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.