Since 2004, Volker Bertelmann – aka Hauschka – has, steadily earned a remarkable reputation as a purveyor of imaginative, distinctive, prepared piano music. On What If – which finds him adding player pianos (also known as pianolas) to his arsenal – Bertelmann expands his range even further, defying expectations and delivering what is without a doubt his most ingenious album yet.
It’s somewhat astonishing, given his recent schedule, that Bertelmann has found time to record this eighth solo studio album at all. Since 2014’s Abandoned City, the Düsseldorf composer has released a collection of remixes and outtakes from Abandoned City (A NDO C Y) as well as a live album (2.11.14). He’s also toured the world, contributed to dance performances – Swan of Tuonela found him reinterpreting Jean Sibelius’ tone poem alongside Samuli Kosminen and Markus Hohti for a ballet choreographed by Finnish circus performer Ville Walo – and worked with a variety of musicians and ensembles. Furthermore, Bertelmann has found increasing amounts of work as a soundtrack composer, developing scores for a number of documentaries and feature films, not least James Franco’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle and, alongside Dustin O’Halloran, Lion, for which they’ve both been nominated for a Golden Globe. Nonetheless, despite this rush of activity – or perhaps even inspired by it – What If reveals itself as the work of a man hungry to explore new sounds, eager to experiment with new approaches, and undeniably reveling in this irrepressible outpouring of creativity.
For Bertlemann, the opportunity to record another album of his own was a welcome one. “My solo work,” he explains, “is autonomous, and I can choose every step from the beginning without any outside influence. I definitely decided with What If to make a record that might be my most radical. The lyrical piano has disappeared, and the sounds I’m fascinated by – like noise and electronic elements – have taken over.” In practice, this means that this time Bertelmann used an old Roland Jupiter 4 synthesizer and an Eventide H3000 Harmonizer, as well as engaging with his trademark technique of utilizing unusual objects – art erasers, for instance – to treat (or ‘prepare’) the piano. More importantly, however – and in a break from his traditional methodology – he programmed parts for player pianos, exploiting the speed at which they could play, manipulating the resulting sounds, and building layers to emphasize a composition’s meter.
Not for the first time, Bertelmann decided to construct his new record around a conceptual framework. But while, for example, 2011’s Salon Des Amateurs employed the prepared piano’s percussive qualities to explore his love of house and techno music, What If aims to provoke reflection beyond the musical sphere with the titles of the both the album and its individual tracks. “I had the idea of doing an album that is, in a way, a statement about the world in which we’re living and in which I see my kids growing up,” Bertelmann elaborates. “What If deals with utopian concepts, and speculates about the world in thirty years’ time. The more I feel questions being raised, the more I try to understand how activity is needed to make the drastic changes required, and there are still people out there who deny that global warming or other similar circumstances exist. Even scientists can’t convince them anymore, so I wanted to dedicate this to such thoughts. The record is there to create awareness for certain topics, but I didn’t want to make it too heavy. It’s more like a very playful way of dealing with our perspectives.”