Volker Bertelmann aka Hauschka‘s name had become one with the dynamic and playful phenomena of the prepared piano. Once living its life as a classical instrument, Hauschka’s plaything is ever rejuvenating, each time resurrecting as a different creature with pristine sounds bursting out from its surprised strings. If you live in Europe, nowadays you can easily catch one of his ‘Abandoned City’ shows. Surprisingly enough, you can even bump into him in places where you would least expect to. Sounds Of A Tired City caught him performing in a small Romanian city, Sibiu. Besides talking about his new album, we also found out a little bit more about his relationships with the ‘travelling’ pianos, the challenges of preparing an instrument and his unique way to address and get in touch with the audience. Talking about dream performances, Volker told us which venue and piano he would love to play once, and we are also proud to let you know that soon we are going to hear his sounds on the silver screen.
Dear Volker, lovely to see you and your piano in this more hidden part of Europe. Could you tell us a little bit about the story behind the prepared piano? I know that you felt that something was missing, but what was the turning point that made you start experiencing with it?
I was into electronic music for a really long time and somehow I avoided playing piano over the years as a performance. It was always the instrument I was using when I was coming back home, but I’ve never used it as a concert instrument. When I started making electronic music, I had the impression that it was so rich of textures, weird sounds and interesting structures, it hardly had any form – especially the music I heard at that time. I was growing up in a time when that was the big deal if you had a big hit, you made money and you were a star. Detaching music from this attitude helped me a lot to go back to the roots of my musical education, trying to be as good with my instruments as I can. It also played an important role in opening myself up for the option to be enough for the audience just by myself with an instrument, not always having an entourage around me. So maybe the turning point was when I first tried to find elements like hi-hats or rhythmical pieces that I’ve pasted on the strings to create sounds. From there it was just like another step, but this was made in order to create analog sound that sounds electronic.
How do you decide what type of ‘accessories’ to build into your piano? Was there ever something that you wanted to incorporate but it just simply didn’t fit?
I think that once you find the material that sounds great, you know exactly the kind of measurements things need to have to create a certain sound. There are a lot of different elements that create a very similar sound, which is also very funny, because sometimes they look totally different. For example, an art eraser can make the same sound as the rubber wedges that you put between the strings. You would always think that’s a different material that makes a different sound, but it does not. Finding that out is very interesting and funny, so I’m trying to be open to find new material and experiment with new stuff. I always wanted to work with more things that can jump in the piano, because I love that movement. I found out the ping pong balls and the tealights were great, but I’ve used other kind of balls too, because I felt they might create something and they were not jumping. They were just lying down and whenever I played, it was just a creaking, boring sound. When this happens, you just put them on the side and you know exactly that this is not the right way. I am also doing music that has no preparations, I am writing music for orchestra, so my work is actually expanded to a much bigger universe than only the prepared piano, while the prepared piano is the core.
Touring must be quite exhausting technically when you need to travel with so much gear – and obviously you cannot bring the most important piece of all – the piano – everywhere. Is it a challenge to prepare it every single time you meet a new piano? Do you have any negative experiences when you’ve had a hard time with it? Obviously at home you have your own piano, and then you travel and you meet all these different pianos…
That is actually awesome, it’s challenging and it’s a lot of fun, because you experiment with new instruments, it keeps you free. When you’re used to fly business class and suddenly you have to stay in economy class, you feel like “Oooooh, noooo…”, because you don’t remember the time when you always flew economy. It’s a little bit the same with the pianos. If you always play a Steinway Grand D, then you play on a very unknown Petrof for example, or a piano that is a B or C class instrument, you can get very depressed. What I am doing is that I’m not only playing in big, prestigious places, sometimes I’m playing in very small, independent clubs.
