When I initially heard that FatCat records had an album of prepared piano on the way, I was immediately reminded of Aphex Twin. In its ten years of existence, FatCat has released seminal experimental electronic acts like múm, Fennesz, and Com.A, so Aphex and the MIDI prepared piano featured prominently on 2001’s Drukqs seemed a natural leap. But whereas Richard D. James’ piano was often altered to the point of sounding like a new instrument, like some variety of resonant hybrid harpsichord, the adjustments evident on the Dusseldorf-based Hauschka’s third album are far less immediately noticeable. Even the experimental classical compositions of John Cage, who popularized the prepared piano through his extensive use of the instrument over his career, frequently turned his pianos into percussive noise generators, deliberately moving past pre-conceptions of the piano as a melodic instrument. For Hauschka, though, the pleasures of piano preparation seem to lie in subtle timbral manipulations and accents; the instrument’s traditional melodic primacy is never challenged.
But while the pianos showcased throughout Room to Expand may, by and large, simply sound like pianos on a cursory listen, this is a sort of misdirection. The compositions, fluttering modern piano pieces that would often seem straight-forward and unremarkable on their own (or even accompanied, as here, by occasional strings, horns, or hand percussion) are often revealed to clutch their preparations at their crux, the modifications either transforming the works into textural studies or furnishing a key moment upon which the composition pivots. In “Klein Dirge”, for instance, the preparations serve both these ends, providing both the distant rattling that underscores the restrained porcelain beauty of the first half and the dissonant metallic clang emerging later in a single, though repeated, note that becomes the song’s center and focus. Other songs, like closer “Old Man Playing Boules”, benefit from a constant sense of age and gradual disrepair. There, the constant faint clicking and hum of odd harmonics suggest a piano approaching the twilight of its existence, artifacts of its failing internal mechanisms. Of course, the apparent compositional dependence on preparations mean that the songs closer to pure piano can fall somewhat flat.
“Sweet Spring Come”, perhaps the album’s most adventurously altered track, is also its finest. Opening with a three note repetition sounding very little like piano of any kind (it more closely resembles two notes of bass guitar with an atonal metal twang as percussion), the song builds momentum as layers of brighter keys, murmuring and fluttering in turn, seep gradually in. By the time the lead melody steps assuredly out of the higher registers, the song is a flurry of motion, individual note sequences interlocking like tiny gears. Finally, after stripping back to its essentials, true bass guitar and drums furnish a pulse of momentum for the final build, incorporating a sound like a fork being raked directly across the piano’s innards. These layers of complementary technique suggest an untapped potential in Hauschka’s forms at which the rest of the album can only hint. The piano is an instrument which, by its very construction, lends itself to surprising versatility and innovation. Hauschka’s forays into the medium contribute a welcome step in these ongoing developments, but often leave some, let us say, room to expand.