Volker Bertelmann was last here in this truly exquisite performance space inside Leeds’ opulent Grand Theatre and Opera House in 2012. Then, the German pianist and experimental composer who performs under the name Hauschka, provided an improvised live accompaniment to the waking dream that is Danish film-maker Carl Dreyer’s classic gothic horror film, Vampyr. Some fifteen months later, and on this the opening date of a short UK tour, Bertelmann returns to the venue to support the recent release of his eleventh album, Abandoned City (reviewed here on GIITTV).
Bertelmann explains that Abandoned City – nine individual compositions bearing the names of metropolises that are no longer, or were never inhabited – reflects the sort of emotions that he has experienced when stirring from a deep sleep and suddenly realised that he has not eaten for several hours. He describes the record as being a metaphor for these heightened feelings; ones of hunger, sadness, loneliness and of being scared, all aligned to the most tremendous sensations of elation and fulfilment.
In keeping with the vast majority of his work, Hauschka conveys these feelings through the medium of prepared piano; an innovation often associated with the great American avant-gardist John Cage and one by which objects are placed beneath and between the strings of a grand piano to create what is ultimately an entirely new instrument. The often bewildering array of items used can be seen tonight during Hauschka’s final piece as he removes, one-by-one, a number of xylophone mallets, small chains, a tambourine, what would appear to be some packets of Tic Tacs and a solitary ping pong ball. Having restored the Steinway to its original form, Hauschka concludes his set with a beautiful, far more conventional arrangement of piano music vaguely redolent of the instinctiveness and impressionism of fin de siècle French composer Erik Satie’s piece “Trois Gymnopédies”.
Those tender, stolen moments aside the evening is otherwise given over to the often harsher reality generated by Abandoned City’s core subject matter. The music that Hauschka creates – a startling experiment in how near, or how far the fundamental elements of sound and melody can be placed from each other without ever losing sight of their co-existence – is by turn unsettling and alienating, simple and complex, melancholic and joyous. ‘Elizabeth Bay’ – inspired by both Wagner‘s Flying Dutchman and the former Namibian ghost mining town that had since become the preserve of seagulls – captures all of these conflicting emotions through its thunderous repetitive rhythms, disconcerting percussive echoes and Hauschka’s ability to fuse past and present, to merge the neo-classical with modern dance music.
Warm, sustained applause invites Hauschka to return for an encore. Seventy minutes is the optimum amount of time you can listen to piano music, he tells us. Your ears get tired, he further suggests, before going on to challenge that very assertion by randomly placing a number of strips of duct tape across his piano’s strings and ending a quite wonderful evening by taking us back to where it had all begun for Volker Bertelmann with some Christmas cake paper in the Brecon Beacons.
- Wed 14th May – Reading, South Street Arts
- Thu 15th May -Bristol, Colston Hall @ The Lantern
- Fri 16th May – Manchester, Burgess Foundation