Hauschka, aka Volker Bertelmann, is best known for his constantly intriguing works with piano. Over eight albums he has restlessly prepared and manipulated the instrument, extracting from it an orchestra of sounds which range from subtle beauty to pounding intensity. His albums and live shows conjure something truly unique, blurring the lines between engineer, performance artist and piano virtuoso.
The Dusseldorf pianist is relentless. Since 2014’s ‘Abandoned City‘ he’s toured the world, contributed to dance performances, and alongside Dustin O’Halloran created a Golden Globe and BAFTA nominated soundtrack for the movie ‘Lion’. The 31st March 2017 marked the release of Hauschka’s eighth and latest album, ‘What If‘. The record sees Bertelmann breaking new ground once more, mixing abstract electronics with pianos both human and machine played to push the limits of modern composition. Driven by a questioning of our world and our future, ‘What If‘ is challenging, epic and liberating all at once, the most ambitious Hauschka record to date.
To celebrate the release of ‘What If‘ Hauschka answered some questions about the making of the record and the need to push boundaries, as well as sharing an exclusive mix which gives an insight into its creator’s distinct relationship with music.
Interview by Daryl Worthington Photography by Nina Ditscheid and Mareike Foecking
"I can’t really say that I am a fan of one specific music style… I collect things that intuitively cause a reaction in me."
Hi, thanks for the mix, can you tell us a little about how and when it was recorded? Any particular mood you were aiming for?
I recorded the mix on the day I sent it to you… It’s a mixture of bands or solo musicians I know, composers that are not alive and bands that I really like. It has a variety of spoken word, dance tracks and classical music. I like to switch between the genres.
The mix is one of the most diverse we have received as of late. Can you tell us a little about what inspired your track selection?
I can’t really say that I am a fan of one specific music style… I collect things that intuitively cause a reaction in me. It might be a techno track by Michael Mayer (partly also because I know him and we had some conversations about collaborations), or a hip-hop track by Timbaland. Maybe all the musicians and bands do have something in common: they are explorers in sound and expression.
Your studio albums (as Hauschka) avoid vocals, yet the mix seems to really engage with different uses of ‘the voice’, from Timbaland and Magoo to Henryk Gorecki choral pieces to Cage’s spoken introduction to 45′. What inspired this exploration of the range of the voice?
I’ve always been attracted to songs and choir music, I even wrote a piece for a choir not long ago called Cascades. I think the voice is one of the most genuine forms of expression humans have. It is so direct but at the same time, like the piano, it is full of cliches and you very quickly fall into a certain style. I find it interesting when people explore their individuality and express poetry while making music.
The John Cage selection is really interesting. You’ve said before you were unaware of his work when you started your prepared piano explorations, and sonically your music is massively distinct from Cage’s. Now, how do you see John Cage in relation to your work?
I think there are similarities in my understanding of humour and the way he plays with sound and rhythm. I like his directness in not avoiding conflict. I think Cage, along with Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys and Alvin Lucier, is among the most interesting conceptual artists because he combined art forms and never made a big deal out of it. I have a friend who has a wonderful pencil drawing by John Cage and it looks exactly like his music, a clear setting with a lot of space, but without being unconscious.
"I find it interesting when people explore their individuality and express poetry while making music."
‘What If’ came out recently, what are the connections between the album and this mix?
Like the mix, ‘What If’ is connected to sound exploration and playing with moods. I think it travels through landscapes and stories in a way, but it also reflects on the listener themselves. Of course, I can only say how the music affects me.
I don’t like to tell everyone how to interpret my music. Maybe we should let the listener decide what is common between my record and the mix. It would be great if they could write some comments on what they think.
Right away, the most striking thing about ‘What If’ is the use of electronics. These new textures really make the record stand out in your catalogue. What led you in that direction?
I’ve always used electronics but when I started to work with prepared piano I wanted to avoid involving too many things before I’d explored all the options with the piano. After eight albums I am getting deeper and deeper into my roots, which are hip-hop , R&B and electronic abstract music. I would love to incorporate that more and more without losing my main instrument.
You used contemporary player pianos in the creation of this record. Could you tell us a little more about how you used them, and any particular problems or possibilities they presented?
Oh I’ve now done three concerts with player pianos. It started with Henrik Schwartz , who I performed with while he played a player piano with an iPad. I use 2 player pianos like a band, or lets say an analogue sequencer that is also an acoustic instrument, so I can play a non-amplified concert with the pianos and it sounds very nice and clear. The amazing thing about the player pianos is that they can play faster and press more keys at the same time than a human. I can program very precise pieces and use them for the live shows as well.
