The canon which runs from antiquity via Palestrina and Bach and through to Schoenberg via Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven is truly a wonderful tradition full of beautiful music. But who needs it any more? And when did people begin sitting down to listen to music instead of dancing and singing along? Compared to the joys of group improvisation, this great European tradition seems like so much hierarchical social nonsense studded with genius. ~Rod Paton
Replicating Electronic Experimentation on an Acoustic Instrument
I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones. ~John Cage
Ideas are one thing and what happens is another. ~John Cage
Hauschka is the alias of German pianist and composer Volker Bertelmann. Classically trained from childhood, he’s always used his percussive piano skills to play whatever genre happened to appeal to him. Hauschka worked with pop bands, notably hip-hop group God’s Favourite Dog, before launching a solo career in which he explored the possibilities of experimental music, altering his piano to acoustically replicate the sounds of other instruments.
He granted this interview to Wanda Waterman shortly after having recorded an album of improvised music, Silfra, in collaboration with famed American violinist Hilary Hahn.
Give Me a Bottle Cap A
Working with Hilary Hahn was quite a change from the pop bands he’d once played with, and tuning up her violin to a prepared piano was, well, interesting.
“A funny thing . . . always happened when we were on tour,” Hauschka says. “When we would go out on stage for sound check, Hilary had to tune her violin to an A on the piano and I always had some bottle caps on the A. So she would say, ‘Can I have some kind of an A?’ And then we had to laugh about it because it seemed so right.”
So what, besides bottle caps, does Hauschka jam into the strings of his grand piano?
“I use all sorts of bottle caps, light filters, and papers on my piano strings for high-hat and tambourine sounds. To create bass sounds I use a lot of the kind of felt mutes that piano tuners use.”
Hauschka adopted the practice of prepared piano not out of adulation for its originator, John Cage (about whom he actually knew little), but after his own discovery that inserting objects between and around the piano strings could help replicate the sounds of many other instruments in a way similar to an electronic synthesizer.
“I actually was more interested in modern pop and electronic music, but did not want to leave the piano as an instrument behind,” Hauschka says. “Somehow I couldn’t accept that to do modern music I would have to choose amplified electronic instruments like keyboards. So I tried to work on sounds on the piano that sounded like electronic music.”
“I grew up in a very small village in Germany called Ferndorf. It was a pleasure to be there, at least until I became interested in things in the outside world, like rock bands and travelling. The only thing you could do in a small village with no good clubs was to make your own music, and so at the age of 12 I rented my own rehearsal room. Me and my friends hung out there until I was 18.”
Memorable Musical Encounters
“One of my most mesmerizing moments was listening to Different Trains by Steve Reich while I visited a lecture of Alvin Lucier at Wesleyan University. I had a concert there and the next day I sat in on this course because a friend had told me to check it out. Alvin Lucier was talking about the music of John Cage, Meredith Monk, and Steve Reich, and it was the most wonderful experience . . . music that felt very close, but it was already written way back in time, when I was starting with piano lessons.”
The Care and Handling of Improvisatory Skill
Hauschka has always improvised. However, he adds, “The Silfra album was the first time I made a complete improvised record with someone else.”
Such a demanding artistic practice, one requiring long-term training and preparation—as well as the time and space to enter an almost altered consciousness during performances—would be impossible without the right conditions. So does Hauschka depend on chance or strategy for his musical performances? He answers with alacrity, “I use both!”
It’s doubtful, for example, whether Hauschka could have developed his prepared piano technique had he not, from an early age, had the leisure to hang out and experiment to his heart’s content. These days he’s always busy, but luckily he still has what he needs to go on with his many creative pursuits.
“I need a quiet room and no disturbances,” he says. “I like the most when my family and my fiancée are around. We all eat together and I like to have a certain rhythm that brings stability and freedom into my life.
“To improvise well, you need a place where you feel secure, and people around you that you can trust in terms of their opinions of your performance. It’s also important for me to have daylight rooms and not too busy places. I need a good grand piano with a great sound.”
Working on Silfra . . .
Silfra (aptly named for the geographic location in Iceland where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet) was recorded at Valgeir Sigurðsson’s Iceland studio in Reykjavik. Regarding Hahn, Hauschka says, “Hilary is a great colleague and wonderful musician. It was great that I had the chance to record with her in a great place in Iceland, but also that we could meet for two years to try things out. There was no pressure to actually release anything. Things unfolded step by step, and I liked that a lot.”
. . . and then Touring It
How do you tour an improvised album? The studio recordings can’t exactly be copied, and to try to do so would go against the spirit of the original tracks. As Hauschka explains, on tour he and Hahn are “only playing with themes from Silfra—the rest is completely new.” This makes each concert an event that can’t be repeated.
“Hilary and I decided to put the main focus on the atmosphere in which we created the record rather then performing the pieces one after each other,” he says. “It’s a risk, but we can grow with it; we can learn even better how to create on the spot.”
In addition to collaborating with many musicians and composers worldwide, Hauschka recently completed the score for the feature-length documentary Exodus— Where I Come From is Disappearing, directed by Hank Levine and due to be released this spring. The film examines the human face of the growing refugee crisis.
He also wrote the score for Sönke Wortmann’s Made by Germany, a film inspired by Ridley Scott’s Life in a Day.