14 February on Emika Records. You can listen to extracts and order the album on Bandcamp here:

You can read more detail about Emika’s studio set-up on the Music Tech website (opens in a new window)

Emika

emikaEmika picture © Katja Ruge

Up until now, singer-songwriter Emika has been best known for her one-woman electronica, best witnessed on her Emika and DVA albums for Ninja Tune. Yet she has always carried a torch for classical music, and recently released Klavirni, an album of piano miniatures, on her own Emika Records label. She is therefore the ideal artist to kick off Arcana’s interview section! She does so by talking about her watershed encounters with classical music, and the ambitious plans she has as a composer and label owner.

Can you remember your first encounter with classical music?
It was actually the first moment I cried from listening to music. I was 12 and even though I was on my own I felt very embarrassed. I was forced to stay with my parent’s friends during our family holiday and I was being mega grumpy and did not want to join in doing any ‘nice’ things such as going on a long walk, so I decided to stay at the house on my own. I went through all their CDs and found Chopin piano nocturnes. The piece was Chopin’s Nocturne in E-Flat Major, Op.9 No. 2:

Your ‘Klavirni’ album is inspired by Janácek and Bartók – were there any piano pieces in particular that inspired you when writing the album?
I’m very impressed by Erik Satie‘s work, it is so touching and so precise. I think playing lots of notes is quite achievable on the piano as it’s always based on scales and anyone can learn to move their fingers in a spider-like pattern. But having the confidence to leave space in between phrases, to not play every possible note, to not feel the need to show-off. That is also skill in my opinion and I think Satie and Janáček were not only great piano players but they were also fantastic composers and therefore didn’t need to be ‘virtuosic’. I love piano pieces with a sense of space inside them.

Is some of your work improvisatory? The recordings have a very natural flow to them, as if you recorded them in one take.
They are all one-take improvs. Sometimes if my cat jumped on my chair or my mum got a phone call, I cut out these kinds of unwanted sounds. But there are lots of moments when it started to rain outside (in England of course it rains a lot) and you can feel this pressure change in some of the recordings. That stuff is pretty cool and ‘real’. I like to explore ‘real’ space within recordings and not only work with synthesis.

Was it important to keep some electronic elements from the work you’ve done before, such as the sampling, re-sampling and other processes you have used on the album?
Yes for sure. I have an itch to scratch! It’s fun to pull sounds apart and also get to know the music on a sonic level.

Although you have used these processes, you have made sure the music keeps its simplicity. Do you think sometimes classical music overcomplicates itself?
Yes. Too much diddle-di-di. I don’t like most classical music to be honest, just a few composers / conductors / performers and specific pieces from each.

Do you think moving between electronic club music and classical music means it becomes more accessible to the listener…and do you plan to keep writing in both styles?
I don’t like the stiff wall between these worlds. There’s no need to be just one way or the other and I plan do what I do until there is no difference between them in relation to my work. It’s all music.

What further classical music do you have planned…and might it involve you singing?
I’m going to record my first really big orchestral piece this year in Prague which features the beautiful Czech soprano Michaela Srumova and around 70 players. The music is rooted in grief, and features a miracle which pushes you over the edge and then you fall into a great unknown. It’s so full of life, things which I cannot express through words or any other way. Some things really are best expressed purely as musical forms.

What does classical music mean to you?
Life itself.

If you could recommend one piece of classical music to Arcana readers, what would it be and why?
Barber‘s Adagio for Strings. It doesn’t get more sincere then this.

Emika‘s new album Klavirni is available to buy now, either digitally, on CD or on vinyl. The vinyl has intonation included, while the CD has an option to email Emika Records direct to have the notation sent.

Emika has completed a DJBroadcast podcast in the form of an ambient mix, which can be heard here – while Dilo, one of the recordings from the album, can be downloaded for free here