24 Mar Hauschka (Volker Bertelmann) Composer Interview: The Sonic Topography of No Man’s Land
Poor Pripyat never had a chance. A city along the northern edge of Ukraine thrust into existence in 1970, its fate was unfortunately tied to the neighboring Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, whose employees filled its houses. Pripyat barely saw sweet sixteen before its raison d’etre blew, leading to its full evacuation. Empty to this day and enveloped by nature’s reclamation, the city has become, in recent years, a destination for the marginal but growing business of disaster tourism.
Volker Bertelmann, who has been composing music under the name Hauschka since the mid-2000s, is a musician who would consider visiting Pripyat; his latest album, Abandoned City, takes its guiding inspiration from such spent locations. “Pripyat” is the second track on the record, and eight of Abandoned City‘s nine songs are named after different cities that have all been left behind at some point for one reason or another. “Agdam” references a war-ravaged city in Southwestern Azerbaijan, and “Elizabeth Bay” a deserted mining town in Namibia. An additional unreleased track is titled “Hashima Island”, based off of an abandoned island in Japan “where they also shot a lot of apocalyptic Hollywood movies because it… still has a lot of skyscrapers that are totally empty.”
Into The Void
One might think that in an age of exploding populations, such dormant realms would be hard to come by – but they’re spread far and wide among us. They even exist in near proximity to Bertelmann’s own city of Dusseldorf, Germany. Coal mining is big business in the area, and villages housing communities that work and support the mines continually spring up and disappear, parallel to supply and demand. As one village falls off the map, another is rebuilt on the other side of a mine, and all the residents have no choice but to relocate.
“There is a certain time slot where the old city still is there, or the old village, but nobody is in there,” explains Bertelmann. “And that’s the funny part when you go in there. Some of the houses are left… they still have the furniture in there, or, you know, plants or whatever, [but the residents] just went into the other village and built a new life, in a way.”
Though Bertelmann is interested in visiting these locations in real life, it is more the act of imagining himself in abandoned cities that provides him with inspiration. They are zones at once frozen in time but also stretching into the past and future – a mixture of dramatic history and physical remains. Where some might perceive only bleakness, Bertelmann also finds solace; he sees in that contrast a reflection of his own personal creative process, and the connection between the imagined physical nature of an Abandoned City and the emotional or mental state of the self.
“I quite like this kind of situation,” he explains. “It reminds me a little bit of my inner world when I’m writing music, where I feel… a kind of loneliness, a kind of melancholy, a kind of sadness. At the same time, I feel hope… I felt that this was kind of a very nice metaphor for this kind of dualism between the catastrophe and the beauty in a way.”
“You can imagine yourself in a street that is still full of houses, and looks like a street in your village. Nobody is there, and you think how that feels weird at once, but on the other [hand], I am by myself. There’s hardly any place in the world where I can be by myself anymore,” Bertelmann continues. “There is actually a chance… to maybe go back… into a kind of area where a city doesn’t count, in a time where everyone wants to live in a city with rental and living costs that are tremendously high… For a lot of people, that kills every possibility of feeling a kind of freedom.”
– Hauschka’s Volker Bertelmann, on abandoned cities
The question that sticks with Bertelmann about the places where people do live, including his own life in the city, is where the attraction comes from, and why people are not choosing the kind of life where they feel much more connected to the natural world. Life in cities is controlled, and people are not as free to make their own choices as they might think they are. That extends to life outside of cities as well, where almost every scrap of land is designated as owned and controlled by someone – “…which means you can’t actually sleep where you want to sleep,” says Bertelmann, “because if you sleep on a bench in a park, they can kick you out. If you want to have a tent being put in a forest, they actually don’t let you do that because the forest is not yours. This is happening with living space, but this is also happening with water, with all sorts of things that are normally normal things. In a way, all these questions come to me when I’m looking at an abandoned place or building and feeling like it’s a kind of monument for questions.”
The image on the cover of Abandoned City, an illustration of the skeleton of a large building, seems to be a reminder that there can be “abandoned” cities within living cities, in the physical remains of old foundations and structures, or even in people’s memories of locations that have changed over time. In fact, the image was taken from a city that is very much alive, which seems to suggest that a sense of renewal also plays in to the album’s theme.
“I had the music finished, every track, and I was looking at this picture…” Bertelmann explains, recalling an occurrence at a friend’s house in San Francisco. “I said to the man, I think I would love to have this picture for my living room…. Somehow, this was resonating with the feeling that I had while I was writing the music. I think it was a parking garage in Las Vegas, outside of Las Vegas; [in] the black and white version of this picture you can see in the back the airport of Las Vegas, very, very [present] in the dust. What I liked about it is that it has only a kind of structure, but it also feels like there is some loneliness in there, but on the other side, it also looks like a monument.”
