Posted on Dec 6th 2010 11:34 pm

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Using a prepared piano as his instrument of choice, Düsseldorf-based musician and composer Volker Bertelmann, AKA Hauschka, has developed a very personal style since his first release back in 2004. With his latest album, he teamed up with the Magik*Magik Orchestra in San Francisco and explored the orchestral side of his work in depth for the first time. To coincide with the release of the album, Hauschka embarked on a tour which saw him joined by different formations according to the country he was playing. We took the opportunity to catch up with the man following his UK to talk about his new album, the techno project he is about to unleash, the joys and problems of playing with different orchestras, the unpredictability of playing a piano loaded with ping pong balls and having other artists adding vocals to his music.

You were classically trained I believe. How did you come to play the piano? Where you inspired by any particular musician or composer as a child?
I was nine years old  when I  listened to an older man playing piano in our Christian community house playing Chopin pieces. I was so inspired by him that I asked my mother if I could have lessons with him.
We had no piano and my mum was concerned that we couldn’t afford the piano lessons. A few weeks later my great aunt was giving us an old piano as a gift, so I started to have lessons with this piano player, and did for about seven years.

I think one of my favorite composers from that time until today is Chopin.

Although it seems the idea of using props in an instrument has been around for some time, the process was in part pioneered by John Cage, but who inspired you to work with prepared pianos?
I actually inspired myself as I somehow invented the idea for my own purpose as I was looking for the option to play electronic music with an acoustic instrument. It started with Christmas cake wrap paper in the Brecon Beacons in Wales. Now of course I find more and more people who work with prepared piano but I don’t want to put this idea so much in the foreground. It is a wonderful sound source and a great tool but the music has to be composed like with a normal piano.

You recorded Foreign Landscapes with the Magik*Magik Orchestra in San Francisco. It was the first time you recorded with such a formation. How did you prepare for it, and how did recording the album with them compare to previous albums?
I had to compose the pieces beforehand and I had to find a direction without playing. If you improvise the music starts intuitively and writing for an ensemble means to write arrangements and work more conceptually. I did write all the arrangements in about a month time and we recorded the whole album in three days. With earlier albums I recorded a lot of tracks upfront and then I shaped the piece afterwards and that was more or less the composing process. Both ways have advantages and drawbacks but I would like to combine them in the future. With the Magik*Magik Orchestra, it was a wonderful chance to transfer my way of working like an indie musician to a classical ensemble as they were very comfortable to play with me.

Was working with such a formation something you had wanted to do for a while? How do you think this complements your music?
It was always a wish to work with a classical ensemble but also a longing to go into waters where I felt insecure and develop ideas to get more knowledge in writing and getting an awareness of how my sound can be transformed with a group where I am not playing the instrument.

You are currently touring and performing with different formations. How do you find this? Isn’t it a bit daunting to leave so much of the performance in the hands of a formation you barely have had a chance to rehearse with?
I think the interesting part is the challenge and the time that is possible. Normally it is only places with big budgets who can provide enough resources to do proper rehearsals and have great players who get very well paid. In my case I rather had to find opportunities to work with bigger ensembles with the budget of an independent. The nice thing about it is the risk and also the pleasure that you can see people are having when they perform the pieces. This is absolutely encouraging!!!!

During your recent date at Bush Hall in London, you talked about a techno album that you were recording pretty much at the same time as Foreign Landscapes, and which you were originally planning to release first. The album is now scheduled to be released next year. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
I actually had the idea of using the prepared piano in all sorts of way, so that I don’t get stuck. The idea of the prepared piano is very strong and could cover everything else, so my idea was to move in different directions with the instrument without loosing my identity. One idea was to disappear as a performer and let an ensemble play my compositions and the other idea is to allow myself to go in all the stylistic fields I was growing up with and don’t detach myself from my roots.

The album will be called Salon Des Amateurs and it will have ten songs. I collaborated with Joey Burns and John Convertino from Calexico on three songs and with Samuli Kosminen, the drummer from Múm on five. It is more upbeat then all my other records together.

Watching you prepare the piano before the Bush Hall set was very interesting. Do you always use the same props or do you experiment with new ones all the time?
I use new ones but I also have standard settings that I can fire off whenever I have the impression this piano needs this way of preparation. I also try to use certain keys in the same way, so duck tape will always be on C3.

What makes a good prop for you?
It has to be light and move spontaneously and at the same time it should add a lot to the sound of the piano. For example, aluminum packages of tealights work perfectly.

I seem to remember reading somewhere that it used to take you a long time to get the piano ready before a performance, but that you can now do it much quicker, and it was certainly very quick at Bush Hall. What does it take to prepare a piano? Is it something that requires as much precision as tuning it?
No not at all, and I don’t know where the rumour comes from that I need two hours, but it is always nice to have enough time to try things out as every instrument is different and every room resonates differently.

In the same way as you can’t take a whole orchestra on tour with you, you can’t actually take your own piano, so you have to rely on whatever piano is available at the venues you perform. I’ve often heard pianists commenting on how good or bad a particular piano was. Does this add an element of unpredictability in the way you use your instrument? Does it require a particular type of piano?
I have to say yes , there are wonderful instruments around that don’t need much work and they sound already wonderful, others need some love and some treatment. I am asking for a certain height for upright pianos, as I can prepare those better, or I need a grand piano.

