If piano-driven music is often most suggestive of the outer surface of the instrument—the pristine, orderly black-and-white keys or the immaculate curvature of a grand piano—Hauschka’s music reminds one more of the mechanical elements within. What If, German composer Volker Bertelmann’s eighth full-length release under the moniker, is as taut as a string and as aggressive as a hammer. Like much of his output, the record prominently features prepared pianos whose deconstructed sound illuminates physicality and imperfection. This is not an album for drifting off into a gentle reverie, but rather one that jerks you, uncomfortably perhaps, into the present.
With his compositions, Bertelmann seems eager to remind us that the piano is a percussion instrument after all, and What If is far more interested in rhythm than melody. On opening track “I Can’t Find Water”, he adds electronic whirring and clattering that lend an industrial sheen to the piece, but these serve mostly to accent and highlight the rhythms already put in place by the piano itself. The track feels like an assembly line where all the parts have come to life at once, held together with mechanical precision yet just disordered enough to sound human.
The dominant mood of the album is anxiety, which Bertelmann conveys largely through speed and repetition. Individual notes are rarely plucked only once, but rather are insistent, urgently wrought many times over, like someone ruminating over a troublesome thought. Elsewhere, this repetition is achieved more through electronic processing, as on “My Kids Live on Mars”, which features an arid thwapping sound like a sputtering engine. Yet What If does not drown in its own anxiety, often finding ways to sublimate it into something more useful. The same track, for example, also features a more considered, poignant piano line overlaying the frantic buzz, preventing the composition from dissolving entirely in worry.
“I Can’t Express My Deep Love” is the most straightforward and “pretty” piano piece here. It too is lovely and, well, expressive, moving dynamically between tempos and making use of pauses and drifting tremolos. Arriving at the midpoint of the album, it is a welcome respite that helps ward off fatigue from the more experimental, fretful numbers. “Nature Fights Back”, coming directly afterward, unfortunately, snuffs out its poignant mood in the record’s only misstep. The track features many of the same rhythmic elements as found elsewhere but somehow feels comical, like a caricature. It sounds like something that could soundtrack a silent movie about a nefarious, mustache-twirling gangster involved in a slapstick car chase. Comic relief, perhaps, but in this case, it is an unwelcome break from the rest of the album’s carefully curated mood.
Gladly, the remaining three tracks are a return to form. “Familiar Things Disappear”, one of the most overtly electronic offerings and a highlight of the record as a whole, features atmospheric, nearly apocalyptic analog synths and dramatic, booming percussion while nonetheless retaining Bertelmann’s characteristic subtlety. “Trees Only Exist in Books”, armed with a whimsical title like something out of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, is the album’s lengthiest piece at seven-and-a-half minutes, and also one of its sparest. The track starts off with glacial gongs as if time itself is grinding to a halt, before a swell of strings overtake it and provide us with a denouement of all the work’s tension.
What If manages the ambitious task of making anxiety and nervousness sound not only palatable but gratifying and engaging. While an undeniably cerebral work, the album unflinchingly maintains its emotional core throughout. Bertelmann’s minimal arrangements are careful, even lovingly constructed. As complex and challenging as this collection can be, it feels honest above all else. If you agree to follow along with its subtle modulations in mood and makeup, it will prove to be an edifying listen.