As the German composer/pianist Volker Bertelmann takes the stage and sits down at his piano, he adopts the alias Hauschka, inviting a world of experimentation and exploration into the sonic unknown. This last Saturday in New York City’s East Village, a hundred or so people stepped into Joe’s Pub from the sunny 65-degree evening for Hauschka’s 7 p.m. set. Well before the pianist’s entrance, a sense of uncertainty resonated throughout the crowd as members of the audience whispered to one another, scrutinizing the instruments on stage in attempt to create some sort of expectation of what was to come. But no matter how familiar you are with Hauschka’s music, it seems that you can never be exactly sure of what to expect.
Hauschka’s grand piano was dressed with a number objects both hanging from the open cover and next to the bench, including a snare drum belt, beaded necklace, box of Tic Tacs, pieces of leather and cloth, and many others that remained unidentifiable. In typical Hauschka fashion, these objects were strategically placed on the strings of the “prepared piano” to achieve specific effects for each piece. Joining Hauschka for the majority of the set was Finnish percussionist Samuli Kosminen on drum kit, electric thumb piano running through a number of effects and what appeared to be a toy glockenspiel.
The set began with Hauschka on solo prepared piano, highlighting the expansive timbral vocabulary of the altered instrument. While wedges within the strings muted the sound of specific notes and strands of metallic beads lent a rattling darkness to others, Hauschka achieved a combination of percussive and melodic sounds that mimicked a diverse ensemble from within the single instrument. As the set progressed, Hauschka moved from his older compositions to pieces from his recently released album, Salon Des Amateurs, inviting Kosminen to take a “prepared” approach to his own instruments while Hauschka also contributed pre-recorded samples of strings and bass-y synthesizers.
Most of Kosminen’s playing utilized blankets dampening the splash of his cymbals and various unusual techniques to achieve a more melodic group of sounds than expected from a percussion instrument. Even as the evolution of Hauschka’s compositional style was demonstrated from piece to piece, a minimalist approach to the forms of his music comparable to that of most electronic music was a clear theme in nearly all of his compositions. Rather than having structured transitions to new sections within each piece, the music seemed to grow and unfold into different areas. The result almost appeared to put listeners in a trance with their ears surrounded in a sea of slowly expanding repeated sounds.
The most impressive aspect of the duo’s performance was its ability to keep the music moving independently of one another. At many points during the set, the melodic confidence of Kosminen allowed Hauschka to modulate rhythmically various lines on the piano, seemingly improvising changes in polyrhythms without offsetting the momentum of each piece. One of the highlighting moments of the set was during the piece “Girls” where Kosminen contributed to the melody of the song with a bright repeated note made by scraping the edge of his miniature cymbal across a drumhead—a miniscule aspect of the overall sound but one that certainly exemplifies the brilliant use of the duo’s experimental techniques. Another memorable moment came from Hauschka placing a vibrating object over a specific set of strings in the piano. As the object bounced around the strings it created a drone over a specific note of which Hauschka was able to control the resonance with the sustain pedal of the piano.
Although the music throughout the set was always captivating, it was the concepts behind the compositions and the methods of synthesizing the sounds that left the audience in awe. And with that in mind, no performance could have been more appropriate for encore than Hauschka’s final piece in which he poured a bag full of ping pong balls into the body of the piano. As Hauschka struck each key, sets of balls would distort the sound of the strings while hopping up into view for the audience to see. We should commend Hauschka for doing what few musicians can—incorporating the experimental world of music into a setting that we can actually enjoy.