The Prepared Piano
Hauschka is the alias for German composer Volker Bertelmann and he’s made a career out of jamming all sorts of things into his piano. He’s wedged pieces of leather, felt or rubber between the piano strings, wrapped aluminium foil around the hammers, placed small objects on the strings, or joined them together with guitar strings or adhesive tape. The technique is called the prepared piano, and Hauschka is not the first to have come up with the idea. However, on his paradoxically haunting and joyful new album Abandoned City – most of the song titles are named after real-life ghost towns – the effect is startling.
The album is an amalgamation of electronica-y dance material mixed in with a bit of classical stylings. I first heard this record after seeing the recent Spike Jonze film Her, and the album was almost a continuation of that soundtrack, deeply meditative and affecting and melancholic, but with a hint of hopefulness to the proceedings. And despite the artist’s penchant for fussing around with his musical instrument of choice, the effect is not quite as jarring as you would think. Abandoned City is a fairly straight-forward LP, with a lot of the gussing about pushed into the background, or to a point where you might not readily notice it unless you’re paying apt attention, with songcraft rising to the fore.
Even though the cover art is a bit on the clichéd side – after recent records by the Stranger and Godspeed You! Black Emperor with abandoned or rundown buildings on the front – the contents within this record are anything but, unless, of course, you consider Hauschka to be a pretender and not an originator. I recently saw some pictures, as well, of the abandoned and run down past Olympic sites, and you’d have a wooden bobsled track that was all warped and falling to shreds, but in the midst of all this decay, flowers and weeds would be growing. This juxtaposition of differences is what Hauschka, with a great deal of effort and force, captures so well on Abandoned City.
Opening cut “Elizabeth Bay” is a reinvention of Richard Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman”, one of the album’s nods toward classical music, and it begins with thudding piano bass notes that sound almost like plucked strings, while a higher register piano line wafts in. The effect is both futuristic and past-looking. As the song continues, the notes on the lower part of the piano thud and pulsate while clicking noises build up, as the song reaches a crescendo. It is staggering to listen to. “Pripyat”, which follows and the longest piece here at more than seven minutes, careens wildly with the sounds of a pirate ship seemingly docking into a bay, as all sorts of multi-tracked sound effects enter into the piece gracefully. A bouncy piano line gets added to the piece, and it feels as though Haschka is hammering the strings, playing with all sorts of wild abandon. And then, the song takes a turn, becoming more quiet and reserved, with all of its clamoring energy dialled down a bit. “Thames Town” has an almost salsa or samba feel to it, and it sashays as it moves along. You may want to dance to it.
“Who Lived Here?”, meanwhile, takes the temperature down a notch, adding in strings and woodwinds, and this one of the album’s most naked and tender moments. A tear may run down your eye. “Agdam”, meanwhile, almost seems like a more aggressive reading of the Chariots of Fire theme, and might just be the most affecting thing to be found on the album, in terms of offering up something that feels monumental and experimental. “Sanzhi Pod City” has a memorable piano line that sounds remotely like, again, plucked strings, while all sorts of shaking and percussive hiccups meander on in the background. “Craco” is another lilting piano ballad, with seemingly no fiddling around on the instrument with prepared piano pieces, and it is stunningly gorgeous. “Bakersville”, on the other hand, pulsates with menacing energy as Hauschka plays a lilting melody as though his life depended on it. There’s a real sense of musicianship and craft to be had on this album, and, as much as the artist is mucking about with his instrument, there’s dynamics and tonal shifts that cause the album to zig-zag and play with your expectations.
Abandoned City is an interesting and thoughtful album that effectively marries different emotions, when all is said and done. It doesn’t quite hang together as a conceptual piece perhaps as well as it should, with the artist taking various sorts of stylistic detours, and album ender “Stromness” seems to leave the record, as a whole, hanging by a thread. Still, this is a worthwhile addition for anyone even remotely interested in modern classical styles, and even though Hauschka is hardly the first person to stick something into his piano, there’s still enough here to chew on, and, unless you’ve been following the likes of John Cage and the ilk, Abandoned City contains something different and yet familiar – the marriage of experimentation with straight-forwardness might not be quite what you’ve heard before.
And what this long player does very well is convey feeling through music, and it’s a treat to listen and try to figure out how Hauschka is coaxing his sounds out of his instrument(s). At times sounding rough and foreboding, and at times gentle and contemplative, sometimes all within the same song, Abandoned City is a concept that is invigorating to listen to, and the push and pull between various strands might leave you, at times, feeling utterly and completely and totally breathless.
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