Hauschka: What If

Volker Bertelmann's minimal arrangements are carefully, even lovingly constructed. As complex and challenging as this collection can be, it feels honest above all else.


What If

Label: Temporary Residence
US Release Date: 2017-03-31
UK Release Date: 2017-03-31

If piano-driven music is often most suggestive of the outer surface of the instrument -- the pristine, orderly black-and-white keys or the immaculate curvature of a grand piano -- Hauschka's music reminds one more of the mechanical elements within. What If, German composer Volker Bertelmann's eighth full-length release under the moniker, is as taut as a string and as aggressive as a hammer. Like much of his output, the record prominently features prepared pianos whose deconstructed sound illuminates physicality and imperfection. This is not an album for drifting off into a gentle reverie, but rather one that jerks you, uncomfortably perhaps, into the present.

With his compositions, Bertelmann seems eager to remind us that the piano is a percussion instrument after all, and What If is far more interested in rhythm than melody. On opening track "I Can't Find Water", he adds electronic whirring and clattering that lend an industrial sheen to the piece, but these serve mostly to accent and highlight the rhythms already put in place by the piano itself. The track feels like an assembly line where all the parts have come to life at once, held together with mechanical precision yet just disordered enough to sound human.

The dominant mood of the album is anxiety, which Bertelmann conveys largely through speed and repetition. Individual notes are rarely plucked only once, but rather are insistent, urgently wrought many times over, like someone ruminating over a troublesome thought. Elsewhere, this repetition is achieved more through electronic processing, as on "My Kids Live on Mars", which features an arid thwapping sound like a sputtering engine. Yet What If does not drown in its own anxiety, often finding ways to sublimate it into something more useful. The same track, for example, also features a more considered, poignant piano line overlaying the frantic buzz, preventing the composition from dissolving entirely in worry.

"I Can't Express My Deep Love" is the most straightforward and "pretty" piano piece here. It too is lovely and, well, expressive, moving dynamically between tempos and making use of pauses and drifting tremolos. Arriving at the midpoint of the album, it is a welcome respite that helps ward off fatigue from the more experimental, fretful numbers. "Nature Fights Back", coming directly afterward, unfortunately, snuffs out its poignant mood in the record's only misstep. The track features many of the same rhythmic elements as found elsewhere but somehow feels comical, like a caricature. It sounds like something that could soundtrack a silent movie about a nefarious, mustache-twirling gangster involved in a slapstick car chase. Comic relief, perhaps, but in this case, it is an unwelcome break from the rest of the album's carefully curated mood.

Gladly, the remaining three tracks are a return to form. "Familiar Things Disappear", one of the most overtly electronic offerings and a highlight of the record as a whole, features atmospheric, nearly apocalyptic analog synths and dramatic, booming percussion while nonetheless retaining Bertelmann's characteristic subtlety. "Trees Only Exist in Books", armed with a whimsical title like something out of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, is the album's lengthiest piece at seven-and-a-half minutes, and also one of its sparest. The track starts off with glacial gongs as if time itself is grinding to a halt, before a swell of strings overtake it and provide us with a denouement of all the work's tension.

What If manages the ambitious task of making anxiety and nervousness sound not only palatable but gratifying and engaging. While an undeniably cerebral work, the album unflinchingly maintains its emotional core throughout. Bertelmann's minimal arrangements are careful, even lovingly constructed. As complex and challenging as this collection can be, it feels honest above all else. If you agree to follow along with its subtle modulations in mood and makeup, it will prove to be an edifying listen.





Political Cartoonist Art Young Was an Aficionado of all Things Infernal

Fantagraphics' new edition of Inferno takes Art Young's original Depression-era critique to the Trump Whitehouse -- and then drags it all to Hell.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

OK Go's Emotional New Ballad, "All Together Now", Inspired by Singer's Bout with COVID-19

Damian Kulash, lead singer for OK Go discusses his recent bout with COVID-19, how it impacted his family, and the band's latest pop delight, "All Together Now", as part of our Love in the Time of Coronavirus series.


The Rules Don't Apply to These Nonconformist Novelists

Ian Haydn Smith's succinct biographies in Cult Writers: 50 Nonconformist Novelists You Need to Know entice even seasoned bibliophiles.


Siren Songs' Merideth Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels Debut As a Folk Duo (album stream + interview)

Best friends and longtime musical collaborators Merideth Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels team up as Siren Songs for the uplifting folk of their eponymous LP.


Buzzcocks' 1993 Comeback 'Trade Test Transmissions' Showed Punk's Great Survivors' Consistency

PopMatters' appraisal of Buzzcocks continues with the band's proper comeback LP, Trade Test Transmissions, now reissued on Cherry Red Records' new box-set, Sell You Everything.


Archie Shepp, Raw Poetic, and Damu the Fudgemunk Enlighten and Enliven with 'Ocean Bridges'

Ocean Bridges is proof that genre crossovers can sound organic, and that the term "crossover" doesn't have to come loaded with gimmicky connotations. Maybe we're headed for a world in which genres are so fluid that the term is dropped altogether from the cultural lexicon.


Claude McKay's 'Romance in Marseille' Is Ahead of Its Time

Claude McKay's Romance in Marseille -- only recently published -- pushes boundaries on sexuality, disability, identity -- all in gorgeous poetic prose.


Christine Ott Brings the Ondes Martenot to New Heights with the Mesmerizing 'Chimères'

France's Christine Ott, known for her work as an orchestral musician and film composer, has created a unique new solo album, Chimères, that spotlights an obscure instrument.


Man Alive! Is a Continued Display of the Grimy-Yet-Refined Magnetism of King Krule

Following The OOZ and its accolades, King Krule crafts a similarly hazy gem with Man Alive! that digs into his distinct aesthetic rather than forges new ground.


The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.


ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.


Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.