Hauschka: The Prepared Piano

[24 October 2005]

By Dave Howell

Prepared piano uses objects placed on or between the strings to alter the sound. There are many methods to do this, some that dampen the strings, and others that pluck or otherwise cause them to produce ringing tones.

The title of the CD would make you believe that it is avant-garde, full of strange, semi-musical pickings and hammerings. Actually this is a fairly conventional solo piano CD, more New Age than jazz. Bertelmann’s playing is minimalist, using simple, repeating lines that are accompanied by unusual hammered sounds, ticking, and ringing.

There is little information on the CD sleeve, Internet, or press material about how Hauschka, aka Volker Bertelmann, does his preparations, except for ‘clamping wedges of leather, felt, or rubber between the piano strings, preparing hammers with aluminum paper or rough films, placing crown corks on the strings, or weaving in guitar strings.” He also adds in a bit of synthesizer, bass, and drum. It is often difficult to tell whether he is using samples or overtracking. For example, “Where Were You” appears to have a xylophone on it. It would be interesting to know if this was a “prepared” effect, and how it was done. This is music which might be appreciated more if you could see it performed live.

Hauschka changes the sound and the mood on the first half of the CD. “La Seine” is a simple, childlike melody; “Traffic” emphasizes the percussive element of the piano with hammered, repeated notes; “Fernpunkt” has an Oriental feel, its Far Eastern melody accompanied by what seems like small gongs and cymbals.

As the CD progresses, the prepared element becomes less prominent. “Ginko Tree” and “Twins” have beautiful melodies, with just a bit of prepared “ticking” on the former, and some muted string hammering on the latter. “Firn” is a combination of austere piano patterns with a bit of synthesizer added. “Two Stones” sounds like a duet with a piano and a child’s toy guitar, while “Longwalk” sounds as if there is a small zither in the background.

By the time “Morning” rolls around, the twelfth and last song, the repetitive piano patterns have somewhat blended together, and Hauschka seems to have run the course of his “prepared piano” ideas.

Still, this CD is successful as a quiet, meditative solo piano CD. It is more diverting than absorbing. Hauschka uses his piano preparations as something of a novelty, but this makes it easier to listen to for most of us who are used to hearing structure and melody. All in all, this is both an interesting and listenable work.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/hauschka-prepared/