Volker Bertelmann is a German musician who practices the art of the prepared piano and releases music under the guise Hauschka. So far this specific guise has generated sixteen albums and eight eps. Among them was a sound track for a film called The Boy and Bertelmann has also written the score for an Australian film called The lion. Bertelmann also scores for classical instruments and choirs amongst all the other duties that is the lot of a practicing modern classical musician and composer.
Innerversitysound: Having read through a lot of your interviews now there seems to be quite an emphasis on places, moments in time as inspirations and having an almost geographic structure to their composition. That you take inspiration from the happenstance of how you navigate the world. How does the idea of the re-release of Room to Expand (expanded) fit with this sensibility, if it is indeed a sensibility you hold?
Volker Bertelmann: Room to Expand was an album recorded in 2007. In a sense I named the record this because of the step of opening the structure of the prepared piano towards other instruments and just starting with the ability of using many different sounds. I felt that was a step into expanding and widening the scope. So mainly that was my first idea, that’s why we also made pictures of the preparations I am using. Which was very funny because it was made with these huge Polaroid picture on the cover, and in a way that was the first idea that I had. I am feeling that spaces and places and architecture give me a lot to think about, because they also put me in context with nature and my thoughts. I think architecture is establishing the thoughts of someone being surrounded by whatever other objects or by trees and by nature and trying to make himself aware of what he wants to have in the certain spots. I think life is always about that, putting yourself in context with your surroundings, and so that is very important for me.
Innerversitysound: In revisiting the album you have expanded the amount of tracks. An immediate question would be whether these are racks that were made at the same time but not utalised, or tracks that have been worked on that fit with the sensibility of the album. Can you give us your story about how and why the album was extended?
Volker Bertelmann: When Fatcat was approaching me for re-releasing the album he was asking me if it would be ok if they released tracks that I sent them at that time. It’s very funny if after six years you get tracks from yourself that you had nearly forgotten. So I felt very touched by this, because in a way it shows you a period but at the same time, because they were not so much used, they are quite fresh for me. They felt like tracks that I really loved at that time, I forgot about them. They fit very well with this period. There is only one track that I found on my hard drive while I was listening to those tracks where I felt, ‘this could be a track that is good for this’ and that was done a little later.
Innerversitysound: You have mentioned before your love of stories and I am thinking also about how you like to reinvent yourself. Yet the reissue, and presumably certain touring demands, would have you revisiting certain geography of the past. The reinventing impulse and the revisiting impulse are kind of at odds. How do you reconcile these disjunctive impulses?
Volker Bertelmann: To be quite honest I think reinvention and moving onwards has always got something to do with being aware of the past. It is the same about knowing about traditional stuff and being modern, doesn’t mean that you are avoiding the traditional things. In a way I feel myself in that context as well, in this case it was much more really a wish of the record label. As you know I am no longer anymore with Fatcat, so Fatcat has a certain amount of records of mine and I think that they felt that they would love to rerelease these albums as vinyl records. Because a lot of people are collecting vinyl records nowadays and the CD in a way, I wouldn’t say disappears but I think there is a devalualation of CD’s. I think a lot of people are either taking vinyl, or they do a download. For example I am selling not so many CD’s as in the earlier times. So they wanted to re-release it and so when they asked me, I think it is always nice that people can get a catalog of all the periods I was in and what was the next step. So my most interest in this reissue is to give a complete picture to fans. It’s not really my approach to go in there and sit in my living room with candle lights and just put this record on and ‘I am celebrating myself’. I’m not a big fan of that.
Innerversitysound: Your taking up the prepared piano is a story in itself, in that it tracks the instrument that you are most prepared for and yet holds true to your sense of happenstance and accident as being great tools in creation and invention. Can this methodology hold true for those who are prepared to make truly systematic attempts to change the nature of the constructed landscape of sound?
