It’s a universally acknowledged truth that every first sentence of a Hauschka record review must mention that he’s an exponent of prepared piano. And that’s OK. It’s equally predictable that the second sentence will claim that we all know about prepared piano because we all know and love the work of Erik Satie. And that’s fine too. For the uninitiated, prepared piano is a technique in which a musician tampers with the piano’s strings or hammers, infiltrating them with “preparations”, which can take the form of just about any object in the whole wide world. This extends the range of sounds the piano can make. Hauschka’s distinctive take on this leads us to hear a whole host of weird and wonderful textures: delicate pops, glottal and stunted prods, lingering pealing sounds. It’s essentially high-minded chamber music filled up with a post-rock aesthetic. Sure, this means that a Hauschka record is approachable rather than being too smart for its own good, but it makes no apologies for being conceptually pretty hard work and quite emotionally complex.
While Hauschka’s most recent album, 2010’s Foreign Landscapes, wasn’t particularly well received by critics, it remains an interesting idea – a post-classical Trans Europe Express, or a Jules Verne plot adapted for the Information Age. Salon Des Amateurs sees him develop his game even more, and he ploughs his plinky-plonky furrow into new ground. Here, he explores the buzzing percussive implications of stuffing a piano with gaffer tape and ping-pong balls. This embellishes what is basically a polished pop album that just happens to follow Max Richter’s post-classical philosophy. And there are a few surprises along the way, too.
There are real life drums here (“Subconscious”, “No Sleep”), provided by múm drummer Samuli Kosimen, set alongside electronic sputterings (“Two AM”, the final minute of closer “Sunrise”) and dubby brass stabs (“Radar”). There are also contributions from John Covertino and Joe Burns from Calexico, which should please the adult contemporary audience, while the presence of Grammy-award winning violinist Hilary Hahn will make classically attuned heads nod their approval.
Salon Des Amateurs is certainly Hauschka’s most animated record. His piano still is still delicate and chiming, as on “Girls” and “Taxitaxi”, but overall, it’s a clanking, mechanical album. Make no mistake, it has a heart of pop, but it’s shielded by a wrought iron ribcage, and all the sounds on every track buzz and whirr away. It’s as if each time Hauschka prods at the old ivories, he sets off a series of curious and more curious chain reactions. But it’s not ever clear if the parade of textures that march through these songs is deliberate or created simply by chance – dexterous, elaborate musical mousetraps like “Cube”, or “Sunrise”, self-consciously imperfect, or the product of hours of endless tinkering? Is Salon Des Amateurs itself a steam-punk science experiment, a clatter of the rationality of making a well-paced record, and the pure imagination involved with making something as delectable as “Two AM”? Or, on the other hand, is Hauschka the director of a Dadaist marionette theatre, self-consciously challenging the modern music industry’s dollar sign smile?
As with all of Hauschka’s music, Salon Des Amateurs takes place at an awkward apex between being “beautiful” and being merely “pretty”. This is actually quite an important distinction, because the album never decides whether its pop music or classical music, and tracks like “Girls” or “Ping” are challenging more because they sit right on that apex, arms crossed, refusing to dictate how we should listen to them. It’s not at all clear whether, say, “Tanzbein” has the force and depth of contemporary classical music or whether it’s mere wallpaper. How are we to listen to “Cube”? It’s not clear whether it’s helpful to get all chin-strokingly Adornian about it, asking whether its structural properties are relevant to its consumption or whether it’s just dinner party music. On Salon Des Amateurs, is Hauschka reaching for the stars, or has he merely painted his ceiling black with speckles of white to emulate outer space?
Nothing here is as conceptually challenging as his earlier work – particularly the difficult, studious Substantial and The Prepared Piano. But that doesn’t mean that Hauschka is selling himself short or that the listener is left unfulfilled. This is a flawed album, and it’s not easy to describe it without going overboard with the old onomatopoeia, but it’s unashamedly fun. While techno-inflected “Radar” reminds you that you are, definitely, in the 21st century (It wouldn’t sound that out of place on a Kompakt release), it’s a little too rigid. While “Sunrise” closes the album quite abruptly, completing the sense that this album isn’t quite as good as you’d perhaps like it to be, it still sounds like it was made on the inside of the most deliriously fun toy chest in the world. Salon Des Amateurs is probably the most floral piece of belle époque kitsch you’ll hear all year. “Two AM”, “Girls”, and “Ping” are brilliant little oddities, and it’ll all be perfect background music for your Baudelaire reading group. But if that’s not quite your thing, then it might end up being an unromantic uphill struggle.