[2 March 2009]
Snowflakes and Carwrecks is a collection of outtakes from the recording of last year’s Ferndorf, and it could be a continuation or expansion of that album’s serene but curious explorations. Volker Bertelmann, the composer behind Hauschka, expanded his palette on that release, using strings and woodwind as an integral part of his compositions, not just for occasional emphasis. Snowflakes and Carwrecks takes things further in the same direction. Listening to the album, you could hardly say the piano—let alone the prepared piano—is the major focus. It would be more appropriate to approach these pieces as chamber music, born out of the romantic and minimalist traditions, with no real Big Statement to make but a quiet, steady appeal.
Bertelmann has been around long enough that he’s no longer after that paradigm-shifting composition—the kind of thing you can hear Nico Muhly aching for all over Mothertongue. In recognition of this, Snowflakes and Carwrecks is like a small, thoughtful present—it makes you happy without overwhelming you. “Ginsterweg”, the beautiful opening piece, is full of intersecting lines, a minimalist marvel built off pizzicato, with the soft menace of a cello drone. If you weren’t listening carefully, it might seem simple soundtrack stuff. But the endings of the songs reveal something more sophisticated going on here. Bertelmann often finsihes these pieces with a hop, a slight acceleration, or a sudden cut, as if the tape’s run to the end of a reel. It communicates a certain uncertainty, or incompleteness, that fits with his music’s hesitant movement, repeating ideas many times before shifting slowly in a different direction.
Much has been made over the years of Bertelmann’s use of prepared piano—the parlour trick transformed by John Cage mid-twentieth century into a legitimate Classical expression of innovation vs. tradition. But Bertelmann’s lately been using the conceit in a mature, second phase; it’s still a part of his compositions, but these sounds are often buried in the repetitions of pizzicati or a drum machine. The result is that while there’s still that occasional intrusion of unrecognizable sound, his pieces have become more conventional. Long-standing comparisons to Les Six composers and Satie now seem more apt than ever.
And while Bertelmann’s affinity for minimalism (and gamelan-like repetition) continues, it’s important to recognize that his compositions now, as throughout his career, exist in the realm of popular music. His compositions are mostly short; they have minimal development of subject or theme within each piece; and the strings parts, especially, often service a film score-esque focus on vista and atmosphere. Still, the longest pieces, almost ten minutes each, form the album’s backbone and its greatest success. “Tanz” springs out of traditional folk music’s open fifths and syncopations into the tinkling of artifact on the piano strings, then casually shrugs it all off at the end. “Haubert”, on the other hand, reprises “Ginsterweg”’s pizzicato, hovering for a timeless, haunting period before growing in a sustained crescendo.
None of this is to detract from the bewitching spell a Hauschka composition can cast over the listener. Despite its occasional limpid-to-the-point-of-fading-away feeling, Snowflakes and Carwrecks is the work of an important figure on the intersecting edge of classical and electronic music. It’s well worth a listen.