Fri, Oct 17, 2014 - Page 11 News List

Live Wire: en garde

By Joe Henley  /  Contributing reporter

German experimental composer and pianist Hauschka has transformed the piano, in the literal sense, into an instrument all his own.

Photo Courtesy of Mareike Foecking.

In exploring the musical juxtaposition of the polar elements melancholy and joy, you trace it back to its Slavic roots and come up with names like Shostakovitch, Salmanov, Garayev and others who expanded upon it in contemporary times. Describing the process of becoming acquainted with the latter, Azerbaijani painter Tahir Sahalov said, “This is the only way to get deep inside an artist — through music. Everything trivial and insignificant — the things one pays attention to during mundane, everyday meetings — disappears. Only the essence of a man is left.”

On the latest album of German pianist and composer Volker Bertelmann, a.k.a. Hauschka, entitled Abandoned City, we bear sonic witness to a continuation of that tradition in terms of exploring the joy in sadness and vice versa, and in regard to doing what music should do, cut down to the marrow of a person and reveal exactly who and what they are.

The album is another in the long and varied career of Bertelmann, who began his musical explorations with classical training on the piano at a young age and later moved on to performing in hip hop act God’s Favorite Dog and the drum and bass band Nonex. A return to performing with the piano, which by that point had been relegated to the status of composition tool rather than an instrument employed in the live setting, would come later. By the time Bertelmann was 18 he had already composed his first film score and would later sign a deal with Sony Music, every bit the archetypal wunderkind.

Beginning in the mid-nineties, the ensuing years were passed in collaborations running the gamut from post-rock to electronica. In a way, his career has always been about looking for that essence Sahalov described. Within that search, though, lies many a pitfall. By the late nineties Bertelmann found himself unceremoniously dropped from the Sony label. Suddenly the terrible freedom loomed before him. In this moment, the man Volker Bertelmann stripped away all the excess of his prior work, and the minimalist piano-bound artist Hauschka emerged. In a way, getting his walking papers from Sony was the best thing that could have happened.

“That was resulting in a decision where I said I will only do my own music without form,” says Bertelmann over the phone from the Alps just prior to an early October performance there. “There is no time restriction, no hits.”

Freed from convention

In 2004, Bertelmann debuted his “music without form” on his first solo release, Substantial, an album that saw him delve into the world of free expression pioneered by the likes of John Cage and the post-war avant-garde movement. No longer bound by conventionality, he continually sought means of expanding the limits of the piano by tampering with it — placing different materials between the strings, wrapping tinfoil around the the hammers, placing objects on the strings or joining them together with tape. Suddenly, with the veil of popular form and function removed, there were only new and intriguing possibilities.

“I think, in a way, this transformation happened when I was moving from electronic to piano music,” says Bertelmann of his initial forays into his own unique sound. “I wanted to use electronic sounds on my piano tracks, which meant either I’m using a laptop or I’m trying to find another way to produce electronic sounds inside of a piano. I decided to get rid of the laptop idea and try to find a way of creating electronic sounds on the strings.”

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