Although Volker Bertelmann is one of the most recognisable 21st Century proponents of what is known as prepared piano, one whose sound is altered by the insertion of alien objects between or upon its strings, hammers and dampers – he was barely aware of the champions of such a practise when he first began his experiments. Even John Cage was a largely unfamiliar name that fateful day when he sat in the studio of his friend Adam Fuest and, frustrated by the sounds he was making, starting placing random objects into the instrument.
What's stranger still, one might think, is the fact that Bertelmann's first forays into the public world were with major label hip hop act God's Favourite Dog and a drum and bass quintet called Nonex. But, when you listen to his music closely, this perhaps makes more sense than you'd initially think: the sound of HAUSCHKA has always been both instinctive and fuelled by a love of rhythm. Bertelmann, you see, is clearly a man who knows his instrument – quite literally – inside out, and he's as unafraid of approaching it with a fresh sensibility as he is capable of drawing upon an unusually broad church of influences.
Volker Bertelmann first began to study the piano when he was nine after an epiphany while attending a Chopin performance in his hometown near Düsseldorf, Germany. Despite seven years of classical training at school, and then a further two years with a private tutor, his interests were never as pure as the tutelage he received. Soon he was employing his new musical skills to play along with his favourite records on keyboards and synthesisers – he had a particular fondness for Jeff Wayne's War Of The Worlds – and, later, to perform with covers bands. After coming of age, he redirected his attention towards a medicine and economic education, but soon turned his back on this to study Popular Music in Hamburg.
By the age of 18, Bertelmann had already composed his first film score, and having picked up a deal with Sony Music in 1994, he spent much of the next few years rapping and playing keyboards with God's Favourite Dog before forming Nonex, with whom he released two albums in 1997 and 1999. As the 21st Century got underway, he hooked up with Torsten Mauss to form Tonetraeger – who blended post-rock and electronica with significant panache – and also with Luke Sutherland (Long Fin Killie) and Stefan Schneider (To Rococo Rot) to work under the name Music A.M.
It was during this period that he became more and more fascinated with electronic music, developing a particular interest in stripping back anything that he considered redundant within his compositions, until the obsession led to him trying to achieve a similar effect without the use of electricity at all. He discovered that placing material within a piano opened the doors to a whole new sonic world in which he could transform his instrument so that it loosely replicated the sounds of all sorts of others, whether bass guitar, gamelan or the hi-hat cymbal of a drumkit.
The first fruits of this work were released by Karaoke Kalk, with Substantial dropping in 2004 and The Prepared Piano a year later. The combination of HAUSCHKA's classicist training, chamber music sensibilities and pop-cultural interests ensured that the often playful – but never disposable – results were far more than an academic exercise in experimentalism. Critical acclaim was matched by respect from his contemporaries: a second version of the album – Versions Of The Prepared Piano – was released later that year, featuring new interpretations and mixes by the likes of Barbara Morgenstern, Mira Calix and Tarwater.
In 2007, HAUSCHKA signed with 130701, an imprint of Fat Cat Records, who provided an early home to Sigur Rós and who have also championed artists with a similarly adventurous spirit to Bertelmann's own, including Max Richter and Sylvian Chameau. He has remained with the label ever since for his solo work, releasing a series of increasingly high profile albums and never afraid to explore beyond his initial parameters. Since 2007's Room To Expand, he's integrated both electronic and more traditional instrumentation into his work, with 2010's Foreign Landscapes finding him working with the Magik Magik Orchestra, and his most recent solo release – 2011's Salon Des Amateurs – inspired by his experience of Düsseldorf's club music scene. Collaborators include drummer Samuli Kosminen (from Iceland's Múm), Calexico's Joey Burns and John Convertino, and celebrated violinist Hilary Hahn, while the project's success was underlined in 2012 with the release of remixes by prominent names including techno legend Ricardo Villalobos and Michael Mayer, co-founder of Cologne's highly influential electronic label, Kompakt.
Bertelmann's taste for collaboration is again revealed by his next two projects, the first of which features Hilary Hahn in a more high profile role. SILFRA, released by Deutsche Grammophon under the artist name Hilary Hahn and Hauschka, is a remarkable album borne of improvisation and recorded in eminent producer Valgeir Sigurðsson's Iceland studio. A new album is also in the pipeline, with Bertelmann having recently spent time recording with local musicians in Kenya.
