Hauschka: The Prepared Piano
Karaoke Kalk

In contrast to the minimal melancholia of recent 'piano' albums like Goldmund's Corduroy Road and Max Richter's The Blue Notebooks, Hauschka (aka Volker Bertelmann) adopts a considerably more uptempo approach on his second album The Prepared Piano. More pointedly, Bertelmann's recording departs dramatically from the others in its extensive exploration of grand piano-generated textures. The sound is multi-layered, the album's twelve songs liberally showered with all manner of prepared treatments. Inspired by the experimental approaches of Henry Cowell and John Cage, Bertelmann clamps bolts, screws, pieces of metal in between and onto the strings to generate novel percussive noise from the instrument. Consequently, it undergoes constant metamorphosis in Bertelmann's industrious hands, with treatments suggestive of plunked typewriter keys one moment and a music box or zither the next, the instrument even resembling a mini-gamelan orchestra at times. He often grounds the short pieces in clockwork ostinato patterns and then adds intricate clusters of piano. Other instruments occasionally appear (acoustic bass on the gently lilting “Two Stones”) but always minimally; one strains, for example, to detect synthesizer and drums even though they're purportedly present.

With jaunty rhythms augmented by glistening strums of exotic sparkle, “La Seine” suggests a bustling trip down the river, while waves of Glass-like chords accumulate into a dramatic, syncopated mass in “Twins.” Some songs are bolstered by aggressive patterns (“Traffic,” “Firn”), Bertelmann even coaxing a staccato funk rhythm of sorts from the piano on “Long Walk,” in contrast to quieter settings like the ponderous “Fernpunkt” and “Where Were You,” its soft chords augmented by the soft shuffle of percussive noise and vibes accents. The recording closes with the suitably gentle “Morning,” its elegant lines subtly adorned by hints of electronic noise and bass. On The Prepared Piano, the endlessly resourceful Bertelmann deftly reminds us that the piano, rooted in the action of a hammer striking a string, is not only an instrument of limitless melodic potential but fundamentally a percussive one too.

October 2005