Or in Sibiu…
Or in Sibiu, but here I have a Yamaha C7, which is already a very great grand piano. There are places where they cannot rent a grand piano, because it’s too expensive, so they bring an upright piano. Then it starts for me to get really interesting, because I suddenly have to deal with an instrument that I don’t know. I have to find ways of replacing the preparations, I have to adjust to the sound and suddenly new sounds are coming to me. I totally believe in the principle that obstacles are always a chance to grow. In a way pianos are obstacles that help me find more answers and new ways of finding new sounds.
Do they always tell you in advance what kind of a piano are they able to get?
Normally we have a list of the things I need for the tour and it says that I want to have a grand piano. In the case they only have an upright, they should give us a ring, so at least we can try to find out what they want to rent out. Sometimes it’s only a matter of knowledge to rent the right one, at least the right height, which is very important for uprights, because it needs a certain distance between the hammer and the string nails – otherwise the preparations have no space for rattling. I also played in a couple of places in America where they had very small, even some broken pianos, which were completely out of tune. I didn’t cancel the show, I tried to find a way of dealing with it. You will always remember these concerts very well, because they actually forced you to leave your comfortable path.
So you’re not always involved in the preparations…
Not always, but I’m asked sometimes and in an ideal situation I can visit the concert space beforehand, I can look at it and make suggestions. Lot of times I take the piano off stage and put it inside the audience, so people can stand or sit around it. They get confused, because the PA system is frontal from stage and that’s ideal for me, because I’m actually hearing the same sound as the audience, and I can actually react much better, because we all have the same source. The other position is quite difficult, because you sit in an isolated stage area and the audience sits in the front of the PA, so you never know what they hear.
Is there any special type of piano that you dream of preparing and playing on? What would be a dream performance if you’d have to consider the instrument and the location?
I would love to play in the Royal Albert Hall in London. It’s a very nice and big place, but it seems to be quite intimate, and I think it’s very interesting that a place that has 6000 people can be quite dense. I’m not in the situation where I would fill a space with 6000 people at the moment, but I’m quite optimistic that one day maybe I can. I would say that for my kind of music with this kind of leftfield attitude, I have quite a huge number of followers, which is interesting. I was never expecting that I’d play the Volksbühne in Berlin or a stage where I have 800-900 people who come just for me. That’s weird in a way, because I’m not a rock act, but also nice of course. A lot of times you can see with artists that wish to get bigger that they start bringing in lights and visuals, the whole stage appearance starts to get a lot of drama. The higher you aim, the more that is going to the foreground while you disappear with your artistic approach. I was also at a point where I could decide for that, but I felt like smaller stages are necessary for me and I like the closeness to the audience.
But going back to your question, the Royal Albert Hall would be great and a Fazioli piano, which is a 3 meters long grand piano, longer than a normal Steinway and it has an extra octave. I heard from people that were playing it, that there are good ones and bad ones though. It’s very difficult to decide for a typical instrument itself, because every brand has produced awesome pianos. When you have the chance to work with one, you’d rather say I want to have especially this one, because it’s from the 60’s or because it has a certain wood, rather than saying in general that I want to play a Steinway Grand. Steinways lose quality right now, because it’s not a family business anymore, while Yamaha pianos changed their shape and suddenly their instruments started to sound much closer to a Steinway than ever before. The question of the instrument is very focused on a certain instrument, so I’m not really trying to focus too much on that, because then it gets too important.
Have you thought about preparing any other instruments?
Well, I’ve tried with Hilary Hahn, the violinist. We did a record and tried to prepare her violin, but that was not so easy, because the violin has very thin strings and there’s not much pressure and loudness, and actually the results were not really good in a way. I have played lots of shows with a friend of mine, Samuli Kosminen, the drummer from the Icelandic band múm, and Samuli plays prepared drums. When we play together it’s very awesome and he knows exactly how to prepare a drum. I played with another drummer who’s also a vibraphone player. Vibraphones are awesome to prepare, because you can immediately change the complete sound of each iron plate. There’s also a great guitar player from the band AMM called Keith Rowe who’s from London, in the middle of his seventies now, and he prepares electronic guitars.