“Especially in American cities you have… maybe empty streets, or you have a kind of area where you just think, ‘Oh man, where am I?'” he continues, “because there is nobody here, even in the huge city. That actually somehow totally got me into this theme of abandoned cities… Why are they abandoned?”
Bertelmann notes that he also made quite certain to not only choose locations with serious tragedies underscoring them, “because you can come in very quickly into the kind of war zone where you feel like maybe nearly half of the cities are abandoned because of the catastrophe and war, or they got destroyed, or people got killed, or things like that. You have also cities that have a very funny or very obscure background. I tried to actually add those as well, to give [Abandoned City] a little bit more of the broader range and maybe to show that I’m not only interested in the drama and the war catastrophe.”
Filling The Void
All of these perspectives guided the overarching theme of the album, but certain time constraints guided Bertelmann in how he composed and recorded it. Much of Abandoned City came together in a mere ten days following the birth of his first son. Since starting out under the Hauschka alias, Bertelmann has recorded all of his work in his home studio, save for the record he made in 2012 with American violinist Hilary Hahn, Silfra.
“I love to be in very common spaces where I can work, rather than being in a kind of exquisite-toned studio or something like that, because… I feel this pressure of doing something extremely Madonna-like, you know? And I don’t want to do that,” he says, stressing his love for home recording.
Abandoned City first materialized with what would later become its first track, “Elizabeth Bay”, which was written to be an overture for an opera that Bertelmann was asked to create music for. The track is based on Richard Wagner’s 1843 opera, Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), and in the process, the darkness and monumental drama of Wagner’s music eventually began to seep into Hauschka’s own work. As a fan of Wagner and other dramatic composers of the same period, like Schoenberg, Bertelmann fully embraced the influence of their very tonal music. Eventually, the director of the opera took the score in a more acoustic and ensemble-oriented direction, but Bertelmann couldn’t leave “Elizabeth Bay” behind, and decided to continue working with the same kind of sound and feeling.
That sound, like Hauschka’s work in general, is quite distinct, and has been arrived at via techniques that Bertelmann has been experimenting with and fine-tuning for some time. Unknowingly following in the footsteps of artists like John Cage, The Prepared Piano, his album from 2005, was Hauschka’s first foray into the obscure art of instrument modification, which involves placing objects against the strings or hammers of a piano to create altered sounds. As the video for “Elizabeth Bay” shows, Bertelmann uses a number of different materials, like beer bottle caps, felt wedges, and stage light filters, as well as other percussive elements like a children’s tambourine. In tandem with these lo-fi alterations, he further expands the palette through the more hi-tech manipulation of recording through multiple microphones, some of which he uses to capture the pure sound of the instrument, and others which serve to process digital effects.
Hauschka – “Elizabeth Bay” Music Video
The result is a classically-informed collage of the modern and the traditional that surmounts its origins as coming from one man sitting at one instrument. As Bertelmann notes, “It’s a very challenging process, but on the other side, it gives you a very unique kind of approach, which is very interesting. When you use some of that technology, a lot of times you actually lose the view on things that are extremely simple and in front of your eyes, you know, like just using the instrument that you have.”
Despite his interest in both digital and analog technologies, though, Bertelmann doesn’t see a divide between the two at all.”I think it’s more a matter of the availability, and how good you are with things,” he muses.
Case in point: Bertelmann first learned to play the piano at nine years old, but for a long time afterward, he set it aside in pursuit of making hip-hop, electronic music, and working in studios. When he finally came back around to piano as Hauschka, it had been nearly thirty years since those first lessons.
“I pushed it completely in the corner because it was not really… sexy, if the truth be told. So I pushed it just to the side and at some point I realized, ‘Man, why are you so stupid? That’s the instrument that you can play the best, so why don’t you use it as a kind of sound source and you play the piano, but you try actually to get into styles with this instrument that are normally not touched by this instrument?'” he recalls. “That’s what I was trying to achieve, and it worked very nicely.”
Bertelmann became struck by the feeling that he needed to make a record that firmly established his own musical voice. Though he loves collaborating with others, making Abandoned City reassured him that “there’s a whole world outside there” that he could conquer by himself. The record is, then, a twofold return to his strengths — to his most familiar instrument, and also his most familiar mode of songwriting. Turning less into more, it processes absence and, with its parts, constructs a commanding presence.
Hauschka – Abandoned City Full Album Stream