Chosen One: Hauschka
Interview with Volker Bertelmann (Hauschka).
“I’m drifting big time—I’m drifting away a lot of times while I am performing.”
Words: Mark Carry
A wealth of magic emanates from the scintillating piano works of Germany’s Volker Bertelmann. Under the guise of Hauschka, the gifted composer has carved out a string of phenomenal neo-classical masterpieces from spontaneous improvisations (‘The Prepared Piano’); ‘Ferendorf’’s ode to his childhood home in Germany (which features intricate arrangements of strings and brass); the ‘acoustic techno’ of ‘Salon des Amateurs’ and ‘Silfra’’s gorgeous collaborative effort with violinist Hilary Hahn and 2014’s career milestone of ‘Abandoned City’, revealing the artist’s crowning jewel thus far.
2015 saw more indispensable Hauschka-related releases – and a continuation of the ‘Abandoned City’ story – in the form of ‘A NDO C Y’ (featuring gorgeous outtakes from the ‘Abandoned City’ sessions and sublime remixes courtesy of Devendra Banhart and Eluvium) and the (vinyl-only) live record ‘2.11.14’ comprising of two exploratory 20-minute improvisations built on themes from ‘Abandoned City’. This captivating and otherworldly stream of consciousness emitted from Bertelmann’s singular creations (and particularly displayed on the revelatory experience of the aforementioned live record from the small Japanese village of Yufuin) brings to mind the collected writings of American composer Morton Feldman [‘Give My Regards to Eighth Street’]. A similar sentiment can be shared with Feldman’s description of Varese’s music and the 21st century modern composer:
“He alone has given us this elegance, this physical reality, this impression that the music is writing about mankind rather than being composed.”
Interview with Volker Bertelmann (Hauschka).
I absolutely love the two-track improvisation vinyl release you did more recently. I love the fact you can feel the remnants of ‘Abandoned City’ but you are going further and deeper where there is more freedom and space within the music.
Volker Bertelmann: I was trying to get things a little bit looser because while I was performing a lot of shows with the ‘Abandoned City’ album, I realized that I did not always want to repeat the same program. I was thinking rather of creating this atmosphere every time a little bit different and so I did and that in a way was quite a random coincidence. We were recording the concert; it was not planned at all so we were just pressing record on the mixing desk. Then we found out it sounded very nice and in a way it fits very nicely with the live record and the last vinyl ‘A NDO C Y’ where we had extra takes and we said we wanted to release them, and as well the remixes. I felt that it was quite a complete picture of a period that I was working in.
I love too how reading your liner notes it’s beautiful how it’s all this sense of happenstance and spontaneous—the place itself – Yufuin, Japan – sounds really lovely.
VB: In a way it’s a very nice fact that when your career is growing – mostly you grow and grow and grow and you go into bigger venues and then suddenly you’re at the biggest venues where you hardly have no time and a lot of things are going on auto-pilot. What I like about a lot of parts of my career is that I have things that are growing but at the same time I have the chance of working on projects that are quite low-scale, in terms of going into remote villages and playing there or I play in special, small places like in libraries or small Buddhist temples which I really like. It’s not straight away swamped by fans [laughs]. It’s very nice that I can go there and there is a delicate atmosphere but it’s not empty. In this quite remote village [Yufuin] there were quite a lot of people coming from other cities outside so it was a nice setting in this museum kind of building.
As you say Volker it was spontaneous but I wonder on some level was the music in some kind of way a result of your surroundings?
VB: Oh absolutely. Mostly, even when you prepare a set or when you have a steady program for every evening you are always influenced by your day. So you arrive at some point at the venue or at the place where you are staying or sometimes you are early so you can stay at the hotel or you can hang out. Sometimes you are pretty late so everything is in a kind of rush. And then you don’t know the circumstances of the venues—sometimes they are great and sometimes not so great. In a way, there are a lot of things that are piling up. And what is nice is actually it doesn’t matter how the day was, somehow the performance that you have is a mirror of your day and I think that is very lovely because for the people who are coming you present them what you are experiencing over the day that’s actually inside of your music. And maybe when you are improvising and you have an open concept of performance it’s much deeper in this concept rather than having this solid set-up where you know the light is switched on at this song—you have an automated drama in a concert [laughs]. In my case that’s a little bit more an influence of the day.
