Hauschka: Versions of the Prepared Piano

Versions of the Prepared Piano
Karaoke Kalk

I didn’t know who Hauschka was when I saw the cover of this album but I noticed that it had Eglantine Gouzy’s name on the credits. “Good,” I thought. I liked the playful Boamaster of hers that came out last year, a wizened but eager fairy-baby of a debut disc inspired by the Kaoss pad that she inherited from a departing boyfriend. On Versions she inherits a piano tune, “Two Stones”, which ends up whispery and nonsensical, as if we were back on Boamaster again. Versions is an album of remixes that also acts as a sampler: it introduces 11 musicians, none of whom are well-known — by which I mean that I don’t know most of them and am assuming that a lot of the rest of you don’t as well.

I went searching for Hauschka and found his website. Hauschka’s real name is Volker Bertelmann; he is a pianist from Dusseldorf. If you believe his publicity photos then Bertelmann has a high, tan-orange forehead and a thinness that gives him the illusion of height, although they haven’t put anyone else in there with him to give this illusion substance so maybe he’s actually very short and doesn’t want anyone to know. In 2005, Bertelmann, short or tall, released an album called The Prepared Piano. It was, “[A] fairly conventional solo piano CD, more New Age than jazz,” wrote Dave Howell, concluding, “All in all, this is both an interesting and listenable work.”

Tunes from The Prepared Piano were handed over to other musicians who have reworked them for Versions. These other musicians seem to have been left to their own devices, which means that we have a spread of differently-charactered songs, ranging from tracks that have a fashioned-old wireless air a little like that of The Real Tuesday Weld, to a piece of glitch-electronica, Nobukazu Takemura’s “Assembler’s Mix” of Bertelmann’s “Kein Wort”. “Assembler’s Mix” repeats a two-note see-saw phrase from the original song until it starts to sound like the rhythm of an asylum inmate knocking her head against a wall.

TG Mauss takes the electronica route as well, though his “Things” is smudgy rather than glitchy. The song swims through an effect that makes the singer’s voice advance and recede as though the listener is hallucinating him through a fever. These two remixes have a cold cosiness at their hearts, a stability that would moulder into stasis if the songs kept going much longer. For all their apparent innovations they circle the known with their whiskers out, this pair of wary, longing cats.

Frank Bretschneider, a Berliner who has been working with electronic soundscapes since the early 1980s, treats “Kein Wort” seriously. He turns it into a drifting, spacious piece made profound by pauses that hang dwindling in the air, as effective as the periods of quiet in soundtracks to Japanese movies. This remix is named “Stumm”.

Vert’s “Rocket Man” comes after “Stumm”. “Rocket Man” acts as a restless body to the other song’s peaceful shadow. It takes the sound of the piano, toughens it up, and boinks it toy-hammer-like while Adam Butler calls himself Rocket Man and enumerates the marvels that Rocket Man can perform, given the opportunity. “Give me a map and a boat and a compass and I’ll take you to Brazil …/ Give me the remains of the day and I’ll make you a year … / Give me a hook and a champagne glass and I’ll make you a chandelier.” And so on.

“Rocket Man” had its genesis in The Prepared Piano‘s “Traffic”, which Bertelmann himself reinvents as the anodyne “Flying Horses”, a song that leaves it until too late to get interesting. His original “Two Stones” has stimulated several of the contributors, including Eglantine Gouzy, into indiefied, sometimes twee, quirk. These are the remixes that tend to sound like The Real Tuesday Weld, although the real Real Tuesday Weld is stronger than the sum of its quirks. “Two Stones” has a short tink-ta-tink of keys which has been picked up by both Gouzy and Wechsel Garland, who give it a starring role in their songs.

Gouzy sings along to Bertelmann’s recorded piano almost as if it was a live accompaniment, leaving it backgrounded but sounding fairly intact while she groans, “Spoon!” over the top and whispers about a man who “found a spoon in a hat.” Cologner Garland sings in a more straightforwardly conversational tone. The Berlin duo Tarwater overworks a cuteness that might have been inherent in the source tune; the musicians aim for artful indie carelessness and hit kitsch.

Barbara Morgenstern’s “Im Schlaf” sounds sweet. Takeo Toyama is thoughtful in “Kotoba Naku”. Mira Calix sings nursery lyrics. “Para Bien”, by Chica and the Folder (a Chilean woman, a German man, respectively) is an inventive and mutable joy. And that is the album.

While I can pick songs from Versions of the Prepared Piano and happily inhale them I’m ambivalent about the compilation as a whole. To really love it I’d have to enjoy Tarwater’s “World of Things to Touch” as much as I like “Para Bien” and I don’t, I can’t. The musicians come from at least four different countries and sing in several different languages and while this non-homogeneity is a wonderful thing, taken one song at a time, it has left the album in toto with a question at its heart: what am I? A collection of bits and pieces; a jar of mild mixed spices. A chance to love Chica and the Folder; a reason to discover that Takeo Toyama’s Hello 88 is out of stock at Boomkat and “only available as import” at Amazon (foo!); an opportunity to admire Frank Bretschneider. Forty-five minutes in which to realise that Versions is more than “interesting and listenable”, so I’m going to improve slightly on the score David Howell gave its parent album and mark it a six out of ten.

RATING 6 / 10