‘Salon Des Amateurs’ and ‘Abandoned City’ were both firmly based around rhythm, often translating dance music ideas to piano. That doesn’t seem the case with ‘What If’. What was the concept and process behind the tracks’ creation?
‘What If’ is, in a way, a reflection of the way I’ve played concerts in the last two years. I recreated the same set up in a studio and recorded everything on the spot. I don’t think the music is trying to create a style like dance music with an acoustic instrument though, which would be attractive but at the same time a little bit lame. I think with ‘What If’ I was much more loose and created what I felt was good for the record.
"For me pop music is too disconnected from real life and my purpose for why I feel I am on earth."
Through using electronic and noise elements, ‘What If’ has a very alien, sci-fi feel to it. How much were you aiming for this surreal, almost dehumanised effect?
I felt somehow that we need a stronger statement in our times, in expression through my art but also in expression of political opinions. I think this is important in times where reporters get arrested because they tell the truth, and where it seems like people want to suppress the freedom of thoughts. I think music should be entertaining and create a kind of drifting into a different world but I don’t do that anymore with easy pop music. For me pop music is too disconnected from real life and my purpose for why I feel I am on earth.
The layering of sounds in the tracks gives them a rich symphonic depth, yet there’s also a feeling of chaos like they’re on the precipice of collapsing at any moment. In what ways is that connected to the topics and themes (eg climate change, utopia) suggested by the tracks’ titles?
I think for tension you need order and disorder. You need melancholy, which reflects sadness about the limit of a lifetime and the joy of life and the wish to live forever, or to live every moment intensively. The track titles in a way try to reflect topics that I am dealing with, thoughts that I have concerning the world in 30 or 50 years which I might not experience but my kids will. I ask myself what can I do to give them a good perspective.
On the record I wanted to create an awareness for those questions by working with hypotheses. If you put the album title in front of every track title they become ‘what if’ questions, but if you leave out the ‘what if’ they become facts. I think playing with the idea that a few words can change everything makes me feel even more that we have a lot to do. We should start now for the sake of the next generation and not care what leaders who maybe only have 20 years left on earth want to tell us.
You are involved in a lot of very well received soundtrack work. How is the process of creating a ‘Hauschka’ album different to a movie soundtrack? Have the lessons you’ve learnt making soundtracks fed back into your studio album?
I have to say every collaboration helps me and my solo work grow. They have different qualities but all the qualities together can give you a better overview of what you want to do and how to do it. Film work is for me a big collaboration that is sometimes very hard to get straight because too many people want to put their opinion into the process. At the same time you learn from that to understand where people are coming from and how they try to express what they like. I think it helps to get a different perspective on your own point of view.
"I think there are different levels of deepness and some music in that genre is just re-using the elements that are already working to create emotions, and if that is paired up with a very slow pace and mood it gets a little bit boring."
There’s a lot of interest in what’s been labelled a ‘new classical’ movement at the moment, fuelled by people like Johann Johannsson and Max Richter taking on high profile soundtrack work. Do you feel a particular connection between those artists and your work? Do you think it’s wrong to try and label it as a movement at all?
Well the movement’s already been labeled and I understand where it is coming from, but at the same time there are extreme differences between the musicians in that genre. I think the so-called New Classical genre is full of new, upcoming musicians that play piano and add a layer of synth drones underneath it. That’s great for one record, but then I think it would be great to hear more because for me an artist gets interesting when I can sense development and risk.
I think there are different levels of deepness and some music in that genre is just re-using the elements that are already working to create emotions, and if that is paired up with a very slow pace and mood it gets a little bit boring.
So I am attracted to composers whose work has some edge and tension. Max and Johann are two great composers where film music plays a big role but who also do their well thought out solo albums where they appear to me as explorers. That is a completely different approach to being stuck on the romantic piano playlist.
1. Wunder – Look Out For Yourself
2. Michael Mayer & Roman Flügel – We Like To Party
3. James Blake feat.Vince Staples – Timeless
4. Sir Was – In the Midst
5. The xx – Dangerous
6. Górecki: Pieśni Maryjne, Op.54 – 2. Matko Najświętsza!
7. Timberland and Magoo – Clock Strikes
8. Arnold Schoenberg – Etwas rasch, Op. 19
9. Johann Johannsson – A Song For Europa
10. Ane Brun – Daring To Love
11. Noga Erez – Pity
12. John Cage – Introduction to 45′ for a Speaker
13. Trim Stretch
14. Schoenberg Verklärte Nacht Op4 I Grave (Berliner Philharmoniker&Herbert v Karajan)
15. Dustin O’Halloran – We Move Lightly
16. Mouse on Mars & Siriusmo – Immer Kurz Davor
Discover more about Hauschka on Inverted Audio.Hauschka130701City SlangClassicalNeo-Classical