You can find on every record on mine a kind of Buddhist blessing, where I say I have given people this music to use it to maybe reach happiness, to use it in the way they want to use it.
Hauschka – aka Volker Bertelmann – is an inspiring artist and one of the few whose work seems to be flexible, or multidimensional enough to take the strain of multiple reworkings. In fact the interesting thing about Hauschka is that he seems to have managed to carve an identity for his music through other people’s interpretations. A rare feat in these frantic and insecure times. Volker, an unassuming but approachable chap seemed happy to talk about anything. So, we managed to find a quiet spot to chew the cud in one of North Amsterdam’s more gregarious watering holes, Tolhuis. Here’s what transpired.
IN: First of all your new record (Abandoned City) is a cracker; a really stately and elegant record. And I like a lot of your records, mainly because they’re all very different. Now this new one is very different again from the last few remix LPs; so I wanted to know what was the idea behind it?
H: First of all there was a statement that I wanted to make for a solo record again; the last records were always collaborations. This time I wanted to make a record that mainly came out of me. There’s one track where there’s two instrumentalists who helped me out. But all the rest is myself, and the sound sources is me. And the other thing is I wanted to.... maybe get away a little bit from the elegant kind of classical piano in a way that you have this linear, bright, clear sound... And it was more about going back into the area, where I used to work in, like electronic music, and hip hop and all sorts of things that have distortion... And where you can use contemporary pop albums on top of that.
... And I didn’t want to make the set up too big; that was also a challenge where I thought I wanted to make a clear... I wanted to keep the preparation clear, so I could focus on the instrument. Those were the thoughts that were coming together.
IN: I also thought the title of the album was interesting; the idea that this empty city, this wasteland. My interpretation of it was that, because you’ve collaborated so much recently, maybe it was a case of you kicking everyone out, and this was the empty city now... What’s left is the bones of your sound.
H: You can see it like that a bit, but it’s not like that. It’s one step in a long progression. I can see the whole bow in front of me, but I’m at the rising part of it, because in a way I’m trying to figure out modern compositional things with modern pop elements with well, everything that is in me musically I want to bring to the table. Without losing things, but that is not so easy.... because you open boxes, and you see things working, or only working to a certain extent. And you see that other things work in a different kind of way. And slowly you write for different instrument groups and they only work in a particular way too... I’m also working with Hilary Hahn as a solo violinist virtuoso, which I’ve never done before... Which in turn, brings me in touch with the whole idea of virtuosity in classical music. And that, that virtuosity, I was very scared of it; this shadow from the side...
IN: Is that a very German thing, to be scared of this classical background. There are so many German artists at the moment, Nils Frahm being the obvious example... you have so many German musicians who seem to be drawing on that pop aspect of classical music, because Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven are in some ways incredibly poppy. Do you feel that too?
H: No, no not from the music side; now, yes, I’m feeling totally in the line of all these people. But, the problem is actually - and you will have that in England, in Holland, in all over the world - that the classical composer side has dried up in the last hundred years; I would say since 1900 or so. It’s become separate from the rest and you keep playing the old composers [sic] and not really looking for new interpretations...
IN: Do you feel that was also accentuated post war with all the musique concrète composers, the atonal composers?
H: Yeah. There was also music that was in a way, the new music... it was atonal... and the only way to work with classical music was not to get too close in the tonal area, because then you’d get compared and you would never reach the complexity of Beethoven as a kind of approach. To be quite honest I’m trying to get closer to that and investing time in trying to make a long composition in that old way; but also being able to make small pieces on the piano that are edgy and have certain element of bass. I mean I love bass and the idea of music has balls you know, (laughs) and you can see people dancing while you are performing. And normally a piano player doesn’t see that while they perform!
IN: And there’s me thinking it was just those bloody ping pong balls! (Both laugh)
H: But also I mean... there’s a lyrical side to it and a pristine side to piano music and I wanna keep that. And I wanna add something. That’s what maybe Abandoned City is about; going in another direction to find out what I can do with it by myself, so I can have a clear statement when I go back to the collaborators which I LOVE to work with. I think this process, going back, has to happen all the time.