Ever prolific, Bertelmann has continued to work on numerous other projects throughout the last decade, most notably in the fields of film, theatre, dance and art. As well as various short film soundtracks (including one for the winner of the 2007 Akira Kurosawa Short Film Award, Blotsky, in which he also starred) and four film scores – including Doris Dörrie's Glück, nominated for Best Film Score at the German Film Prize in 2012 – he has also composed for the stage. There his work has included 2006's remix of Wagner's Parcifal (in collaboration with Stefan Schneider) for Berlin's Hebbel Theatre, while in 2011 he composed an 18 minute overture for Rittberger's Puppen, part of the 2011/2012 theatrical season at Düsseldorf's Schauspielhaus. He also founded Düsseldorf ‘s Annual Piano Approximation Festival, which features an always-imposing line-up of internationally renowned experimental artists.
Almost two decades after he began his professional career rapping, Volker Bertelmann aka HAUSCHKA finds himself in the unusual position of being regularly compared to the likes of Eric Satie, John Cage and Steve Reich. (In 2011 he was invited by London's prestigious Barbican to perform as part of Reverbations, a festival celebrating the work and influence of the latter composer.) Always unpredictable, HAUSCHKA continues to offer only one certainty: that the next step he takes will no doubt be as unexpected as the direction from which he has come.
Sony Music proudly announces the release of GUNPOWDER (Original Television Soundtrack), featuring original music by Volker Bertelmann aka Hauschka. Released on December 15th, 2017, with part 1 debut on HBO, Monday, December 18, the three-part thriller miniseries, written by Ronan Bennett (Top Boy) and directed by J Blakeson (The Disappearance of Alice Creed) stars Kit Harington (Game of Thrones) as Robert Catesby is based on 17th century events.
SYND: PRI/Echoes, The Score Direct: MOOD Markets include: New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Portland, Denver, Boulder CO, Sacramento, SC(Statewide), Barcelona INTER: Canada, Spain, Slovakia Online: ZephyrPlanet, MusicasImaginadas, QuietMusic
As humans we love to label things, and to find the right boxes in which things can sit. This is often particularly true for us music nerds. I remember the days of record stores, where things were firmly in different zones and classical music was kept behind a hushed glass door. One of the dividends of our digital world is that if you can now open yourself to the riches of the web and don't have to just stick to what you know - you can now discover bits of music you love in genres you may not have thought you even liked. This new fluidity in our listening habits has combined with a fluidity of expression to mean that many artists are now breaking down the boundaries of genres to make music that can be all kinds of things and appeal to all kinds of people.
So, when on the 13 July 2001 13071 Records was formed, there was no given name for the kind of music they subsequently began to issue - records from the likes of Max Richter, Johann Johannsson and Hauschka. ‘Modern Classical', ‘Post Classical', and ‘Indie Classical' are some of the terms used by critics to describe music that has increased in popularity in recent years. Artists such as Ólafur Arnalds, Valgeir Sigurðsson, Nico Muhley and the whole Bedroom Community in Iceland, Nils Frahm, A Winged Victory for the Sullen have been creating music that is hard to classify but has found a huge audience. 13071 have been joined by labels such as Erased Tapes and Mercury KX, the latter a major label imprint dedicated to this music. A couple of years ago the BBC Proms included a concert featuring Nils Frahm and music duo A Winged Victory for the Sullen, and Ólafur Arnalds sold out his show at the Royal Albert Hall recently in minutes. On Radio 3 in 2015 we broadcast the world premiere performance of Max Richter's ambitious eight-hour epic ‘Sleep' live from the Wellcome Collection's Reading Room in London – it was quite an experience for all who were there and listening on the radio.
So what is this music that so excites and yet slips from our classifying grasp? What's so great about it is its eclecticism. Ólafur Arnalds ‘Island Songs' for example, contains music recorded in various towns in Iceland - everything from rhythmic poetry and the sounds of a church organ to the voice of Of Monsters and Men vocalist Nana Brynfis Hilmarsdóttir singing in a lighthouse.
PHOTO: Travis P Ball