Düsseldorf’s Volker Bertelmann, aka Hauschka, is not a man who does things by halves. A one-time rapper and rock band synth player, the 47-year-old has spent the last decade transforming his first instrument, the acoustic piano, over a dozen albums, into a thing of infinite sonic possibilities courtesy of numerous physical ‘preparations’ – his materials of choice include ping-pong balls, chopsticks and jewellery, alongside an increasingly complex battery of electronic effects. On his most recent album, Abandoned City, Hauschka deploys this versatile armoury to conjure the ghostly spirits of depopulated conurbations, from deserted Canadian gold-rush burghs (‘Barkerville’) to faux British market towns outside Shanghai, used only as a backdrop for wedding photographs (‘Thames Town’), and forsaken municipalities in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (‘Pripyat’). David Sheppard caught up with Bertelmann at a pair of unusual London performances and sat down to quiz him about uninhabited metropoles, John Cage and the infinite potential of the machine we call ‘piano’.
An anonymous, if slightly swish, glass-fronted office complex in Fitzrovia is a curious address at which to attend a concert- but it is here that a hundred or so London music ‘insiders’ have been invited on this fresh spring evening in order to witness a special, intimate performance by Volker Bertelmann, who is actually in town to play a more orthodox Hauschka who the following evening, at Dalston’s Café Oto.
Having gained entry, the gaggle of mildly bamboozled music apparatchiks and I ascend, in fours, aboard a tiny li to be disgorged in the second- floor open-plan reception area of a quite well-known music publisher’s office. Here, a milling throng has already gathered, and there is quite a hubbub of anticipatory chatter, aided, no doubt, by the freely flowing gratis alcohol and atmospheric illumination courtesy of strategically placed tea lights. At the centre of the babbling crowd stands an open-lidded baby grand piano, already mic’d up to a small PA system, its guts– sure enough, wedged with sundry implements and ephemera – a spaghetti of wires connecting strings and dampers to a chain of loop stations, delay units and innumerable other pieces of processing kit whose winking red lights somehow add to the building sense of expectation.
Finally, Bertelmann appears and makes himself comfortable at the keyboard, his long, slender frame, dark clothes and windswept locks lending him the air of a bohemian character from a 19th century Russian novel. Such fancifully retrograde notions are quickly dispelled, however, as he begins to tease out a pulsing heartbeat bass thrum overlaid with textural clanks, donks and thuds as piano hammers strike strategically placed wood, plastic, metal and leather, then echo down the effects chains into a rain of sonic splinters. It’s an instantly compelling palette, one that seems to simultaneously embrace primitivism and technological futurism. From the percussive opening, the piece evokes into an echoing, shimmering immersive juggernaut of sound that, at various points, suggests the work of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Moondog, Autechre and Neu!, but also a kind of oceanic otherness, recasting the piano as an otherworldly cornucopia of aural colour – what author and musician David Toop once called ‘an altered states machine’. Certainly, at times, with eyes closed, it is almost impossible to equate the sounds that Bertelmann conjures with the standard sonic vocabulary of the grand piano.
The audience remain thoroughly spellbound throughout and greet the end of the final piece with the kind of fervent applause that is not easily won from seen- it-all London music biz types, many of whom seem reluctant to leave the office- turned sonic laboratory as the tea lights are extinguished and the beer bottles rounded up.
David Sheppard- You’ve just recorded a session in a shed, and last night you played in an office. Do you actually relish the idea of performing outside the orthodox venue set up?
Hauschka- Yes, it can be very nice. Last night was great, with the audience being so close to the piano. I feel I can respond more easily to the mood in the room when it’s like that, and if something’s really working I can push it. On a more traditional stage, you’re not always sure that the audience is hearing the same thing you are, so there is a tendency to hold back, sometimes. Tonight [at Café Oto], for example, I will probably play a set containing more recognisable pieces from my albums…
DS- Preparing the piano is obviously a very effective means of circumventing the standard ‘tricks’ or default playing habits of the virtuosic pianist; but I wonder, as you’ve been mediating the sound of the instrument for so long now, is there a danger of simply swapping one set of conventions for a different set of default sounds?
H- It depends. There are days when I want to stick with the established palette of sounds; at other times I want to change things around and invite more arbitrariness. Sometimes I’m forced to change. There was a time when my case of preparations got lost when I was travelling, so I had to improvise a new set of objects. It started at the airport, where I collected up the wooden coffee stirrers from all the cafés; I was very happy with the sound they produced. In fact I still use them today.