IN: Your music’s always interpreted by other people. And what I think I get from that is, your music is egoless, and you’re quite happy to let people shred what you do and then you go back to that; even when it gets daft... like that track on Versions of the Treated Piano, the track Mister Spoon with that daft vocal (I now try an ear piercing falsetto take on that vocal line. Volker looks unperturbed; maybe he’s heard it all). It’s so funny! But you allow that. There’s no ego with you, therefore? Or is it a question of ego, for other people to interpret your work? Maybe you think your music is open for this, you tell me...
H: To be honest I think having the ego at the right spot, I think that’s important. But losing your ego in terms of your art is great when it comes to the outside. Once it’s done... You can find on every record on mine a kind of Buddhist blessing, where I say I have given people this music to use it to maybe reach happiness, to use it in the way they want to use it. And I think definitely that is why I am making music; for my joy. Not just putting it on a record. But when people take it and they like it; it’s a relationship. And in earlier times I think that maybe ego was a lot of times in the way [sic] of growth. Growth only happens if the ego disappears and you step back; and then you only learn.
So I think you’re right; the remix pieces, as well as all the work that is connected with my records, like videos, stories... everything is something that I give people and I let them do what they do. For example for video clips I stick the music online I say, there are my pieces, if you like my pieces, please, make a video. If you don’t like one then I’ll find someone else. And then they choose. And even if it’s not a single. And me and the record company say hey man, it’s better to have an inspired video than a rule where you have to have a piece of video for a particular piece of music.
IN: That touches on the idea of content, which is something that is increasingly bothering me; a lot of stuff is there because it feels it has to be there, to keep up. You sidestep that pretty wel, because it contains a sort of mystery to it. Do you manage that deliberately?
H: I dunno, it’s not my purpose [sic] maybe it’s uhm... the spices (laughs) that are there, in a way. I think I have the possibility to make music that has abstraction and accessibility and I think that’s not easy. I think you are either classical and melodic or you are more abstract, but having both things in one piece is weird to listen to AND create I should say. But once people listen to it they are... what happens is they open up for abstract and melodic music
IN: Your music is “African, Afro-American”, in the music history sense of that word...in that there’s a lot of hip-hop and soul in there.
H: Oh yes there is. And you can open up, and use the music and use it as a part of your background, or your childrens’... My daughter she’s sixteen and she has pieces of mine in between Katie Perry or hip-hop or MIA or whatever and there’s not like that.... distinction...her friends may say, what’s that? They may ask if it’s a piano they hear, but I like that, that it’s not preoccupied by peoples’ minds. Sometimes people try to push me in an area where they try to get me to be preoccupied (laughs) by whatever clichés they have, then it’s easy for myself to say yeah, YOU should do that; you should have the chance to discover that idea for yourself! (Laughs)
IN: I wonder how many people do that now, push things away... given this pressure to do everything and be on top of everything. I have the same thing with writing this mag. I sometimes think this about writing; thinking oh I should listen to everything and write about it, but it’s much more rewarding to write about what actually interests you because that comes across to the reader. And anyway you end up eventually chasing things that don’t exist.
IN: Changing tack... the last 15 years or so there’s been a lot of electronic music in Germany; an explosion in piano based electronic music, with all the labels, Staubgold, Erased Tapes, Karaoke Kalk, Morr, Monika, City Centre Offices... I mean there are loads... with this idea of taking keyboard music; shredding it, making it into a new sort of classical music, making it pop...
What is it with Germany and the keyboard or piano do you think?
H: Well a lot of pianos come from Germany. Even Steinway was started in Germany. I think the sound is more... in a way it’s looking towards the option of getting back to a place where we were before the war. I mean before the war there was a high intellectual erm... very productive society and when you look at people in the 1920s, Berlin was a melting pot for new things. And of course other countries had that but...
IN: But you had such a cataclysmic break
H: Yeah... with the war you had such a huge gap; with the war the intellectuals left and then after the war for a time there was nothing else happening. There was also this huge gap of disorientation where people were thinking erm.... When I was in a pop band in the 80s I was actually shy to do English songs, because I felt everything that was good was coming from England and America, and what I was doing, well.... nobody would want to listen, especially out of my village (Laughs). And that was the conscious feeling in me. And then the techno and electronic music in the late eighties started to open up things in Germany again. And I’m talking much later than Kraftwerk. I mean Kraftwerk was a band that was a very extraordinary thing, but it took much longer to be a German musician to be accepted outside of Germany.
