An abandoned city; a ghost town. Once the shining product of human ingenuity and culture, their only denizens today are dusty tumbleweeds of the old west, the weed-cracked pavement of late-stage urban blight or the flashes of some intrepid explorer’s cameras, depending on your locale. Lonely and near religious in their solitary austerity, Hauschka, aka modern classical pianist Volker Bertlemann and his Bechstein grand upright, has translated the sentiments of these windswept alleys and blown-out windows into a series of wordlessly elaborate piano solos using his signature John Cage-style prepared piano technique. Which is to say that he places an odd assortment of household items (e.g. pieces of wood to make a drumming sound) in the piano’s harp and hammers. Yes, what sounds like ringing, twiddling and twinkling of bells and drums are all just one instrument, and an acoustic one at that.
On Abandoned City, German-born Bertlemann weaves a wordless tale of each city, from the entrance to exodus of its respective residents. Each track bears the name of a real vacant city, some subject to the whims of humans, and some representing the actual whims themselves: Elizabeth Bay is a deserted mining town in Namibia; Pripyat, Ukraine, was abandoned after the catastrophe at neighboring Chernobyl; Agdam in southwestern Azerbaijan was savaged by the country’s civil war; South Georgia Island’s Stromness is a former whaling station once famous as the rescue location of British Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton; Barkerville, British Columbia, was a once a bustling city during the 1861 Cariboo Gold Rush; Craco, in the Italian region of Basilicata, was pummeled by landslides leading to a mass exodus in 1963; Sanzhi Pod City, also known as the Sanzhi UFO houses, was a 1978 future-retro development of pod-shaped homes in New Taipei City, Taiwan, that was abandoned almost as quickly as it was constructed; the truly bizarro Thames Town a simulacrum of a classicly quaint English market town-on-Thames, an anglophile’s wet dream, if located about 20 miles outside Shanghai, China.
While much of the music flows together into one large dirge for a forgotten world, some tracks are somber stories, like that of Craco, a city that had been occupied since the 8th century. Thames City, however, is manic and confused. But then the syncopated rhythms of Elizabeth Bay build into a denouement of a gorgeously savage cluster of confusion, demonstrating Bertlemann’s favor of turning simple (but ghostly and reverb-laden) thematic bridges into a toe-curling danse macabre.
Hauschka’s ingenuity to rework his instrument into a entire orchestra is astounding. But his ability to avoid the usual, overtly romantic notions of forgotten cities and instead replace it with a portrait of refined desolation is equally impressive.