Renowned pianist and Oscar-nominated film composer Hauschka (Volker Bertelmann) returns to the RNCM to perform his forthcoming album A Different Forest. The German pianist has spent over a decade inquisitively tampering with his instruments, and is now recognised as the world’s leading proponent of the prepared piano. What makes his forthcoming album different, though, is that it features Bertelmann for once putting down his tinkering toolkit, and approaching the piano in a more traditional way.
For someone who is frequently compared with the likes of Eric Satie, Steve Reich and John Cage, it may come as a surprise to learn that Bertelmann’s professional music career started with rap. Major label hip hop act God’s Favourite Dog represented his first big break, followed by his work with drum and bass quintet Nonex. Though ostensibly far-removed from his current exploits, echoes of these groups can be heard in the multifaceted style of Bertelmann’s music, not least in Hauschka’s preoccupation with rhythm.
Whilst working with God’s Favourite Dog and Nonex, Bertelmann was also exploring other musical avenues – ones which combined his first instrument, the piano, with electronic music. One day, rather by chance Bertelmann stumbled across a way of using the piano to emulate the percussive sounds he’d been making in Nonex. By placing different materials and objects into the piano, he could vastly expand the sonic world at his fingertips. At this time, Bertelmann had no idea that John Cage had himself stumbled upon a similar idea some sixty years earlier – he was employing it to an entirely different end, of course.
Hauschka was officially born with the release of the 2004 album Substantial. This is a tender, atmospheric, and highly personal album based on improvisation. Its tracks are compositionally simple, and yet their narrative depth is impressive. This record was followed up with 2007’s The Prepared Piano, whose title duly nods to Mr Cage. This more playful album sees the pianist getting more inventive with his preparations, timbrally expanding his instrument with wood, foil, paper, and basically anything he can get his hands on.
In the decade that’s passed between the release of The Prepared Piano and now, Bertelmann has been extremely productive. As well as releasing a series of quality albums which continually push the boundaries of his instrument (as well as adding electronic embellishments), he has built a prolific career writing scores for films, including his soundtrack for the 2016 hit Lion, scored in collaboration with Dustin O’Halloran. This year, he also wrote the music for the new US mini-series Patrick Melrose, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
Bertelmann’s current point of focus is his forthcoming album A Different Forrest. In a surprising move, the pianist has decided to do away with his preparations in this album, opting instead for a return to the pure piano. Thematically, the album revolves around Bertelmann’s experience of nature as a metaphor for the pursuit of the meaning of life, with nature being epitomised by the image of a forest. ‘Curious’ – the first single – is a thing of sparse beauty, exploring differences in shade, tone and complexity. So too is ‘Dew and Spiderwebs’, a serene depiction of dawn.
Though lacking the sonic experimentation of his previous records, A Different Forrest feels like Bertelmann at his compositional peak. With his performance at the RNCM being one of just three dates on his UK tour, Manchester is in for something very special.