Volker Bertelmann was 12, studying hard at classical piano when he first discovered that slipping pads beneath the hammers of his instrument made it sound like a harpsichord. Classical purists frown on such machinations, but even years of conservatory training couldn’t stamp out Bertelmann’s McGyver-ish instincts.
“A lot of people forget over their education that the piano is an extension of your arm, and using it as an option of creating a sound differently is a natural way of working with an instrument,” he says. “You want to find possibilities of what can you do. In my case, the need to experiment came from the love for electronic music, and for textures and finding ways of creating whatever… noises and weird sounds.”
Decades later, recording his first solo album in Wales, Bertelmann wanted a high hat sound but lacked a drum-kit. He rigged some plastic light filters over piano strings to produce that terse chinking sound. Since then, he’s become almost known for his use of prepared piano. He carries a bag to every gig, stuffed with sound wedges, wooden sticks, marbles, bells, like tea lights, ping pong balls, a ruler, razors and other household implements, which, applied to the piano, elicit an array of un-piano-like sounds.
Hip Beats and Pianolas
“When people come to my concerts, they want to look on the floor, where I have been throwing a lot of stuff that I use while I’m playing,” says Bertelmann. “Then they look at the things, and they sometimes say ‘What? This is all? This was it?’ Because it’s not very fancy pieces that are lying there. There’s almost a sense of wonderment.”
Bertelmann recorded his eighth album What If? at Vox-Ton Studio in Berlin, rather than his studio where he’d made the previous six records. Equipped with the studio’s grand piano and his customary bag of tricks, he envisioned a process more like a live performance than usual, employing loops to free his hands for on-the-fly piano preparations. “I wanted to have some hip-hop elements in there, you know, low bass drums and slower beats,” he explains. Bertelmann was once in a hip hop band, and he says that hip-hop rhythms are still the ones he dances to. He’s particularly enamored of early ’00s experimental hip-hop beat makers like Timbaland and N.E.R.D.
What If? also made use of a type of electronically-based mechanical piano called a Yahama Disclavier. “These instruments are a little bit like the player pianos in earlier times with the paper strips and the holes in them, but they work instead with MIDI,” says Bertelmann. “I would sit with the keyboard next to a player piano and play sequences, then double them, and those sequences that I was recording with the MIDI board went into the computer, and in the computer, they triggered the piano, the real piano keys.”
“I created patterns with layers on top of each other — and the good thing about that is that when you press play on the computer, you can use both hands to prepare the piano. You are free to manipulate on the fly, the sound and it was pretty awesome,” he continued. You can hear the pianolas best in the rapid staccato patterns of “Constant Growth Fails”.
If you conjoin the album title, What If? with each of the track titles, you get a series of sci-fi hypotheticals, “What if … .I can’t find water?” “What if … my kids live on Mars?” “What if … we live a thousand years?” Like Hauschka’s last album Abandoned Cities, What If? conveys a sense of futuristic excitement combined with a wistfulness for what’s gone. Some of the tracks were inspired by real life experiences; last year in L.A. Bertelmann was struck by the dry-ness everywhere, prompting “I Can’t Find Water”. Others are more speculative. “My Kids Live on Mars” involves an elaborate backstory about overcrowding and colonization and interplanetary Sunday visits to relatives’ houses.
What If?‘s compositions are playful and optimistic, exploring new ideas and new sounds with an almost child-like sense of glee. And yet, perhaps because of how the piano sounds in its natural state, perhaps because of other factors, there’s an old-fashioned-ness to them too, an inescapable sense of sadness. Bertelmann says that that tension speaks fundamentally to who he is.
“I’m curious about inventions, and I was always into mathematics and computer programming and all sorts of stuff. Even with music, I try to invent things that I think are wonderful,” he explains. “But at the same time, I’m pretty romantic when it comes to old school. I quite like certain habits, behaviors, a certain way of formalities and the gentleness that in earlier times was there. That’s on my record, that sense of working between those two poles, always changing between, letting the old things go and at the same time being aware of the traditional things and at the same time moving forward to something new.”
That contradictory old vs. new energy gets a full airing in the video for “Familiar Things Disappear”. Directed by Mareike Foecking, the film takes place in an ancient library in a castle near Dusseldorf. “The aristocratic family that lives there, they are big fans of my music, so they were letting me shoot in their old library that had books which are in the film from 1600, you know?” says Bertelmann. “They even a section in the library that was called forbidden books.” An 18th treatise debunking witchcraft, written by a family member, sat on those shelves, for instance, among many other rare and valuable volumes.
Bertelmann, who has never taken much of a visible role in his videos before, was the main character, drawing knowledge from these books, assisted by eerie dancers, surrounded finally by a swirling storm of white paper.
An Oscar Nomination for Lion
Bertelmann has written soundtracks for 12 films, but the latest, for the Garth Davis movie Lion is his highest profile project yet. The score, which he wrote with Winged Victory for the Sullen’s Dustin O’Halloran, was nominated for an Oscar in 2017.
“Soundtracks are so different because you are collaborating. It’s like doing a piece for a dance choreographer or writing a piece for an opera,” he says. “You are the person that’s writing it, but you have to fulfill the director’s wishes. You use your strength find a way of accommodating the vision of someone else. That’s a challenge but also a relief from your work because you are not circling all the time yourself.”
Though the movie takes place, partly, in India, Bertelmann says there was never any question of making the soundtrack Indian. “The feelings are very global. It has to do with empathy. With taking care. With finding home. The relationship to your mother. What does it mean — where do you feel at home and where not?” he asks.
Right now Bertelmann is working on another soundtrack for the documentary film Alpha Go about autonomous intelligence and preparing for a short run around Europe, where he will bring along his pianola. He’s set to start work on another soundtrack for the movie Hotel Mumbai (like Lion, also starring Dev Patel) when he finishes. He’s also writing a piece for the Israeli mandolin player Avi Avital. Busy, in other words, as usual.
After reeling off a list of projects, Bertelmann suggests gently, given all that, maybe it’s time people stopped pigeonholing him as someone who sticks wedges into pianos. “If you go on my website and you look at how many different diverse things I’m doing and you listen to those diverse things, and you maybe get an idea that each part is affecting the other part and it creates a whole different world,” he notes. “It’s much more than just prepared piano.”