I suppose with the act of travel and seeing places there is a nice parallel where the music is accompanying that or vice versa?
VB: Yes, exactly. In a way I also like the idea that the music that I play is part of the day and not the only part of the day that is important. I think that when I am travelling somewhere of course I spend most of the time on the road or on the train: looking at things, I’m seeing things, laughing at people; there is a lot of interaction happening. Then in the evening –just this one-and-a-half hour – is this concentrated output that you have, maybe absorbing the day’s experience. But I think this one-and-a-half-hour period is important but it’s not the only thing that matters. All the rest in a way is on the same level.
On Part I of the improvised music contained on the live record ‘2.11.14’, there is a beautiful, gradual rise in the piece – a quite mournful piano line – which comes back again during the twenty-five minutes. You can hear elements of ‘Abandoned City’ but I love all the textures and detail that develops over time.
VB: That’s very interesting that you mention that because it’s in a way the purpose that when I find an area it feels right and I want to create something that is attached to the album and bring in a theme or an element of that and of course I am expanding that. I have a couple of recordings of concerts where I played for example ‘Craco’ which is actually the piece which is appearing on the live record in the area where you mention – there is the melody theme of ‘Craco’ which is coming in – and this melody sometimes I play this piece so slow—it’s like it’s stretched into a drone and you hear the melody very slowly. And I like that remix aspect that I’m remixing actually live – not with DJ tables – I’m bringing in elements but while I’m playing them I’m taking them apart using just sound snippets.
That’s another thing Volker, I can imagine the influence of electronic music is something you can really hear even though funnily enough most of the sounds are not of electronic origin whatsoever but you can hear that whole world of electronic and dance music in more recent Hauschka records.
VB: My purpose is to get away from the cheesy piano music and that was in a way the purpose in the beginning of my time when I started piano in the age of 9. But at 14 I was already in the area where I was much more attracted to bands and to music where you can have a lot more different sounds like I was working with synthesizers. At that time, I played of course a lot of piano but the piano is a very difficult instrument because there are so many clichés and when you start playing it and play a few chords, you already have an association with something that was already happening at some point. So it is very difficult to use the instrument in a way that it feels right and also sometimes that it feels edgy and maybe new. So I really tried in the last couple of albums, after going through albums that were very melancholic and melodic and beautiful. Even in the ‘Abandoned City’ record I had a small record that was called ‘I Close My Eyes’ that was completely piano pieces without any preparation and has very little, delicate piano pieces. But I wanted to get away from the normal use of the piano and how you normally approach piano for myself, just to be happy with the instrument and not like getting into an area where people are wanting me to play the romantic piano music they can dream [laughs]. But I think there is still an element of this dreaminess. I know that a lot of people who are coming to my shows and who are writing to me after the concerts, they say a lot of times that they totally lost time and drifted away from their everyday life and to get somewhere else. That for example is something that I really love but I also want to challenge myself and them as well in the way they get refreshed so that they don’t get every time the same kind of package.
Well I’m sure that must happen for you as well when you are playing especially as you say when some of these tracks are so long there must be a great sense of freedom when you are literally at your piano doing something spontaneous but it can last so long.
VB: Yeah absolutely, I mean that helps me. I’m drifting big time—I’m drifting away a lot of times while I am performing. That is for me a very nice working environment because I am always quite fresh and I’m uplifted every time I am performing and that helps me so much in a lot of ways because I can then decide every evening if I want to keep it short; every day you have a different mood and you can’t actually avoid that. And I don’t think that professionality and offering people in our day’s music has to be like in real time because you don’t get so much real time events anymore: a lot of things are planned and things are already predictable and people know already what’s coming up. So I think it’s very nice when they can participate on an evening where they maybe are surprised or touched or where they think I’ve never expected that this would happen, which doesn’t have to be the purpose every evening—I’m not in a circus you know [laughs]. But it’s much more the idea of bringing a real time life into the space where I am performing.