Volker Bertelmann: Yes they can. I think there is a huge influence of randomness and I think at the same time I think modern sounds are going through waves… Electronic sounds for instance are always limited to the synthesiser or the synthesis that you are using and every instrument has certain limits. I think the prepared piano and the randomness, the accidents, that are happening with that, because they are not controllable sometimes gives you a lot of weird sounds that even within their nature that you know. For instance drum sounds or percussion sounds where you think, ‘this sounds in a way like a bongo’, but it is not a bongo. I think these kind of connections are happening all the time. So this is very influential, I think for me, and I can actually see that there are more and more music pieces where I can actually hear prepared piano in because it has such a wide range of different sounds. They are not used like in John Cage’s composition’s which I love as well. There is a very clear pointing to each different sound and I think sometimes they are used in functional positions, like a high-hat or you can hear that there is a kind of bass drum used or a bass line that is used with a prepared piano. So I think there is a lot of stuff coming out of that.
Innerversitysound: Is there a point where this method truly breaks down and a truly structured attempt reaps more rewards in terms of its possible creative effect?
Volker Bertelmann: Well to be quite honest I think that the randomness has the same habits as the notation, you know. You always get into cycles of repetition and you feel like you want to go somewhere else, you want to use something different. I think the question is rather if you are aware, and I am purposefully not mentioning the fans and the people who follow you, because if you think about them as well then maybe you are in a deep trap. Because you follow the expectations that other people have and maybe you follow the image, which you think that you have outside. So in a way what I try to do is be aware for myself, what are the next steps, and one of my methods to get out of this trap is to strengthen the weaknesses. That is one method for me so when I know I am weak in reading notation, I am forcing myself to write music that I have to recreate by notation. At the moment I am in that period and at the moment I am writing a Cello concerto for a German Cellist called Nicolas Altstaedt. He’s a very good cellist and it will be a forty minute cello solo, not a cello concert, but it will be a full cello concerto with a string section and me on the prepared piano. And I have to write that down. If I am failing and the other string players are looking at me and saying ‘hey man you have written this, so come on’. I am putting myself into the position where I have to learn. Which I have done as well with the prepared piano as well. In a way that was a therapy for me to losing the fear of not being able to do something with the instrument without preparation. Without any kind of thought, to just go out on stage and just be. That was enough. This is one approach. I think that I succeeded, there were certain moments when I thought this was not a good idea. But mostly it was a good idea. So I think that is mainly one method where I try to being open and finding other ways.
Innerversitysound: There is somehow a sense of the anarchic that is born from the prepared piano and yet you are able to create comprehensive long form pieces which hold the demand for structure and memory while at the same time allowing for chance. How do you navigate these seemingly contradictory impulses with equanimity?
Volker Bertelmann: I am trying to lose control. That is the main thing. I am not trying to hold onto things, like I would hold in a taught way. I mean the things that were taught to me I know them but I consciously throw them away as an idea. So when I have a beat, and I know the beat is running, and I have a metronome, I don’t see it as a metronome, I see it as a traffic jam or something like that. So I take something else because during the traffic jam, can be somebody running past the traffic jam with another tempo. So I am just seeing the elements as individual elements that somehow are co-incidentally coming together. Sometimes they come together in a rhythmical way and they are joining each other and sometimes they disappear in different directions. So actually the structure is actually that things are joining each other and they are just layered and co-exist next to each other. A lot of modern electronic compositions are like that, they build paths that you hear an engine and then you hear something else that is coming from the side on top of it. So they create these very visual musical ideas. I think that’s maybe what I feel like when I am playing. Of course I also feel like deep pulses and the need for dancing, which needs to bring things together at some point. And then you like, ‘oh yes and what is really nice’. It is the same with techno music, if you wait nine minutes for the bass drum, it’s so nice, you know. But you hear it all the time, so in a way you can actually trigger the imagination of the listener, and of me as well, by just leaving things away and just point in the direction of it. That makes people kind of drift. A lot of people who come to my shows, afterwards they don’t know how long I have played and they lose the structure of their normal senses. Which I am doing as well sometimes. I suddenly don’t know if I played an hour or two or one and a half. Sometimes, especially after flying, if I have jetlag, I need a watch because I am losing it completely.
