The story behind Volker Bertelmann – known best these days as HAUSCHKA – is not necessarily what you’d expect. Although he is one of the most recognisable 21st Century proponents of what is known as prepared piano – one whose sound is altered by the insertion of alien objects between or upon its strings, hammers and dampers – he was barely aware of the champions of such a practise when he first began his experiments. Even John Cage was a largely unfamiliar name that fateful day when he sat in the studio of his friend Adam Fuest and, frustrated by the sounds he was making, starting placing random objects into the instrument.
What’s stranger still, one might think, is the fact that Bertelmann’s first forays into the public world were with major label hip hop act God’s Favourite Dog and a drum and bass quintet called Nonex. But, when you listen to his music closely, this perhaps makes more sense than you’d initially think: the sound of HAUSCHKA has always been both instinctive and fuelled by a love of rhythm. Bertelmann, you see, is clearly a man who knows his instrument – quite literally – inside out, and he’s as unafraid of approaching it with a fresh sensibility as he is capable of drawing upon an unusually broad church of influences.
Volker Bertelmann first began to study the piano when he was nine after an epiphany while attending a Chopin performance in his hometown near Düsseldorf, Germany. Despite seven years of classical training at school, and then a further two years with a private tutor, his interests were never as pure as the tutelage he received. Soon he was employing his new musical skills to play along with his favourite records on keyboards and synthesisers – he had a particular fondness for Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds – and, later, to perform with covers bands. After coming of age, he redirected his attention towards a medicine and economic education, but soon turned his back on this to study Popular Music in Hamburg.
By the age of 18, Bertelmann had already composed his first film score, and having picked up a deal with Sony Music in 1994, he spent much of the next few years rapping and playing keyboards with God’s Favourite Dog before forming Nonex, with whom he released two albums in 1997 and 1999. As the 21st Century got underway, he hooked up with Torsten Mauss to form Tonetraeger – who blended post-rock and electronica with significant panache – and also with Luke Sutherland (Long Fin Killie) and Stefan Schneider (To Rococo Rot) to work under the name Music A.M.
It was during this period that he became more and more fascinated with electronic music, developing a particular interest in stripping back anything that he considered redundant within his compositions, until the obsession led to him trying to achieve a similar effect without the use of electricity at all. He discovered that placing material within a piano opened the doors to a whole new sonic world in which he could transform his instrument so that it loosely replicated the sounds of all sorts of others, whether bass guitar, gamelan or the hi-hat cymbal of a drumkit.
The first fruits of this work were released by Karaoke Kalk, with Substantial dropping in 2004 and The Prepared Piano a year later. The combination of HAUSCHKA’s classicist training, chamber music sensibilities and pop-cultural interests ensured that the often playful – but never disposable – results were far more than an academic exercise in experimentalism. Critical acclaim was matched by respect from his contemporaries: a second version of the album – Versions Of The Prepared Piano – was released later that year, featuring new interpretations and mixes by the likes of Barbara Morgenstern, Mira Calix and Tarwater.
In 2007, HAUSCHKA signed with 130701, an imprint of Fat Cat Records, who provided an early home to Sigur Rós and who have also championed artists with a similarly adventurous spirit to Bertelmann’s own, including Max Richter and Sylvian Chameau. He has remained with the label ever since for his solo work, releasing a series of increasingly high profile albums and never afraid to explore beyond his initial parameters. Since 2007’s Room To Expand, he’s integrated both electronic and more traditional instrumentation into his work, with 2010’s Foreign Landscapes finding him working with the Magik Magik Orchestra, and his most recent solo release – 2011’s Salon Des Amateurs – inspired by his experience of Düsseldorf’s club music scene. Collaborators include drummer Samuli Kosminen (from Iceland’s Múm), Calexico’s Joey Burns and John Convertino, and celebrated violinist Hilary Hahn, while the project’s success was underlined in 2012 with the release of remixes by prominent names including techno legend Ricardo Villalobos and Michael Mayer, co-founder of Cologne’s highly influential electronic label, Kompakt.
Bertelmann’s taste for collaboration is again revealed by his next two projects, the first of which features Hilary Hahn in a more high profile role. SILFRA, released by Deutsche Grammophon under the artist name Hilary Hahn and Hauschka, is a remarkable album borne of improvisation and recorded in eminent producer Valgeir Sigurðsson’s Iceland studio. A new album is also in the pipeline, with Bertelmann having recently spent time recording with local musicians in Kenya.
Ever prolific, Bertelmann has continued to work on numerous other projects throughout the last decade, most notably in the fields of film, theatre, dance and art. As well as various short film soundtracks (including one for the winner of the 2007 Akira Kurosawa Short Film Award, Blotsky, in which he also starred) and four film scores – including Doris Dörrie’s Glück, nominated for Best Film Score at the German Film Prize in 2012 – he has also composed for the stage. There his work has included 2006’s remix of Wagner’s Parcifal (in collaboration with Stefan Schneider) for Berlin’s Hebbel Theatre, while in 2011 he composed an 18 minute overture for Rittberger’s Puppen, part of the 2011/2012 theatrical season at Düsseldorf’s Schauspielhaus. He also founded Düsseldorf ‘s Annual Piano Approximation Festival, which features an always-imposing line-up of internationally renowned experimental artists.
Almost two decades after he began his professional career rapping, Volker Bertelmann aka HAUSCHKA finds himself in the unusual position of being regularly compared to the likes of Eric Satie, John Cage and Steve Reich. (In 2011 he was invited by London’s prestigious Barbican to perform as part of Reverbations, a festival celebrating the work and influence of the latter composer.) Always unpredictable, HAUSCHKA continues to offer only one certainty: that the next step he takes will no doubt be as unexpected as the direction from which he has come.