Entirely free of context, the music that Volker Bertelmann produces under the Hauschka moniker might not be all that impressive to an electronic music fan. The German musician grew up studying classical piano, and he followed that up by forming a hip-hop duo with his cousin. That intersection isn’t exactly new ground — Hauschka’s strongest compositions range up near the high-rises established there before him. But then again, it would be easy to assume that his songs were layered with synth, strings, and percussion, the standard tools to produce an album of wet-gray instrumentals reminiscent of urban decay. But on Abandoned City, Bertelmann uses only a “prepared” acoustic piano, filtered through reverb and distortion.
The prepared piano is a storied concept in the experimental music world, perhaps most famous via John Cage’s work in the ’40s. In order to extend the range of sounds that the instrument could produce, performers manipulate it by wedging things between strings, wrapping the hammers, or placing items on top of the strings. So, when the bass notes on “Elizabeth City” thud like empty caves, it’s because Bertelmann’s dampened the strings, possibly with some cardboard. The seemingly pizzicato high end of “Thames Town” could be coming from a bottle cap attached to the hammers that hit the strings, producing tinny pings. Live video of Hauschka reveals everything from a tambourine to ping pong balls placed methodically in the guts of the instrument.
The tracks on Abandoned City take inspiration from actual societies left by humans, a sort of mournful homage to the mortality of man’s greatest creations. The typewriter-y percussive rattle and acid-wind haze of “Pripyat” get at the empty-set Ukrainian town of the same name, left desolate after Chernobyl. The futurist sway of “Sanzhi Pod City” turns an escalating high-end trill and crackling shiver into something out of the X-Files, all to embody the abandoned UFO-shaped housing complex in Taiwan. Bertelmann clearly has a grasp on his chosen themes, but the concept of the abandoned city isn’t all that diverse, no matter how diverse the locations or structures they’re composed of. These are graying, moldy Polaroids all, albeit displayed in incredible, unique detail.
How much can an album like Abandoned City be assessed based on the ingenuity of its performance? If a band were to reproduce Led Zeppelin II while jumping up and down on one foot blindfolded, is the album better than the original? As good? Now, that’s apples and oranges compared to Hauschka’s recreation of electronic music (or maybe just Granny Smiths and Braeburns), but the underlying question is something to consider. The ingenuity of Bertelmann’s performance on Abandoned City is astounding, his ability to turn an acoustic piano into the various sounds and structures here nothing short of mesmerizing. The compositions themselves aren’t quite as adventurous or diverse, but make a solid entry into a rich field.
Essential Tracks: “Elizabeth City”, “Pripyat”