The surprising thing with ‘Abandoned City’ was how you had the music first and then you came across the whole concept of the photos of these abandoned cities and then putting that to music. I wonder even since performing the music live and all these exceptional releases, it must be giving you a new perspective when you are composing the music with these themes in your mind?
VB: That’s totally true. I think that sometimes it is of course very interesting to do things one-to-one: so if you want to write a love song—you write a love song and sing about love and people in the audience are hugging each other and they know this is the song they want to hear when they are in love. So that is all one-to-one but I think for me personally that doesn’t work. I feel love when I have the space for it so when I can actually decide if I want to be in love or not. It’s the same with music– if you give people the offer that they can come with you they don’t have to, they can stay somewhere else and just maybe slowly come with you or they leave because they are not with you or they come along with you. And it’s the same as with writing about abandoned places, I was thinking about the idea of abandoned places but not in the way that I was thinking that I have to go there by sitting in an abandoned place and play exactly the architecture of a place where I am sitting in. I like much more the idea of putting myself into the situation—my mind into the situation and imagining that I am in an abandoned place. I think that that is very nice because that creates a whole bigger part in your brain where you can actually stay for a long time.
I love how Side B of the ‘A NDO C Y’ record has those remixes from Devendra Banhart and Eluvium. It must be very special for you, the composer to hear someone’s remix or re-interpretation of your own work it must be very interesting to hear how something is interpreted?
VB: It’s always an awesome part of it actually. I have done that already a lot of times so to speak. The first remix CD that I have done was on my record ‘The Prepared Piano’, I was asking people to do vocal tracks of my versions so I ask singer-songwriters if they could work with the prepared piano pieces. Then I did another remix album to the ‘Salon Des Amateurs’ record where I gave away all the music and they could work on that. And to be quite honest what is very nice about this is it has different purposes: one the fact that your music suddenly appears as a sound source for other ideas so I like actually the levelling that I feel my idea that was maybe the biggest idea in the world for that moment where I created it is actually shrinking to a sound pool for someone else’s ideas. I like that because it put things into perspective and you don’t get too much attached to what you have done—you can pass it on and people can continue them. On the other side it also shows you a lot of different ways of working with your own music which helps me as well to find pleasure in other works. Everyone has their own way of dealing with rhythm and stuff like that and I am so excited about how people are working with that. And so these two remixes are in a way following a tradition that I want to continue forever because I think obviously that means sometimes that you have to find musicians that have the time to do something like that because a lot of times it is not very well paid—a lot of times it’s something that you do because you have a lot of spare time and you want to work with someone’s music. And I am doing the same– I am remixing stuff for many people.
When you are remixing other people’s work, it must be a very exciting process because it’s completely the other way around?
VB: Yes, absolutely, which is for me as well a very, very nice way of working like starting with my work, for example getting stuff from Devendra Banhart when I did a remix for him, it was so great because I could actually work on a vocal track and find ways of dealing with his music and that is so nice to get to work on something like that and I really love that.
I must ask about ‘The Boy’ soundtrack which has been another wonderful project of yours of recent times. In terms of the process, it must involve with dealing with much more specific detail?
VB: Mostly all of the musicians that I know that are in the field where I am existing like Jóhann Jóhannsson, Dustin O’ Halloran, Max Richter – all of these guys that I really like – they and I know each other very well and we meet each other every now and then. I think we all are working on a lot of different projects by working with soundtracks, working with dance pieces and doing all sorts of different work in collaboration. What is very nice about that is in a way the work is for everyone quite the same because you have to deal with the imagination of someone else and you have to find a way of giving him/her of not only being this service person you know because of course there is a service involved – somebody is doing a film and they want to have your music and he also has an imagination of where the music can fit – and in the ideal case someone says your music is actually my imagination so please go ahead and do what you like. In the case of ‘The Boy’, I felt Craig MacNeill, the director was so strongly convinced of my music and that he wanted to have me scoring the film that I was so happy about that and I was really thrilled by that. So I did a lot of work and I didn’t have to re-work too much because in a way it was all quite clear because he really likes what I am doing. And then we had a couple of music exchanges where he was saying “I think this could be a little bit thinner or it could have a little less of this bass” and then we were fine. I liked that a lot because it also gives me the perspective—the eyes of someone else looking onto my music which is awesome.
