As Hauschka, Düsseldorf, Germany's Volker Bertelmann reimagines the potential of the prepared piano for the 21st century. A technique that involves inserting objects between the instrument's strings or onto its hammers to expand its sonic and operative possibilities, the prepared piano dates back to the late 19th and early 20th century. Hauschka's music touches on the work of the technique's innovators, such as Erik Satie and John Cage, nods to early keyboard works by Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich, and even echoes gamelan's undulating melodies. His early albums, such as 2005's The Prepared Piano, focused on his instrument's distinctive sound, but Hauschka expanded his horizons on 2011's house- and techno-influenced Salon Des Amateurs and 2017's What If, which combined hip-hop-influenced rhythms with rapid-fire player pianos. Along the way, Bertelmann also became a well-regarded composer for film and stage productions; his score to the 2016 movie Lion with Dustin O'Halloran received Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. As broad as the scope of Hauschka's work is, it's unified by the imaginative possibilities not just of the prepared piano, but music itself.
The origins of Hauschka's wide-ranging sounds can be traced back to Volker Bertelmann's musically omnivorous early years. Growing up in a large family in the village of Ferndorf, he started playing piano at age nine by performing at church services. During his teens, he played in rock bands while studying classical piano. Later, he composed music for television and decided to pursue music full-time after studying medicine and business economics in Cologne. In 1992, Bertelmann and his cousin formed the hip-hop duo God's Favorite Dog, who released an album and the singles "Love and Pain" and "Sway" before disbanding in 1995.
Bertelmann took a break from music for a few years, but began composing again after relocating to Düsseldorf. Returning to his classical roots — and adopting the name of composer Vincenz Hauschka as his project's moniker — he experimented with prepared piano and signed to Karaoke Kalk, which released 2004's Substantial and the following year's The Prepared Piano. Bertelmann moved to the FatCat imprint 130701 for 2008's Ferndorf, an homage to his hometown that featured a string duo and brought his music to a new level of prominence. Around this time, he also began to find regular work scoring independent films in Germany.
Bertelmann then released a pair of albums that further expanded Hauschka's music: Foreign Landscapes, a 2010 collaboration with San Francisco's Magik Magik Orchestra, and 2011's Salon des Amateurs, a propulsive love letter to house and techno that featured contributions from members of Calexico and Múm, as well as violinist Hilary Hahn and former Kronos Quartet cellist Jeffrey Zeigler. A remix album including reworkings by Michael Mayer and Matthew Herbert soon followed. Bertelmann reunited with Hahn for 2012's Silfra, a collection of improvisations inspired by Iceland's Silfra rift. That year, he also composed the score for Doris Dörrie's film Glück. On 2014's Abandoned City, Bertelmann returned to his roots: His first solo piano work in almost a decade, it used some of the world's most famous ghost towns as a metaphor for the "sense of hope and sadness" he feels when composing music. 2015 saw the release of A NDO C Y, a collection of Abandoned City outtakes and remixes, as well as the live album 2.11.14.
Bertelmann then focused on scoring work, providing music for dance performances such as Swan of Tuonela, which found him collaborating with Finnish circus performer Ville Walo. His film music included scores for 2015's The Boy and 2016's In Dubious Battle, and Lion, a collaboration with Dustin O'Halloran that earned Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. Hauschka's eighth album, What If, arrived in 2017. Inspired by Bertelmann's speculation on what life could be like in the future, it featured a Roland Jupiter synth, an Eventide H3000 Harmonizer and player piano alongside prepared piano for a sci-fi- and hip-hop-influenced sound. Scoring work dominated Hauschka's 2018, with projects including the films Adrift and The Current War (which reunited Bertelmann and O'Halloran), and dance pieces performed at the Royal Swedish Ballet and Germany's Bundeskunsthalle Bonn. For his 2019 Sony Classical debut, A Different Forest, Bertelmann used pure piano to express the timeless, restorative beauty of nature and humankind's responsibility to protect it. ~ Heather Phares