I’m interested in preparing instruments, I was never a big fan of searching too much in the computer and libraries. I would rather take a chair and make a drum kit with it or record something in a hallway with microphones, somewhere in the space. You have sounds everywhere and the only thing you need to do is to find them. That’s much more interesting for me, because it’s physical and there’s activity, you can actually feel what you are doing. That’s the main thing, continuously thinking of creating situations where I’m inspired and I can find a new way of approaching my interest.
How did you get in touch with ARTmania? Have you ever performed in Romania before? Since it’s mainly a rock/metal festival, does that change anything for you if you’re thinking about the audience?
No, not at all! I also played at a doom festival in Essen, Germany once and I was opening for Sunn O))). The crowd was mainly black dressed males with beards. But it’s very interesting, because they bought a lot of my records, they were very music interested and open, and it’s the same here. I’m not going to a place, because I want to fulfill my expectations that I’ve already made up on the plane, I’d rather let people surprise me. Romania was never on my list so far, because I think it’s important that people find you, and they actually find a nice way of presenting you in that country. I think my music especially needs people that are discovering me. Funnily enough, they are mostly intellectual people and they sometimes wait a little bit longer and then they find something where I fit in, and that needs time. So it’s not like “hey, let’s invite this guy, he’s crazy, let’s put him in a venue”. Many times when that happened, people didn’t make any promotion, it was very hard for them to sell tickets. But these people are in creative circles, so there is already an interest, because they maybe even know John Cage, they have a special approach. In this case I was very surprised they wrote me that they are interested in inviting me and I said straight away yes! I’d say, when I’m playing tonight maybe there are parts that are not so far away from metal. There’s some distortion, quite noisy bits and the bass is very loud and full on, so maybe it’s not pleasing the head banging rhythm, but there’s definitely some loud rock element in there.
Let’s talk a little about your new album. Considering the fact that ‘Abandoned City’ consists of a collection of dedications to ghost towns, empty spaces existing outside of time, I’d say it’s one of your most dynamic and lively album until now. How do you feel about this contrast?
I’m very happy that I can expand my palette of sounds, the approach and my idea of connecting it with abandoned cities was quite right from the start. I felt it has something of this loneliness but at the same time there is hope in abandoned places, even though they had a tragedy, there was something happening because people disappeared. But on the other hand, things have to happen to have a zero kind of situation, to start from scratch. Otherwise you always deal with old bargains, you fix a little bit here and there and nothing is happening. If you look in politics or attitudes in general, when people want to change something, it never happens. Also in your own life, you have a relationship with someone and it never works out, at some point you have to stop it. Otherwise it will always continue and you keep hoping it gets better, but most of the times you have to pull the trigger and find a new start. I think abandoned places have something like that. I was very interested in this kind of connection of sadness, loneliness and at the same time hope, which I think is a kind of cosmos that describes the human nature and the nature of life. I feel that when I’m composing, so in a way it’s maybe how this music is connected with abandoned places. I got lot of feedback from people that were sending me pictures of their hometowns, abandoned places or people were just mentioning that they think about something that sounds like abandoned places. I also got letters from Azerbaijan, from Agdam. I was very surprised how many different reactions I got, so I think I’ll continue with this theme for a little while.
You enjoy experimenting with spaces. How do you think that different spaces (empty or full) can change the experience and state of mind of the performer and the listener?
Oh, they change everything! It’s really interesting how much actually it matters in terms of your anticipation when you go in a place. For example, to play venues, the shape, the reverb, where the people sit, where you sit, where the instrument is, how much they talk, how close they are to the stage, if it’s square, if it’s round, all these things have a lot of influence. An empty space gives you freedom to create, but I think narrow and locked-up spaces are not really nice, I don’t like them so much. I like wideness, where my mind can breathe a little bit. Also I would say that great architecture can create this kind of feeling that you are part of the building. I have lots of interesting experiences when I walk into spaces with myself.
You have a special connection with your listeners and your crowd, you’re one of those few artists who immensely cares about his audience’s feelings. Why is this so important to you?
