German pianist and composer Volker Bertelmann, better known as Hauschka, has won acclaim from many different quarters for his transpositions of the rhythms and structures of electronic music onto the prepared piano. We caught up with him after his concert with percussionist Kai Angermann at the Ambientfestival Zivilisation der Liebe in Cologne to talk about his approach, collaborations, and the meaning of pop.
Can you tell us a little about where the idea of the prepared piano comes from, and why you decided to explore this approach to the instrument?
I was not aware of the tradition of prepared piano – I didn’t know about John Cage at that time when I started. I was coming a from a background of electronic and experimental music, and so I tried to find a way of playing that kind of music with a piano. The only way I could work on that without a computer was by attaching things that make sound on top of the strings. That was the idea.
You mention John Cage – his influence seems to have really expanded over the last five years or so, with artists in a wide range of fields are responding to his work on chance, on prepared instruments, on silence. Why do you think this sudden surge in interest is happening now?
I would say, when he was alive and he was proposing these ideas, people thought that maybe he was a kind of weird guy. And when he was proposing them, maybe only a small number of people were really aware that these were quite revolutionary ideas, of using, whatever, sound elements or of taking every sound as music. I think in our day there is hardly no chance of avoiding that because… you know, we’ve heard pretty much everything, in terms of composition or of pop music, classical music and so on. And I think that once you’ve suddenly realised that the idea of prepared piano’s very simple, but it has a big effect, because it creates a lot of new sounds – it’s an endless sound machine – then, well, it’s fascinating. And it’s handmade, which I think is wonderful.
You have experimental and avant-garde influences, but your music reaches a wider audience, and your records are put out through a pop label (Fat Cat). What does ‘pop’ mean to you? And how do you understand the relationship in your music between the pop aesthetic and the more avant-garde one?
Well, in my work I would say the ‘pop’ part is the chords. And the avant-garde part is the noise. And I would say my music, it constantly changes [between the two], and sometimes it’s both. So I have a kind of chain on top of the strings, and it rattles, and at the same time I play chords. So in a way I have both parts. Pop music means for me straight melodies, hooks. Or proper chord structures, that gives you a kind of, I don’t know, maybe ‘indie-pop’ feeling, where you have like certain chords that are banging in eights.
When I listen to your music, I’m aware on a kind of intellectual level of these two streams, yet I don’t hear any contradiction or disjunction between the two – it’s completely seamless. But when you talk of chords and noise, that makes me think in terms of intelligibility and unintelligibility – you know, chords have a structure that everyone knows and can recognise straight away, and there are rules determining their construction, and so on. Whereas noise…
Well, it is random and destructive sometimes. It’s a little bit like: structure and destruction. These two things as well, at the same time.
Your third album “Foreign Landscapes” saw you working with the Magic*Magic Orchestra (the same group that recorded Christina Vantzou’s acclaimed “No.1”). How did the shift from composing for a single instrument to dealing with a 12-piece ensemble change your thinking and working processes? Has it affected the way in which you approach your own instrument?
Well, the fun thing about it is that you have to concentrate, because once you establish a composition it is repeated a lot of times. It’s written on paper and people can take it. While the improvisation is mostly recorded, and it can’t be repeated. I think it needs a lot of pre-thinking and a lot of preparation to create a kind of score or a kind of arrangement for twelve instruments, and to keep the emphasis or the dynamics, for the whole time, up on the same level – even when you drop down. And that’s very difficult. I learn. I mean for me, “Foreign Landscapes” was the first piece that I wrote for a bigger ensemble, and it was a fantastic chance to do that. But I think it was for me a start.
Has it affected the way you approach your own instrument?
I would say it’s the other way round. I would say a lot of times what I play – the approach of my own instrument – is reflected in the other instruments.
You recently released an album in collaboration with Hildur Guðnadóttir, and I loved the approach you took in matching the colours of the ocean to Pantone numbers and using those tones as a starting point for making music. Do you think the way in which music can evoke a sense of a particular place works in the same way as a landscape painting or photograph might, or does it operate on a different level, one that is unique to music?
I think music evokes a lot of different associations – that can be colours, it can be painting, it can be writing. I get a lot of feedback from people, from other artists, who use my music for warm-up, for writing their score, for writing their stories, for doing all sorts of art. This is for me very inspiring – that I can help others to create their stuff.
Finally, what do you have in the pipeline for 2012?
There’s a remix album for my previous release, “Salon Des Amateurs”, coming up. Then I will go to Kenya in April to record a new Fat Cat album with African musicians. And also there will hopefully be a new collaboration release on Deutsche Grammophon with American violinist Hilary Hahn.
Thank you Hauschka!