Since the release of his debut album, Substantial, in 2004, Volker Bertelmann – aka Hauschka – has, slowly but surely, earned a remarkable reputation as a purveyor of imaginative, distinctive, prepared piano music. This isn’t, to be fair, a heavily populated field, but it’s one he’s made his own, and while some might have dismissed his work early on as a novelty, Bertelmann has proven himself to be uncommonly inventive, coaxing ever more unprecedented, euphonic sounds and rhythms out of his instrument. Even so, on What If – which finds him adding player pianos (also known as pianolas) to his armoury – Bertelmann expands his range even further, defying expectations and delivering what is without doubt his most ingenious album yet.
It’s somewhat astonishing, given his recent schedule, that Bertelmann has found time to record this eighth solo studio album at all. Since 2014’s Abandoned City, the Düsseldorf pianist and former hip hop artist – he was a member of major label duo God’s Favorite Dog in the early 90s – has released a collection of remixes and outtakes from Abandoned City (A NDO C Y) as well as a live album (2.11.14). He’s also toured the world, contributed to dance performances – Swan of Tuonela found him reinterpreting Jean Sibelius’ tone poem alongside Samuli Kosminen and Markus Hohti for a ballet choreographed by Finnish circus performer Ville Walo – and worked with a variety of musicians and ensembles. His collaboration with Amsterdam’s Alma Quartet was performed as part of The New Romantics, a concert series he curated at 2016’s Schumannfest in Düsseldorf, while Lost, a piece written for acclaimed cellist Nicolas Altstaedt, receives its UK premiere at London’s Kings Place in the spring.
Furthermore, Bertelmann has found increasing amounts of work as a soundtrack composer, working on scores for a number of documentaries and feature films, not least James Franco’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle and, alongside Dustin O’Halloran, Lion, for which they’ve both been nominated for a Golden Globe. Nonetheless, despite this rush of activity – or perhaps even inspired by it – What If reveals itself as the work of a man hungry to explore new sounds, eager to experiment with new approaches, and undeniably revelling in this irrepressible outpouring of creativity.
For Bertelmann, the opportunity to record another album of his own was a welcome one. “My solo work,” he explains, “is autonomous, and I can choose every step from the beginning without any outside influence. I definitely decided with What If to make a record that might be my most radical. The lyrical piano has disappeared, and the sounds I’m fascinated by – like noise and electronic elements – have taken over.” In practise, this means that this time Bertelmann used an old Roland Jupiter 4 synthesiser and an Eventide H3000 Harmonizer, as well as engaging with his trademark technique of utilising unusual objects – art erasers, for instance – to treat (or ‘prepare’) the piano. More importantly, however – and in a break from his traditional methodology – he programmed parts for player pianos, exploiting the speed at which they could play, manipulating the resulting sounds, and building layers to emphasise a composition’s metre.
Not for the first time, Bertelmann decided to construct his new record around a conceptual framework. But while, for example, 2011’s Salon Des Amateurs employed the prepared piano’s percussive qualities to explore his love of house and techno music, What If aims to provoke reflection beyond the musical sphere with the titles of the both the album and its individual tracks. “I had the idea of doing an album that is, in a way, a statement about the world in which we’re living and in which I see my kids growing up,” Bertelmann elaborates. “What If deals with utopian concepts, and speculates about the world in thirty years’ time. The more I feel questions being raised, the more I try to understand how activity is needed to make the drastic changes required, and there are still people out there who deny that global warming or other similar circumstances exist. Even scientists can’t convince them anymore, so I wanted to dedicate this to such thoughts. The record is there to create awareness for certain topics, but I didn’t want to make it too heavy. It’s more like a very playful way of dealing with our perspectives.”
Notably, What If represents the first time that Bertelmann has worked with anyone else on one of his solo albums. “Half of the record was recorded with Francesco Donadello” – who also mixed the entire album – “at his Vox-Ton Studio in Berlin,” Bertelmann says, “where our basis was first-take recordings of my improvisations, before I then did overdubs. The second half was recorded in my studio with a Yamaha Disklavier [a contemporary player piano that can record performances to a MIDI file], where I captured layers of programmed pianos and worked with my hands like a filter for the sound.”
Overflowing with haunting melodies (“I Can’t Express My Love”, “Familiar Things Disappear”), mysterious sounds (“I Can’t Find Water”, “My Kids Live On Mars”), complex patterns (“Constant Growth Fails”, “Nature Fights Back”) and a rare dexterity that’s hopefully matched by the intellectual response to the challenging scenarios its titles envisage, What If crowns an extraordinary couple of years for Bertelmann. Arguably, in fact, it represents the culmination of everything he’s worked towards these past dozen or so years. “I was always attracted by hip hop, deep rhythms and weird sci-fi electronica” he concludes. “What If is a result out of both that and the hundreds and hundreds of concerts I’ve played, where I developed a way of mixing all these elements together.”
Likely to prove one of 2017’s most original albums, while at the same time inspiring questions about the very nature of the world we inhabit, What If redefines the very notion of piano music in a dramatic and exceptional fashion. It stands as a rebuttal to those who lazily seek to shoehorn Hauschka’s work into the so-called, uncomfortably broad ‘new classical’ category, and instead underlines his status as a unique and invaluable artist. What If, indeed…