IN: And inside I think, to a certain extent. I was invited to Gronau in 2007 for the opening of Can’s Inner Space Studios in the pop and rock museum. And because no-one knew about them, (apart from me and two other British guys) they had to round up people from Gronau to come and participate in the TV programme. So trying to create something that was international and national was obviously damned difficult for German artists.
H: No, no, that’s true, but to be quite honest it’s an advantage as well as a disadvantage. I think you can only produce things that are really new and fresh in a kind of abandoned place, a place where you are isolated for years and you never think about what people will think or write up about your music; where no-one will think that you are a lunatic or a stupid asshole that wants to be famous. If you take this all away then suddenly... And then some people start to feel something is fresh. In a way Düsseldorf helps me a lot because in Düsseldorf I would say the community there is a very high consciousness of musical history. And it’s very hard to fool them; so whenever you do something or claim it as new, they will come back straightaway and say man I’m sorry we had this guy or this guy. And on the other hand it’s so small. We have the freedom of saying okay; yeah I can do this, even if it’s been done before.
IN: It’s rich, upper class as well, a rich city in the middle of an industrial, working class area.
H: It’s also the capital of Nordrhein-Westfallen; lots of companies are based there. There are a huge amount of art collectors [sic], which means people who are wealthy invest a lot in keeping the cultural life busy; because a lot of cultural life wouldn’t exist without private funding. It’s maybe a little bit more like America where people are more into private
IN: I think that’s very German anyway; all the early industrial areas in the Ruhrgebied a lot of the early industrialists used to put money back into their towns, in places like Oberhausen...
H: And we rebuilt the old coalmines into tourist centres, but keeping the architecture. Trying to keep some of it but use it in a new, artistic way.
IN: I’m going back on my tracks.... So Germany has this thing to deal with musically; firstly after the war where there’s this trauma that takes almost 25 years to work itself out, which is understandable.... but you also have this thing that’s also there, of incredible history of Bach, Beethoven, blah blah, and the later 19th century composers like Wagner, Brahms, Bruckner. And you think that it’s only now that there’s been a response from urban labels trying to make this predominantly pastoral, classical heritage modern city music.
H: Yeah! No, totally, totally. I even get more and more requests for commissions from symphonic orchestras where people want me to write the way these older guys were writing, which is scaring me to death, even thinking about that.... But on the other side, I think there’s no way of NOT doing that (Laughs).
IN: I mean they were human after all... honest; like Bach he used to get pissed in the town square and then write surrounded by all sorts of people, but he just got on with it; (laughs).
H: Absolutely! And this new direction also brings back music as a part of our culture because in a way, not only our... maybe the classical composers in Europe feel isolated, and classical musicians in general feel the urge of opening up to music that is contemporary. That doesn’t mean that they suddenly play the horrible part of it; like an orchestra trying to play Pharrel, these weid cross overs that is awful. (Laughs). But they want to feel part of the modern world.
IN: Germany has this tradition, like Britain, where the pastoral tradition in English music is very clear; Vaughan Williams, Holst or Peter Warlock or Brittain are somehow intrinsically linked into the British folk rock tradition of the 1970s and that is now again resurfacing in the last 10 years. By the way you know about Holst’s lunatic festivals in a church in 1917-18? You should... ANYWAY. There are predetermined musical pathways there to how to show off a tradition. And in Germany you have been able in the last 20 years to move the whole Wildeman, “pastoral /oak leaf” tradition into a city... It’s a big step
H: It is a big step. Maybe the industrialisation in Germany was something that was somehow very strongly connected to our artistic output. Many people were not only horrified by it, but they were also fascinated by construction and automation. I can understand what you say; and I would add that there’s a much stronger melancholic element and a very strict rhythmic element which is very Russian, that is very difficult to find in Anglo American music. I would put it in the same line as techno and erm.... like music like the German wave... the Neue Deutsche Welle.
IN: Wir Bauen Eine Neue Stad!
H: I think at first this wasn’t great to use it as a language, because I think people still associated language and sounds like that with Hitler and the Nazi time. But if you direct it away from that time... there’s a bigger feeling growing that you can be creative just as you are, and you don’t have to think about the past in a way that it’s open.