First of all, I’m interested in people. Secondly, I think they actually give me something. They lift me up, so when I’m performing there’s something coming back and I think I give them something as well, so the chain reaction is happening. Why shouldn’t I sit down with them after the concert and talk about it. I have the feeling that as long as they are no stalkers or people that are getting crazy about me, I want to share that as much as possible, because lot of times I have nothing from going back to a hotel, sitting there and being pumped up by energy of others and I have no idea what they think. I think people enjoy coming to the record table after a concert and talk to me. Of course I also want to sell records and I want to spread my music, not because I want the money, although of course I have to live from it. When I’m going on a tour the ideal situation is when people want to take a gift with them home and that’s lot of times the case. They hear something or they’re fulfilled with pleasure and memories, they want to keep them. I know that this way you sell much more records, because people want to be close to you, but I think the moment I’d forget everything around myself, if I’d just go there to sell records as fast as possible, then I’d stop. I have the impression that once you get in this kind of ego situation with your music, it already starts to get dead, and at some point the whole thing will end. As long as you can actually stop your own habit and you can focus on the things that are necessary, you can survive forever.
Have you ever felt like slipping into this ego situation?
Not with Hauschka. With earlier bands I was in a situation that I can sometimes also see with colleagues or people that are developing and growing too fast. I can see that there is a very dangerous development in terms of that your ego wants to have more and more. It’s like a drug, and I know that this is an addiction as well, when you know that you can handle the addiction and you also have situations when you fall back, because you play in a new place, nobody knows you. When you have maybe 20-30 people coming to your show and you say hi and you know you can call everyone by name, that’s for example is very healthy, even though in the situation itself you’d wish there’d be more people. This can also bring you down. I think if I’ll change things, then maybe people will disappear who were listening to my music beforehand and new people will come. This is just kind of a progress and in the earlier days I completely missed the reality. I also had very weird behavior towards other people then, because I felt like I’m the big star, although the star as a concept itself is totally wrong. I’m glad that this is not happening with Hauschka.
You’re touring around now with ‘Abandoned City’, what are your plans once you’re finished with the tour?
Well, I am touring the whole year. I am not a big fan of touring for 4-5 months in a row, I’d rather have little pockets. At the end of the year I will do a tour in Japan and China, and will have a couple of concerts in Europe. I’m also working on new orchestra pieces for a big orchestra in Leipzig, where I have the premiere in January. This will be a very important evening, because there will be pieces for choir and orchestra, and on the same evening there will be pieces from Arvo Pärt and Sibelius. It’s like me being in the company of big composers, and I don’t want to fuck that up. I have to learn and this is quite a challenge, but I love challenges and I think this is the right time. At the moment it also looks like I’m doing the score for two American movies.
Can you talk a little about these movies?
One of them is a horror movie (‘The Boy’, directed by Craig MacNeill), and it’s about a boy who becomes a serial killer. It’s based on a short film (‘Henley’ – nominated for Short Film Jury Prize at Sundance in 2012), the producers loved it so much that they wanted a long version. I think it’s already accepted at Sundance, so I will go there and hopefully it will get some recognition. Then I have the artist residency for one year with the orchestra. The conductor, Kristjan Järvi is fantastic, he is from Tallinn. It’s very nice that I can work with a world class conductor who can help me if I’m failing. What is very nice is that he gives me so much confidence in what he likes about my work. I’m also doing an Arte movie, which is a documentary about the painter Velázquez. My whole film work is expanding, I have the impression that there are more and more requests. People want me to get into it and I also have the impression that the symphonic orchestra work will help me in getting bigger scores.
Are there any directors with whom you would like to work together with?
There’s a German director I really like, Tom Tykwer. I like his way of working, he’s a very nice person too. I’ve recently worked with Karim Aïnouz who did the Brazilian movie ‘Praia do Futuro’, which was screened at the Berlinale. He’s also a fantastic director and I’d really like to continue to work with great directors and grow with them. Oh, and I would love to work with the Coen brothers… I just love their films!
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