Innerversitysound: So what happened to Volker the aspiring rap artist? Is it likely that his head will appear somewhere in your future work? Or are there deep within the current work or smudges of those days working their way through the music?
Volker Bertelmann: First of all I have done a couple of vocal tracks that are laying on my hard drive and I am trying to find out what is going on with those. At the same time I have the feeling that I am somehow inspired by people who are rapping, I am inspired by hip-hop. So in a way, sometime I hope I will work again with someone who is a lyricist and a vocalist at the same time. I don’t think that I will be the one who is the protagonist in this. When I was rapping, I was working with my cousin together and my cousin was a native American, so he wrote most of the lyrics, and rapping in German is not my thing. That’s definitely the thing that Germans, who stay in Germany mostly, do. And I am going nearly everywhere. So I think my job or my role in that is to create the soundscape for hip-hop music is to create the soundscapes, which are samples, so people can actually use that, or we play together at some point. But I am totally inspired by this music; whenever I hear a hip-hop song I start dancing. It’s going into my body straight away. The tempo is for me ideal.
Innerversitysound: You have discussed before your exploration of Wagner in the past. You are also not shy at throwing around the word magical. How do you reconcile this mythic concepts that are buried deep in the German tradition, this impulse towards the mystical and the magical with contemporary life. Can we expect to be taken back to a mental landscape that accommodates these concepts with a world that has predominately wiped these ideas away as at best metaphorical?
Volker Bertelmann: I totally think that we are re-inventing this again. That we are going back to this because life is taking you away from the mythological and stories from the past, darkness, the forest. You know all these romantic ideas are giving you a lot of warmth and they cover you a little bit. Rather than you being in the cold, just by yourself, and nothing is out there. I was born in a much forested area here in Germany and we were wandering a lot when I was a child, you know with a backpack. And maybe that is the reason why I am sometimes very strongly reacting towards music that is really like singing or playing music that creates a kind of longing, of just being. In space in a way, in a forest or a wood or on a mountain. I think that in a lot of ways that is enough for me personally. As long as I have food or water and I have protection. I am a big believer in the end it just comes down to this, you don’t need much more and everything we are doing is really artificial and it is getting more and more artificial because things are becoming really detached from rudimental needs. I think right now people feel that. You can sense that. A problem is that sometimes that is going back into nationalistic kinds of feelings where people are feeling that everything is just all kind of overwhelming and we have to get back into our tribe. Which I think is totally wrong because this is not giving you in the end what you actually want. This is in the end always leading to war and the fight against others because you think they want to take yours. I think that it is rather important that people try to get back to what is the source of things. I think that the German mythological part was very inspired by that and creating stories around nature. Maybe at that time these guys were super heroes, like Seigfreid, and all these guys who were really strong and fighting against dragons and stuff like that. I think these pictures just want you to inspire you to live in nature with satisfaction, I think, personally. So hopefully we are going back to that without any nationalistic feeling, which Wagner had as well, just to be true. And he was fucking Nazi in certain areas. He was having ideas of destroying Paris and making an ideal city out of that and putting all the Jews in camps or whatever. So in a way he was writing all of these beautiful interludes for his Operas, which I prefer the most, but at the same time you know what sort of ideological purposes are behind that. So that is very dangerous and at the same time it is beautiful. So I hope that we can find a way of detaching that.
Innerversitysound: Hauschka, the name, we know it here as a brand of cosmetic, and there is a similar story, Dr Hauschka who was inspired by the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner to make natural products and was in fact jailed by the Nazis. So where does the name come from for you?