DS- Cage’s theories reflected his interest in esoteric Eastern philosophy, of course. Does that more spiritual element have any meaning for you?
H- To be honest, I was raised very religious, but by the time I was about 14 I felt quite detached from the feeling that there was only this one Christian God. I also related to meditation and I was missing that in Western religion, which seemed to be less about making things better and more about punishing you. As for other kinds of religions, in Germany, maybe elsewhere too, there’s a sense that people who follow the more esoteric ideas are maybe a little too holy. It’s like all kinds of music that was made in the ’70s and labelled ‘esoteric’ – it may actually be quite accessible, but the label means no one buys it.
DS- Talking of accessible music, let’s discuss your latest record, Abandoned Cities. First things first, why create an instrumental album themed around this particular subject?
H- It’s actually the other way round. For me, the music mostly comes first. There will be another approach soon, I think, because I quite like the idea of going somewhere, getting a theme, then going back and writing about it. But, in general, I have the impression that whenever I force myself into a kind of concept it’s not very productive in the sense of musical composition. When I’m forced into a theme, I find myself becoming very blocked… I can’t find the language for that, somehow.
With Abandoned Cities I wrote all the pieces and then I was looking for something that resonated with the music. By accident, I found a photograph taken by a friend of mine in Düsseldorf, of an empty garage in Las Vegas, just the construction, the framework. He had it on the wall, and I said, ‘Oh man, this picture somehow describes exactly how [the music] feels.’ ere’s some darkness in there, some loneliness, but at the same time some beauty, as it’s only the structure against the sky… Then I went into researching abandoned buildings, abandoned cities. I was attracted to the images of these places but also to the historical part – there was a lot of catastrophe, war… a lot of sad stories connected with these places. I didn’t want to say ‘Hey, I’ve been to this fantastic place’, I just made a list of the cities and tried to give out a little information, sometimes quite small amounts information, about them. Now I have the impression that this worked very well, because I get a lot of letters from people telling me that they’ve been researching some of these places. It’s a fascinating subject [for artists]. Harold Budd also had an album called Abandoned City, for example, and Efterklang did a recording using the actual sounds of different cities. I like all these approaches, but in my case, I like to leave things a little more open.
DS- How did you engage with the concept for the previous Hauschka album, Salon Des Amateurs [on which Bertelmann recast the piano as a crucible of percussive rhythms and hypnotic melodic cells in homage to the dance record of Kompakt – a label that once released his pure electronic music under the alias ‘Tonetraeger’]?
H- This was maybe a slightly different, more personal case. When I was 12, I started my first band. is would have been in1978; so I got a little bit of the ’70s in my music taste. And then the ’80s came, then the German wave, etc… so I was influenced a lot by pop music and a lot of great songs, often with singing. Somehow, when I went back to [creating music on] the piano it was about playing instrumental music that must somehow be lyrical and so on. Suddenly you find yourself in this slightly weird world, one that is quite detached from the music you grew up with.
DS- Is there a danger that the processing effects you increasingly use could actually swamp the piano as a sound source, until what you’re making is, effectively ‘just’ electronic music?
H- Well, I think it’s on the way, yes. Anyone who plays an instrument for a long time eventually comes to the question, ‘How do I expand?’… I’m the same; I don’t always want to do just piano music; but on the other side, even if you’re open to the possibilities of sound, you want to stick, to some extent, to what you’ve already achieved. For me, it was a question of wanting to stretch what I do but also carry the audience with me. I don’t want to go in a certain direction and have them think, ‘Oh no, I really can’t follow what he’s doing now.’ It’s also a matter of me finding myself. So I’ve tried to slowly invent new ways of working, like using delays and playing with the possibilities of sub bass. I now have guitar pick-ups in the piano, and that means I can actually control the feedback, etc. It is actually very nice for me to think there are no boundaries between the sensitivity of the piano and the possibilities of electronic sound.
DS- What’s next for Hauschka?
H- Maybe the next thing will be to unify with hip-hop again, in some way, but most immediately I have an artist-in- residence position coming up this summer with an orchestra. This means, for one year, I can write pieces for a much bigger ensemble. It’s the complete other side to improvisation, of course, and I really want to be aware that I have this possibility and to experiment with it, but not in an academic way. I still want it to be under the name Hauschka. I’m not a big fan of having different names for different projects. You do all this work and, in the end, people just say, ‘Oh, who is that guy?…’
Abandoned City is out now on City Slang