Release Date: Mar 18, 2014
Record label: Temporary Residence
Genre(s): Electronic, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
The album cover art for Abandoned City shows the exposed structure of building. It provides something of a visual parallel to German musician Volker Bertelmann’s interest in how music functions and how individual elements interact and are pieced together. Under the Hauschka name it is an area he’s explored in detail for the best part of a decade, initially via the inner workings of the prepared piano but more recently branching out into wider musical terrain.
One thing about Hauschka's music is that once you've seen it performed live—hell, a YouTube clip will almost suffice—it's impossible to dissociate the visual from the sounds you're hearing. The German composer plays the prepared piano, meaning that he tampers with the instrument's insides to produce new and unique sounds. Bottle caps are taped to strings to produce a tambourine-like rattle; strings are wrapped in foil to alter their tone; he's even set pocket-sized vibrators rolling loose across his keys to work their persistent buzz into his sound.
As Hauschka, Volker Bertelmann's skill and creativity in bringing the prepared piano into the 21st century are well-known, but Abandoned City is his first album to feature the instrument this prominently since 2005's aptly named The Prepared Piano. It's also one of his most solitary efforts in some time; aside from a few assists by contrabassist Roland Nebe and clarinetist Simone Weber, virtually every sound was made by Bertelmann. Abandoned City isn't so much a return to form as it is a reflection of Hauschka's explorations since The Prepared Piano: elements of Ferndorf and Silfra's classical leanings, Salon des Amateurs' brilliant reworking of dance music, and Foreign Landscapes' globetrotting concept can all be heard.
Under the name Hauschka, Volker Bertelmann has been working at his prepared piano thing for over a decade now. While he began humbly with a solo-based approach, his works have expanded in scope and ambition in recent years. San Francisco's Magik*Magik Orchestra brought his lush string pieces to life on Foreign Landscapes of 2010, Samuli Kosminen (múm) and Calexico's Joey Burns and John Convertino helped develop the acoustic-electronic whimsy of 2011's Salon des Amateurs and the legendary Deutsche Grammophon released a full-length collaboration with Grammy-winning violinist Hilary Hahn in 2012.
Hauschka is the alias for German composer Volker Bertelmann and he’s made a career out of jamming all sorts of things into his piano. He’s wedged pieces of leather, felt or rubber between the piano strings, wrapped aluminium foil around the hammers, placed small objects on the strings, or joined them together with guitar strings or adhesive tape. The technique is called the prepared piano, and Hauschka is not the first to have come up with the idea.
Düsseldorfian Volker Bertelmann has always had disparate influences. A Chopin recital provided a musical epiphany when he was nine years old, while his first band was a long-forgotten hip-hop duo formed with his cousin. These interests collide on Hauschka’s bracing concept album ‘Abandoned Cities’, formed of ghostly odes to fallen municipalities we humans have left behind.
Head here to submit your own review of this album. If you want to find out the inner workings of a car - you pop the hood, open that lid up and inspect inside. The same applies to getting to know somebody; you tend to feel more connected if you open up and look a little deeper. For German composer Volker Bertelmann, the best of his being happens only once you lift the lid and peek inside - figuratively and literally.
Though composer Maurice Delage tinkered with the form as early as 1912, the prepared piano is most closely associated with John Cage. In 1994, Tori Amos's “Bells for Her” further revealed the technique's ability to convey intensity and emotional heft, while Hauschka's entire career has concerned itself with the prepared piano's technical possibilities. On his latest release, Abandoned City, Hauschka (a.k.a.
Entirely free of context, the music that Volker Bertelmann produces under the Hauschka moniker might not be all that impressive to an electronic music fan. The German musician grew up studying classical piano, and he followed that up by forming a hip-hop duo with his cousin. That intersection isn’t exactly new ground — Hauschka’s strongest compositions range up near the high-rises established there before him.
As Hauschka, Volker Bertelmann writes fairly plain piano music that winds up sounding bewilderingly elaborate. What he plays matters less than what he does before playing it: shoving bits of junk (wood, foil, paper) in the harp or tacks in the hammers. He feeds this snaggletooth grin a diet of frantic minimalist ostinatos and sweetly lingering right-hand themes.
Hauschka records make for peculiar cultural artefacts. Granted, in some sense they’re just almanacs of Volker Bertelmann’s fidgeting, mechanical prepared piano compositions. But there’s a historical baggage, too: back when the piano took office from the ageing harpsichord, it was swiftly heralded as the instrument that would furnish generations of musicians with a brand new palette of sound.
An abandoned city; a ghost town. Once the shining product of human ingenuity and culture, their only denizens today are dusty tumbleweeds of the old west, the weed-cracked pavement of late-stage urban blight or the flashes of some intrepid explorer’s cameras, depending on your locale. Lonely and near religious in their solitary austerity, Hauschka, aka modern classical pianist Volker Bertlemann and his Bechstein grand upright, has translated the sentiments of these windswept alleys and blown-out windows into a series of wordlessly elaborate piano solos using his signature John Cage-style prepared piano technique.
If you don’t know anything about Hauschka, you might assume that twitchy, jumpy “Thames City” was the work of the world’s coolest jazz trio, as piano, acoustic bass and drums all skitter about in an angsty Futurist jitterbug. Or you might think that for “Who Lived Here?” the artist enlisted a small chamber orchestra, since cello, viola, oboe and brass all seem to swell and subside in the piece’s melancholy crescendos. And yet both of these pieces, and the remaining seven others, were played entirely by Hauschka and came entirely out of his piano, an eccentric man-of-a-thousand-faces type of instrument, hooked by wires and tubes to an array of effects, modulators and other paraphernalia.
Düsseldorf-based pianist/composer Volker Bertelmann, also known as Hauschka, has gone high-concept for his new LP, Abandoned City. It’s a dramatic collection of tracks inspired by and paying homage to the desolate metropolises and ghostly urban sprawl across the globe. The veteran art-music weaver has primarily utilised the splendour of the prepared piano, an instrument made famous by John Cage, to create some of the most chilling, bone-shiveringly beautiful compositions you’ll hear all year.
Last year, Volker Bertelmann (more commonly known as Hauschka) played a show at the Bristol Proms, a series of concerts designed to demonstrate to classical music audiences young and old that classical music was not dead, merely presented in the wrong way. With his prepared piano the only object on stage in The Bristol Old Vic, stuffed with toys and wires and other rattly paraphernalia, he showed that classical music audience that he wasn't really a classical music artist in the first place. Not that he should be, per se, but it's an example of the decidedly wobbly lines that Hauschka's music is still straddling, ten albums in.