Volker Bertelmann: When I was starting, when I stopped the rap band and was trying to find something else, I was thinking should I release records under my name Volker Bertelmann. I felt I just need a kind of platform that appears like a band, but it is just me where I can actually do things. And I wanted to have an East European name, so I was looking into Russian, Polish, and all sorts of other names. Because my life is full of Anglicisms and it is totally influenced by English things. I can speak English, a lot of things are coming from America that are influencing us, which I totally appreciate, but at the same time I thought that for a band name I thought I wanted to put the focus on something that was not the most popular thing. I looked into names and I found this composer family Hauschka from Vienna that were working there around 1900. I think one guy was called Fritz Hauschka and there is another guy called Vincent Hauschka. They did a lot of Cello music. So there was a quite influential family there. Of course I was aware of the cosmetic company so maybe that was actually saying to me ‘well hey man, this is a great name’. So I was using that in the awareness that it is the last name of someone was for me totally fine. That it is not like ‘Air Liquide’ or a company that has just a brand name. Funny enough Dr Hauschka, the company, was approaching me, maybe three years after that and asking whether they could use the music of mine for their telephone line. Which I thought was very interesting and since then we have a good relationship. It’s not like maybe they will have a copy right issue and they will destroy me, or they will take the name away. I am aware of Rudolf Steiner because my kids go to a Waldorf school. I believe in rhythms and I believe in time that people are needing to develop. A kind of natural time, which we hardly don’t have any more. Kids are thrown into everyday life with such a hard pressure sometimes. I don’t know why that is but I have the feeling that life can’t really exist out of growth. That you have to always keep up with the tempo of growth. I think that concept will collapse at some point. I think our kids can be made aware that they can build a fire and not just used to electricity and computers.
Innerversitysound: What does the near future hold for you? Are you touring? Is there a new album in the wings? Any collaborations that are fruitful?
Volker Bertelmann: I’m trying to finish the next album in September. I have actually an idea what it is in terms of the instrumentation but I have not now an idea of what it will sound like. I think it is a continuation of Abandoned Cities in a way, but on another way I wanted to find a way…, you know my music is very dense, the density is very nice at one point but at the same time I have a longing for clarity right now. So I want to find a way of working with sound in a much more clear way. That’s in a way the next step. At the same time I am writing a lot of music for classical artists and I am trying to find a way of working harder on my notation part and finding ideas for other instruments. I have done now two movie scores. One was actually an Australian movie, which is called The Lion, which is actually a result from my last Australian tour, which I am very happy about. So I was really touched by that, it is something that is really growing. My next album I think will be released in Spring 2017. In between I have a couple of projects that I am trying to find a way of incorporating my love for classical music and my love for string instruments for example, at the moment I quite like them.
Innerversitysound: You have had many guises but the Hauschka one has been the most fruitful, or the longest lived. Is there a sense that someday you shall shed even this skin and find a concept for expression and making music?
Volker Bertelmann: Yes, I am open. Hauschka is a platform which I have no fear to continue with in a different way. I have that impression. Even if I am not continuing like Hauschka, I feel that there is a lot of things that I only scratch on the surface. I think I want to go deeper into that, for example last year I wrote a choir piece, which was performed with a quite big choir. After that I thought I had the feeling that I would really like to concentrate maybe for a year just to write choir music. And in a way I have a deep longing, like writing a book, to sit down with a topic and go deeper into it. Rather than seeing the release as the main thing and seeing then the promotion comes and then you play your record and then you go on tour. The focus is always on this album. I have this impression I want to create something where people take from the concert something beyond the music. Maybe that is quite high hopes, or an ideal, but personally if the light is always on me, by playing the piano, and if that is my focus, I have to get bigger and bigger and bigger and I don’t want to. I would rather concentrate on work that gives people meaning, like literature. That is why I started at some time to include a short story on my album covers, to provide something that people could read while listening.
Room to Expand-expanded is available on FatCat’s imprint 130701