IN: There is a feeling - I think - that you can laugh a lot of the angst off now, in a way. Whilst I think there have always been things in post war Germany that flirted with the Nazi stuff; to take it on or to redeem it or cleanse it or whatever, now there’s an acceptance that they can be twisted with impunity and no-one innocent’s going to get hurt. Which is good.
H: Absolutely but not only in that case it’s also in, for example writing music for classical instrument that is tonal. There’s no longer the feeling that...
IN: You’re all going to automatically start a sports vereinigung in the woods?
H: Yeah! You can actually have fun making classical music! I recently met a guy who is a professor at the Düsseldorf classical university and he was interviewing me for a magazine. And he brought me this book and it’s a biography on late 1800s about Beethoven, and he was saying that there were a few things he wanted to show me and then he showed me all these passages of Beethoven talking about collaborations and improvising and how he was open for new ideas working with other people.
IN: I never saw Beethoven as a collaborator.
H: No! I mean he was just playing with his violin teacher and she was not a virtuoso, but he was saying how much fun it was working with her. So slowly people become aware in Germany that there was not a guy sitting like a nerdy genius – he was also sitting in a bar and performing with people. Maybe they had a broader knowledge I terms of composition because they learnt the cadenza say from scratch.
IN: And – maybe it’s me but it seems there’s a bigger awareness in German electronic music of commenting on what’s happening now in Germany; you hear all these things trying to find something in Germany; say Guido Moebius with those recent LPs about spirituals...
H: Yeah because there’s a lack of history but a long feeling for tradition, and we have a lot of traditional areas in Germany; and I think that’s not a bad thing. Only when it’s narrow minded and racist. Then it’s awful. But if you can use that tradition, and if it brings a better feeling about you and where you are from, then you can raise it up and present it like a gift. I think that’s fucking awesome. Because the world is so small you can know about every fucking accident on the planet, it’s important to find a physical angle, for yourself. I have the impression that because I was raised in this very traditional area I want to find peace in it. I was a long time against that area, but now it’s nice. It (going back there) doesn’t mean I hate other people but I want to find strength there. There were people who were crazy and bad there, but there were also things there that were so important.
And Germany is much better in English now...
IN: It’s incredible the last 10 years the use of English in Germany. It’s really noticeable.
H: On the other side of the coin, I remember being in Wales recording, in the Brecon Beacons. I was hanging out with my friend Adam Hughes who was the studio owner at Twin Peak Studio. I was there with my fist hip hop project because he was producing that. And we talked a lot about language barriers and he said after hanging out with us in Germany (and we were talking the whole time in English) when he went home to his wife, she couldn’t understand him because his whole manner of speaking English had changed! He was trying to describe things from certain angles. And maybe that’s because the German language is so analytical and descriptive in certain areas; maybe it’s not so good at expressing... it has a character for expressing emotions but there’s definitely a lack in the emotive area; something you have in English words a lot. In English you have a lot of shorter ways of going to the point.
IN: I have this a lot when I try to speak my bad Dutch – because yes know it’s band but when you get it right you still think “ fucking hell can I just skip about five sentences so I can tell you what I really mean?”
H: You know, I’m the first generation that has no war experience and we feel a big resonance in the places where I come to, and with the English usage it means that I can open up and get back to before the war.
IN: I think it’s probably a bigger timespan; you could take out all the period from Bismarck on couldn’t you. Maybe Germany is drawing psychologically on much older roots, to the period around 1830s or 1848; the Liberal, federal thing, its real roots. It’s avoiding that whole 1870-1945 route. I mean you lot could now imagine Bavaria going. And no-one really cares.
IN: It’s an interesting period to be a German I think.
H: Absolutely. And a great time to exist in the world with an attitude that combines modernism with old traditions; in a positive way. In the digital era a lot of things will get lost, like the strong elements of old knowledge and intuition, intensity and physicality, and I think it’s time now to bring them on the table again.
IN: Your physicality expressed by ping pong balls in the piano?
H: Absolutely! And it’s a physical sound. I’m more like a Smyth like a musician. I am trying to get sounds out of this physical instrument. And it makes the audience curious about it, because it’s physical.