As with the ensembles, in the end it is a risk and a surprise at the same time and ninety-eight percent so far ended up being positive. The other two percent were lessons on how I can ensure that it does not end in disaster.

At the end of your current set, you empty a whole bag of ping pong balls into the body of the piano, which results in quite a chaotic end of show. Does it actually make playing tricky to have all these bouncing around?
You have to see where the piles are and sometimes they move into a very lonely corner of the piano. Then I have to find the keys they are lying on and that also makes it very interesting to play with the optical movements of ping pong balls.

I saw you perform a set with Hildur Guðnadóttir at King’s Place earlier in the year, and that was quite a beautiful collaboration. Had you worked with her before, and would you consider recording an album together?
We did some recordings during that evening and the recordings appeared to be very beautiful, so we are thinking about releasing them, but haven’t found anyone to do that so far. Plus we are both quite busy.

You’re one of these musicians who seem to like spending time introducing your music and talk to your audience during a concert. Do you feel your music needs explaining, or is it a way for you to connect with your audience?
I think it is a way of getting into a conversation and get a natural feeling towards the audience. Otherwise I feel a little bit like in a zoo where everyone is watching me. While I am talking I get a feel for the audience’s reception. From an audience’s perspective, I think it is great to go home and feel emotionally uplifted and educated at the same time. A lot of the time, I have the impression that after my performances people write to me that something had changed after coming back from listening to my music live, or that they’d discovered new ways to approach whatever they are into.

On Versions Of The Prepared Piano, which followed your second album proper, you had a handful of artists remixing, or, perhaps more appropriately, interpreting your music. How did the idea for the project come up, and how did you choose the artists who reworked your music?
I thought it would be great if my compositions went from foreground to background by getting vocals on top, so I chose singer/songwriters who also had the opportunity to record themselves to choose one song from the prepared piano and sing on top of that. Nobukazo Takemura and Frank Brettschneider where the only ones who refused to do vocals. Asking them was the ticket for non vocal tracks.

Is it something that you’d like to do again sometime in the future, and if yes, would you choose very different artists, or do you very much see it as something belonging in the past?
No I am totally up for that again and I hope I find such a great mix of people again. The problem is that my favourite singer/songwriters are mostly too busy to do vocal versions. But since you’re asking I have an idea…

Earlier in the year was premiered a collaboration with film director Jeff Desom entitled The Hauschka Ghost Piano. Can you tell us more about it?
The Ghost Piano is a film made at an audio visual installation in Eindhoven. We got asked to do a music performance with visuals and we decided not to have the projection in the background and the musicians sit in front of it. We thought to use visuals designed around the piano to create an atmosphere in the room. So Jeff and me worked on this performance and there are films on youtube which are small snapshots of the whole concert where I appear as a ghost.

In the biography on your website, you mention that you wrote your first film music when you were just eighteen. What was the film, and is it something that you have dome since or are wiling to do, and for which type of films?
It was a coincidence as one of my best friend’s parents where directors and they asked the two of us to do the music for the film. Of course I am up to do more scores and things seem to be moving in that direction.

What people may not know is that you are also part of Music AM with Stefan Schneider and Luke Sutherland, with whom you’ve released two albums and an EP on Quatermass between 2004 and 2006. How did the project start, and is it still active?
It started with me meeting Luke through Mouse on Mars’s sound engineer, who is also a great musician. We worked on one track with Luke and I asked him if he would be interested in working with me.
He said yes, and we needed a bass for a song and I gave Stefan Schneider who is very good friend of mine all the tracks that Luke and me had recorded. He came in the studio and he said that he liked most of the tracks and that he had prepared bass lines for six songs. So in the end we were a trio.

You’ve also recently collaborated with Stefan Schneider on a track that was released as part of Arctic Circle’s and LoAF’s Explorer’s Club series. Is this a collaboration that you are planning to take any further?
Yes. Stefan and I are good friends but we also like making music together. Maybe we will work on a theater project together again next year.

You are due to play during the Steve Reich Weekend at Barbican in May, during which you are set to perform a new piece for three prepared pianos and prepared percussions. Can you tell us more about the piece? How are you feeling about sharing a stage with Steve Reich?
I am not sure where you got this information from but I will perform a piece with prepared piano and two drummers. Also I think it is a concert where people compose or perform songs that have a relation to Steve Reich. He will perform at some point in a different venue. But being a part of this concert series around his 75th birthday is an honor for me. I like his music a lot.

What is next for Hauschka?
I finished the techno album. I will do a fourteen-days USA tour in January with mostly an ensemble and I.  Next year, concerts, theater and film projects are on the schedule. I am due to do a collaboration in Iceland and I will organize my piano festival in October.

If you had to name five records or pieces of music that have marked you in any way, which ones would they be?
Steve Reich: Different Trains
Cameo: She’s Strange
Thomas Fehlmann
Stefan Schneider

Email interview December 2010. Foreign Landscapes is out now on 130701/Fat-Cat Records. Thank you to Volker Bertelmann and Ash at Fat-Cat.

Hauschka | Hauschka (MySpace) | Fat-Cat Records

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One Response to “INTERVIEW: HAUSCHKA Branching Out”

  1. […] Hauschka is the musical moniker of pianist Volker Bertelmann, primarily known for his playing of prepared piano, his latest album Foreign Landscapes is a far more orchestral affair as his songs are expanded by his arrangements for the San Francisco Magik*Magik Orchestra. A nice little interview with Bertelmann has surfaced today over at the Milk Factory. […]