Hauschka: prepared piano and ping pong balls


It’s barely ten minutes into his concert at St Michael’s at the Northgate when the sound of the grand piano gives way to be replaced by a bouncing noise – a ping pong ball. The pianist turns from the pulpit: “Sorry guys, I’m going to need that one. Anyone seen it?”

The star of this masterpiece of incongruity is Hauschka, alias of ‘prepared pianist’ Volker Bertelmann. Prepared piano was pioneered in the late 1940s by American composer, philosopher and mushroom-collector John Cage, someone who influenced Bertelmann greatly. He explains it as “using materials that are taped on the strings or material that you find somewhere and put on or inside the piano, then using these materials on top of the piano sound itself.”

The sound this produces is what he describes as “a band in a box”; shut your eyes at his performance and you could be forgiven for thinking that the noise from the bottle-top coated piano strings is in fact coming from a drummer. The songwriting process for his latest album Foreign Landscapes began with twenty to thirty ‘sketches’ of piano tracks which he would pull off his hard drive and embellish with orchestral accompaniments, electronic ‘overdubs’ and, in some cases, gaffa tape.

“I would say that I’m trying to expand and use as much sound as I can get out of piano, but I’m still at the beginning. It’s like in engineering: you start first with the engine, you build machines around it and then you have…I don’t know…a spaceship?”

Bertelmann comes from a small German village from which he “escaped’” aged 20 to study medicine. He explains the lack of inspiration he felt for his studies as being a result of his obsession with music and the reality that his fellow students all wished to pursue “the wealth of a career in gynaecology.” Hauschka was initially a side project;. Bertelmann played in bands and as a classical pianist before the success of his experimental alias took off. “The success of Hauschka was never my main objective. I think this is interesting – perhaps in the end it is the non-attached things that are most successful? Success found me in what I am happiest doing, before even I knew what that was.”

He seems eager to discuss the influences behind his work; a constant theme that emerges is his desire to represent places of personal importance to him. His 2008 album Ferndorf is named after his home-town; he describes it is an introspective, exploratory look back at his childhood. His latest album is inspired by “foreign landscapes” he has encountered on tour. So will he be writing an album about tonight’s gig in a church off Cornmarket?

“Oxford is beautiful, but a little traditional…No piano hire companies have ever had a problem with what I do until here…I had to convince him that I am not in the business of destroying pianos.”

In April Hauschka will release a techno record with three drummers, one being Modest Mouse’s Jeremiah Green. He has plans to produce a record with a classical violinist, as well as having offers to write film soundtracks (one of which he began in his hotel room earlier). However, as in his music, it seems that it is when he is amongst the unplanned that Bertelmann is in his element: “Once I wrote for a string quintet on the way to New York and then performed it when I arrived. I mean, that was nice. That was very nice indeed.”

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