Hauschka Takes Us Back to Ferndorf
I tend to agree with Steve Reich on the subject of minimalism, a self-proposed genre whose label is borrowed more from a chronological standpoint than the actual musical content involved. As Reich claimed, it is merely a “convenient way” of classifying artists in the vein of himself, Philip Glass, and John Cage (among several others), all composers who use prevalent trademarks of unified minimalism such as focused repetition and melodic stagnation within a tone that is usually representative of classical or electronic music. Despite such glaring stylistic similarities, every prominent minimalist musician sounds remarkably different from one another in their artistic delivery, prompting Reich’s beliefs to be of a selflessly considerate nature. Considering that there are evident arguments against even the concept of a genre in the first place – with there being no middle-point between it being too open or pretentiously restricted – I suppose you could say this for most genres. Still, the amount of variation in a stripped-down style like minimalism nearly makes it all ironic, as not classifying something that can be so simultaneously complex and simplistic would draw up even more debate. As new artists look to capitalize on such stylistically tied influences, it only makes modernized sense for them to ignore the components of the past and attempt to tie in other elements that, while still largely unclassifiable, end up being more definitively involved.
Grouping Volker Bertelmann into any of the above aforementioned categories would be a crime, as Reich would likely agree. The German musician utilizes a variety of components that are reminiscent of accustomed minimalism, though his additional involvement of elements involving pop, jazz, and even electronica causes his eclectic approach to make a singular classification irrelevant, especially in the world of minimalism. I suppose that grouping him into a form of modern avant-garde classical music would be broad enough to support him, though even that may be too linear. Going under the alias of Hauschka, Bertelmann has been releasing material on the Berlin-based Karaoke Kalk label since 2004. Two of his first releases, Substantial and The Prepared Piano, were released respectively in 2004 and 2005, exhibiting Bertelmann’s potential and glaring talent as a composer but failing to generate much buzz. Both albums saw generally simplistic songs being played within a complex method of playing known as “prepared piano”. By placing a variety of objects like aluminum paper, guitar strings, and wedges of leather in certain places on the instrument, consequently altering the mechanical aspect while steering toward a new melodic approach. The objects vary drastically, and choosing what and how to use it is part of the art itself. The modifications emitted an unconventional sound that varied in use, from a corroded to vibrant sensation. These effects could end up spurring anything from a rhythmic accompaniment to a melodic transition, all engineered by Bertelmann’s keen sense of musicianship.
While Bertelmann is certainly not the creator of the “prepared piano” method (19th century French composer Erik Satie is often credited with that, in addition to John Cage and Henry Cowell for its contemporary revival), his innovative approach within the style makes it impressive nonetheless. Despite the impressive methodical nature of The Prepared Piano, it was not until 2007 – when Bertelmann released Room to Expand – that he started to draw recognition and widespread critical acclaim. A generally stripped-down affair consisting of solo recordings and electronic overdubs, the album was adored enough to launch Bertelmann on a variety of tours that stretched from the US (with Múm) to Japan (with Colleen). He also played a few shows with Max Richter, a previously featured fellow German composer who is in a similar stylistic realm to Bertelmann. Considering the high level of acclaim that Room to Expand deservedly garnered, a grin comes to my face when thinking about how well its follow-up, Ferndorf, is going to be received. In terms of both method and content, it is a considerably more expansive release that sees Bertelmann at his creative peak, at least so far. The most noticeable transition is Bertelmann’s involvement with strings, as he enlisted the cellist duo of Insa Schirmer and Donja Djember to make the overall feel more cohesive.
The album’s title, Ferndorf, translates to “distant village”, a reference to a village in central Germany where Bertelmann grew up before moving to Cologne. Several of the tracks reflect on Bertelmann’s loving relationship with nature, a feeling that has been eroded as people increase in age and lose their touch with innocence. The village allowed him to experience nature in a wholesome form, with this childhood experience being the basis for the entire album. Most of the tracks were named after such natural entities too; “Rode Null” refers to a mountain that was situated behind Bertelmann’s parents’ house, “Freibad” speaks of a body of water located in a nearby forest, and the improvised “Morgenrot” is a reference to a window in his former bedroom that embraced the rising sun each morning. In addition to “Morgenrot”, several other tracks were also completely improvised, notably “Blue Bicycle”, “Alma”, “Nadelwald”, and “Neuschnee”. With its catchy lead piano melody and initial brooding strings, a track like “Freibad” is distinctive and precise enough to be recognized as an intricately engineered work, but Bertelmann’s improvised songs actually resonate with the same artistry and sense of committment. In fact, his sense of adventure is often expanded, as is shown on excellent tracks like “Blue Bicycle” and “Weeks of Rain”, a melancholic closer named after the rainy climates of Ferndorf.