Another year, another German artist returns to the town of his birth and releases an album of alternately somber and lighthearted recollections. In 2007, Ulrich Schnauss’s recollections arrived in the form of shoegazing dream-pop on Goodbye. Now it’s Hauschka, aka Volker Bertelmann, known for his prepared-piano performances and beautifully understated solo pieces. Fresh from making a name for himself supporting Múm on tour, Ferndorf maintains the festive-contemplative balance of Bertelmann’s compositions, but by-and-large jettisons up-front electronic post-production for expanded acoustic instrumentation.
Ferndorf, the small town after which the album is titled, provides an interesting set of memories and perspectives for Bertelmann. The album is instrumental, but in the absence of lyrical guides, instrumental themes signpost where Bertelmann’s moods are traveling, and paint imaginative scenes of a serene and simple — if, at times, dull and a little restricting — childhood. “Freibad”, named after an outdoor swimming pool in the forest, begins dripping melancholy strings, before the advance of peppy horns establishes the warm, fuzzy nostalgia one would expect of a childhood memory in a park. Its immediate follow-up, “Barfuss durch Gras”, is more solitary, featuring only Bertelmann and the clicks, pops, and jangles of his prepared piano. Gradually, “Gras” bubbles and rises, perhaps as an expression of the frustration of being an artist with world-touring ambitions and coming from a beautiful, but small and definitively non-cosmopolitan background.
The push and pull of feelings on Ferndorf inevitably stems from the difficult necessity of leaving such a small, gorgeous pocket in order to advance one’s artistic craft. Loud Reed put it more bitingly on Songs for Drella, his tribute to Andy Warhol with John Cale: “When you’re growing up in a small town / You say, ‘No one famous ever came from here.’” Yet, much as leaving Ferndorf might have aided in Bertelmann’s success, his recollections are filled with lighthearted childhood excursions to forests and lakes, in snow and sun. The unusual harmonies on “Heimat” express such a child-like sense of discovery and awe. It’s not hard to imagine a wide-eyed little Bertelmann, bundled up in winter clothes and watching the frost fall in clumps from the trees.
“Rode Null”, meanwhile, is a pleasant bike-jaunt through a dirty trail, rhythmically grounded by a repeating phrase of clinking prepared piano, and buttressed by ephemeral high trills. As gorgeous strings whoosh by, we can see our young protagonist open his arms to the wind and the sun. Innocent young love also pops up here, as “Schönes Mädchen” recalls an early attraction with butterfly flutters of piano and curvy string graces. If you’re like me and are imagining the movie for which Ferndorf is the soundtrack, this is the scene where young Bertelmann watches a neighbor girl pick flowers.
On the flipside to the lighthearted reminiscences are the pieces with more gravitas, possessed of wanderlust, longing to explore beyond the natural horizons surrounding young Bertelmann. “Alma” gorgeously captures such feelings of wanting — needing, even — to leave one’s surroundings. It’s part wonder, part joy at the precipice of adventure and new experiences, and yet part sadness and guilt at the thought of abandoning such a nurturing environment. Ultimately, Ferndorf is an achingly beautiful love letter to Bertelmann’s childhood, full of natural imagery and deceptively simple compositions unleashing floodgates of emotion. It’s an album that has left me, at times, both smiling warmly and choked up. There’s an ulterior message here, of the value of one’s past, of tradition, of memories, and it’s hard to imagine someone who wouldn’t be affected by it.