I remember the last time we spoke you mentioned about the MDR Symphonic Orchestra in Leipzig. I wonder how has that been going, it must have been another very interesting project?
VB: Now I am so happy that I have done it because I wrote so many pieces for the MDR and we had many premieres, all the things are recorded and now I am looking to maybe release it. I mean there is so much material and I gained so much experience with working with an orchestra and just continuing in all sorts of other ways—I am working with other classical ensembles, I try to find a way of expressing myself on that level as well, which is I think a big challenge. But I like it so much that this is possible and of course the music is completely different because the music is not working with electronic elements, it’s working with more classical instruments and I am trying to translate my music into a classical setting. I think I learned a lot and I was very happy for example that the last concert was filmed by The Boiler Room and it was being shown in the electronic music world and I liked that it was getting some really nice feedback.
What’s next for you, Volker? As you say there’s probably a few things on the go at the same time?
VB: I am working on a dance piece right now so I wrote the music for that which is also using somehow sound recordings from ‘The Boy’ because they were very fascinated by this dark inhaling sound on the score so I integrated some string players. I have two more films coming up, one is a Brazilian documentary and the other which is dealing with some refugee lives which is quite an actual theme at the moment but I think they were already creating one-and-a-half years ago. At the same time I am working on music for string players because next year  I have some premieres with a string quartet like commissioned work where I am writing a cello concert, things that are really challenging in a way but I am very happy that I maybe can have a year that I am only committing my work to writing music for others and just keeping my own music a little bit in the background, which always means that I am working and writing new material but I’m not forcing it to get the next album already going. But I have many, many things in my hands that I want to do so that’s what at the moment is in the air.
I wonder have you been listening to any records of late?
VB: I was listening to the record of Nicolas Jaar which I really like. Well I like his music a lot and I think he is one of the guys coming from the DJ world who are doing great music. Besides that, I am mainly listening to music from festivals because I was invited recently to play festivals and I stayed and listened to bands that I saw. I was really fascinated by the concert of the band Little Dragon, I really love them and they were awesome—it is wonderful music and I really like them. I have many, many unwrapped records where I have hardly no time to unwrap them and give them a listen because the records are coming in faster than I can absorb.
Lastly Volker, I wonder were there defining records for you when you were younger – before you ever started your solo music path – that really blew you away that you think were huge for you when you were younger?
VB: When I was younger I was in a completely different zone. First there was a lot of synthesizer music at that time when I was fourteen—I was listening to The Alan Parsons Project and all this music that was full of synthesizers, I was interested in Kraftwerk and music that was really pure. In a way, also electronic music at that time but at the same time when I was getting into my first band I was into hip hop music, I was very inspired by music that was – you the whole crossover of music at that time like Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Nirvana and all these bands for me were a very heavy influence. I was really listening to that music a lot and I felt it was very new music for me because it was combining very groovy, solid rhythm section with an interesting way of rapping and singing as well and I liked that a lot. At the same time, I was listening to bands like Arrested Development or Public Enemy, Cypress Hill, a lot of hip hop. And then this disappeared in a way because I was done with music that had form and hip potential and then I went into abstract electronic music, I was a big fan of Oval and Mouse On Mars. Mouse On Mars were actually a band from Dusseldorf so I was going to their studio every now and then and I was feeling attracted to what they were doing. So that helped me as well to be around them or to be in the area, it helped me to get closer to what I wanted and so in a way this was music that was influencing me a lot and then I slowly got into my solo music.
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