“…it’s not my priority or intention that I’m rebelling against something but I think you can use an instrument which is more an instrument of the establishment but use it to its full potential” – Ian Maleney talks with Volker Bertlemann of Hauschka, who plays two shows at the Sugar Club with Dustin O’Halloran & Johann Johannsson this Sunday, 20th May.
To most people, the piano is a simple instrument. To Volker Bertelmann it is just the starting point for a riotous series of imaginative leaps. Under the name Hauschka, Bertelmann is expanding on the prepared piano theories laid out by John Cage, the playing style of Erik Satie and the rhythmic focus of German techno. By modifiying his instrument with a host of bits and bobs, from bouncing balls to bits of metal, Bertelmann opens up a practically endless scope of sound without ever losing sight of the beat that hides deep within his sound. His music is a subtle mixture of these elements, never allowing one to dominate or become to explicit, which makes the swells and rushes of notes all the more exciting.
Working out of Dusseldorf, he has joined with his FatCat labelmates Johann Johannsson and Dustin O’Halloran to set out upon what they’re calling the Transcendentalists Tour, a triple-headliner evening of music that blurs as many boundaries as it can.
So, tell us about the scene in Dusseldorf. It’s not a city you hear much about, Berlin hogs all the headlines. Dusseldorf is based on bands like Kraftwerk and Mouse On Mars and it also had a punk reputation at some times, especially in the 80s. I was actually living here when that was already gone, I moved to Dusseldorf at the beginning of the 90s. There wasn’t that much going on but at that time. Now there’s a younger generation coming up, who are much younger than me, who I’d say are a picking up a little of the art attitude which is based on the art academy of Joseph Foys, of a kind of strictness and minimalism in the way you express yourself. That sometimes stretches into music and a lot of bands coming from Dusseldorf have quite a close connection to the art world.
You mention a younger generation and I know it’s quite a university town. Is there much of a youth culture there? Not really and maybe that’s the weird mixture of Dusseldorf. A lot of students, they just come here for university and then they go back to their cities to live. Then we have a lot of workers here, like people who are working in service and they earn quite a lot of money because Dusseldorf is the capital of the county, which has the biggest population in Germany. It has the Rhine Ruhr area where a lot of coal mines used to be. So it’s a whole circle of cities with about ten million people that are melting into each other. So it’s quite a big area but on the other side there is also a scene which is quite underground, against the establishment and the money. We have a lot of haute couture and fashion here as well so in a way, the people who are working on music are a lot of the time not rebelling against that, but they are trying to find lines that separate them from this richness that is happening. So I would say if you went to Amsterdam, you would think Dusseldorf has no young people at all because there are not so many young people on the streets.
Do you feel like you’re a part of that underground at all? Well, the funny thing is it’s not my priority or intention that I’m rebelling against something but I think you can use an instrument which is more an instrument of the establishment but use it to its full potential. So I’m using maybe 80% of the sound source of a piano, while normally it is used only 20%. Of course it’s a little bit weird in the first place, but at my concerts a lot of times people, after getting used to the sound of the prepared piano, they wish it back. Once I take all the preparations out, they just think ‘Oh, please put it back because it sounds so rough or raw or interesting’. I’ve always had a strong connection to rock music and dance music. My feeling is that, with my style or the way I’m working on the piano, I’m not separating myself from this scene. They are rather asking me if I can produce their music or if I can play in front of the band. Even my last set, which is circling around the record Salon Des Amateurs, in a way is a step back into my club times. It actually came out of the idea that I wanted to play loud music with a piano as well as quiet, intimate and fragile music, which is quite hard because once you play beautiful melodies on the piano, you can get drawn into this piano style which is hard to get out of. You play these beautiful short pieces which are melancholic, which I usually love, but I was trying to find a perspective for my future.
You weren’t always a piano player though. You have a history in dance music right? I released a first techno record, without piano, on Kompakt – the Cologne based label. It was a record that was remixed by Micheal Mayer and it was called ‘Welcome Back, Kotter’. That was a hit here in 2005 I think it was, or 2004. So that was a really straight-forward prime time techno dance track, nine minutes long. I released those tracks under the name Tonetraeger. I was quite attracted to functional dance music. I was working very minimalistic. We were thinking for days about the question, ‘When should the hi-hat come in?’ or ‘When should we drop the bass line? Or the bass drum?’. There were only five or six elements and you’d bring them in or out and just by having this bouncing in and out, you can actually create a whole world of emotion with the dancing people. It was very interesting for me.
You didn’t stick with that for very long though. After that, after having a couple of vinyl out, I went into more sculptural music with electronic elements; clicks and cuts and noises and things like that, which I thought was also a journey. In general, I like the idea of working with abstract sounds and things like that. Now I was thinking to do the same thing with a piano and I think with Salon Des Amateurs it somehow worked. Some people, when they hear it, say it’s not dance music and it isn’t. It’s just playing with the association of dance music, in my head.
That link to dance music is still very strong though, like with the Salon Des Amateurs remix record and the remix competition on Soundcloud. What prompted those ideas? I’m a big fan of giving stuff of mine away so people can juggle around with it because then I don’t take myself too seriously. People are very scared of giving away their stuff, that other people are mashing it up or not handling it carefully, which I think is reasonable but on the other side, music and development could always only happen if things are taken. In Ireland, because you have such a long singing culture it might be like it is in Germany, songs were carried from one village to another and maybe the songs changed while people were travelling so the song changed on the way. So songs, through the years, were always going through changes. For me, I have to say it’s always important to let things go and let others do something with it.
Of course, when I compose something, it’s my composition but on the other side of that, when I was a singer in a hip-hop band in the 90s, we were signed to Sony music. We played very big festivals and we were handled like a major act so when you’ve gone through that, you know the worst case scenario is when you take yourself too seriously in terms of what you are doing. I think as long as you can just be a human in a café and be happy with yourself then everything is ok. Once you get into this VIP area, which starts straight away once you start working on soundtracks or you get higher and higher in your success, then you really have to be careful.
Finding a balance between giving things away and earning a living seems to be an issue for lots of performers and composers these days, is that something that plays on your mind? Yeah, the only thing is, once you are working and making your income from the music, you can’t give away everything for free. On the other side, which is a tradition in Dusseldorf or I should say, what I learned in Dusseldorf is, that it is also important that you don’t give away too much. To keep things rare and give them a certain value is also very important. You can’t actually spread everything. It has to be in a balance where some things are very rare and other things are open and free. Like limited editions are a great example of keeping things on a rare level.
It’s also very important to stay connected to the underground or people you know who are doing great stuff but maybe were never so popular or whatever. Popularity anyway is something you can’t always explain. Sometimes you can explain it by money but other times you can’t at all because you don’t know where it’s coming from. There are many, many people out there who are extremely talented but they only have a small audience but they are doing wonderful things.