Insofar as the oft-daunting world of “post-classical” music is concerned, it’s not unreasonable to claim few contemporary solo artists possess an improvisational or compositional knack as downright resourceful or inspired as Hauschka, the alias of Düsseldorf-based musician Volker Bertelmann.
Having released a steady stream of increasingly ingenuous “prepared piano” records over the last few years, last May he delivered Silfra, an entirely improvised, altogether inspired collaborative effort with American violinist Hilary Hahn. Ahead of his imminent London performance on 15 March at the Bishopsgate Institute, we learn how the forty-seven year old went about breaking yet more ground on his latest release.
Prior to embarking on his latest exploration, quite a few people were already of the opinion that Hauschka effortlessly commanded a defiantly singular approach, one altogether unrestrained by self-enforced limitations or prospective self-doubt. His grasp of improvisational fluctuations in solo performance equally exuded an air of the academic and the frivolous; a deep-rooted mischievousness underpinned by an utterly fascinating flair in the ever-broadened realms of the John Cage-coined act of ‘prepared piano’, i.e. altering the tonality and timbre of solo piano performance by placing objects (otherwise known as “preparations”) between or on top of the piano’s strings, dampers or hammers, thereby yielding endless permutations of sound.
How did originally teaming up with Hahn, an established concert violinist otherwise schooled in Bach and Tchaikovsky, come about? “Hilary and I met the first time in Dusseldorf after one of her concerts,” recalls Bertelmann. “We got introduced by Tom Brosseau and it was the first time that I heard a concert of hers. Then we played on the same show in San Francisco, a show also featuring Brosseau. Hilary and I decided that she could improvise with the string quartet and I at the end of the performance and it proved to be a lot of fun. Then we decided to move onwards and meet frequently to rehearse and find out what kind of music we could do together. After two years we decided to do our recordings [for Silfra] in Iceland.”
Seeking out the multi-talented Valgeir Sigurðsson – an accomplished musician in his own right and producer of the likes of Björk – Bertlemann and Hahn set about excavating what would eventually result in twelve tracks of instinctive musicality gushing urgency, playfulness and charming intelligence. “It was a lot of fun,” recalls Bertlemann. “Valgeir is a very laid back person and it was a pleasure to discuss things with him. He also added some electronic sounds to it, which was great.” This allowance for Sigurðsson himself to contribute to the project’s overall presence and “scope” reflects, just as much as anything else, the wonderfully open-ended nature of the project in itself.
Straddling the flux and form of the avant-garde and electronic music, Bertelmann’s forays into the limits of prepared piano down the years have lead to some hugely entertaining results. Even in terms of titular classification of its varying, dozen pieces, Silfra was no exception: “During the recording process we already started making long lists of words, names and phrases that came in our mind as titles,” reveals Bertelmann. “It was like a game to find out the strongest words and pair them with the strongest compositions. We had a lot of fun doing this.” Indeed, rather than bestowing upon his works an almost half-expected air of intellect, it would seem that “fun” is very much irremovable from how Bertelmann’s seeks to express himself musically.
For a record so cunningly accomplished – from the initial ruptures of ‘Stillness’ to the concluding grandiosity of ‘Rift’ – one wonders to what extent premeditation or discussion played a part in the record’s making. “We mainly discussed feelings and tempos we want to start with and also remembered references from our rehearsals,” says Bertelmann. “The discussion process started after we recorded many improvised pieces as we had to decide which are the strongest pieces. “The only pre-conceived idea was the piece ‘Krakow’, where the piano recording is from the very first session Hilary and me did at my house. We used the piano part and Hilary recorded a new violin part to it.” And what about experimenting with new objects/techniques during the recording? “I actually mainly used the objects that I often use but I prepared parts of the piano more specifically,” Bertelmann says, obliquely.
One of the most alluring aspects of Hauschka’s indomitable approach is how images and themes sprout excitedly and multifariously from his kaleidoscopic deluges of sound. Does he consciously aim to convey certain images and ideas in his music? “Well, if you think consciously that there is first the image and then the music, then I have to say no,” reveals Bertelmann. “I always have images while I am doing music and sometimes I am inspired by an image or a film another piece of art. It is wonderful if the inspiration works in both directions.” Equally informed by and lending to an ever-changing spectrum of creation – sonic or otherwise – Hauschka works both ways.
A title derived from the scenic Icelandic terrain near Reykjavik where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates almost meet, permitting scuba divers to effectively swim between continents, Silfra is, like many of Hauschka’s works, reflective of travelling and the mere idea of “other places that’s not here” existing. “Travelling changes the personality and that changes the output,” Bertlemann says. “It affects my whole life and therefore songwriting is changing as well. It’s great to see so many diverse things but it also creates a much better understanding of yourself which leads to greater self-confidence.”
That self-confidence has manifested itself over several solo albums and collaborations. Having first started to learn piano after attending a Chopin performance as a nine-year old, Bertelmann soon found himself breaking away from expectation to pursue his more experimental side – “I think I discovered that exploring is in my nature as I was attracted by new things or by trying things out”. Does he perceive general limits when it comes to playing prepared piano, or is there a completely unlimited palette for one to create interesting, ambitious music? “It is an unlimited space of sound and it is great to explore this. I think the only limit is, as usual, myself. Sometimes you get into a situation that you feel you explored already. However, that is never the case. I am glad that I found the opportunity to work with the preparations.”
As much seen in Silfra as any of his previous releases, Bertelmann conveys very fundamental yet deeply complex human emotions in his music, obviously investing a lot of emotion and private feeling in sound. “I think that is something I can’t leave out of my music,” he claims. “It seems that I wrote music like others write stories about themselves. Or if you write a book, there are a lot of self-reflecting moments in the stories. I think it is much more authentic when your art is connected with your personality, for even extreme abstract music can be strongly connected with yourself and tells, maybe, a story where you are at that moment or something about your purpose. That said, I would never consider myself to be a fundamentalist besides maybe a fundamental pacifist. I love to be a part of a modern movement and I hope that I can keep myself always interested and forcing myself to explore.”
Over the last decade or so, Bertelmann has always seemed charged with an urge to break new ground rather than perhaps break down barriers. Is he consciously attracted to imparting an ultimately human voice amidst all the improvisation, randominity and progressive classicism in his solo work and collaborations? “I am attracted to interesting things and influences that are opening my mind,” he says. “As everyone has his own knowledge and limits, I am trying to push myself beyond those limits and that makes me move onwards. The things you mentioned don’t seem to me not worth following.” Surely, what more apt way to clarify such than with a double negative?
Whichever genre in which you wish to place him, or the likes of him (“I consider myself a contemporary experimental musician – post-classical music is the wrong term”), what does the future hold for Hauschka in terms of touring, recording and collaborating? “I will do some more touring with Hilary and I will play some more concerts based on my album Salon des Amateurs with Samuli Kosminen from múm,” reveals Bertelmann. “I also did some new recordings in Kenya with local musicians and I will record some composed music with a chamber ensemble. There is so much I want to do!” Clearly, ever so infectiously propelled by a restlessness matched only by his scrupulous innovation, whatever the long-term future holds for Hauschka, one can’t help but expect the totally unexpected. And for that, we should be very grateful.
Silfra is available now through Decca and Hauschka has just released a remix version of his album Salon Des Amateurs through Fat Cat. Catch Hauschka live with Hilary Hahn at London’s Bishopsgate Institute on 15 March - tickets and more information are available here.