Album du jour: Hauschka’s “Abandoned City”

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What, you might ask, is a Hauschka?  It’s actually a who, a 47-year old German named Volker Bertelmann, who chose his musical moniker in reference both to a Bohemian composer and Beethoven friend named Vincenz Hauschka, and to Dr. Rudolf Hauschka, eponym of the well-known skin care products.

Under the Hauschka banner, Bertelmann explores the sound-world and pop possibilities of the prepared piano, which, as John Cage fans would tell you, involves sticking screws, erasers and other stuff into the strings of the piano to alter their sound.  Bertelmann claims to have discovered the fun of fooling around with the family grand on his own as a lad, with no prior knowledge of Cage.  Knowing as we do the mischief inventive young minds are capable of, there’s no reason not to believe him.

Now, twelve albums into his recording career (including “Silfra,” a duet album with the great classical violinist Hilary Hahn), Hauschka has issued “Abandoned City,” a collection of nine vignettes named for historical ghost towns, Potemkin villages and other once-flourishing sites now returned to their natural state.  In the artist’s words:

“I was interested in finding a metaphor for the inner tension I feel when I’m composing music, a state of mind where I’m lonely and happy at the same time…When I saw photos of abandoned cities, I felt it was perfect. People once lived there, but they left in a rush and now nature has taken over in a beautiful way, things are growing up from the sidewalk and the seasons are changing colors. The music is dark, but in a quiet, uplifting way. The piano is singing the melody but, because of the effects, you can’t hear it directly. It’s like the sound of a choir under the earth, something you feel without realizing it.”

I hesitate to call this Hauschka’s deepest album, not because it might not be, but because depth is not the number one priority of his music.  And that is in no way to denegrate him.  A spontaneous and inventive musician, Hauschka crafts sophisticated, well-made instrumental pop, with infectious beats, hooky melodies and nice atmosphere.  His basic m.o., once his piano is prepared to give him the right colors and textures, is to establish the rhythmic groove, add the main melodic lick (repeated often enough to make sure we get it), and, with perhaps a side-trip or two into subsidiary material, develop both groove and lick to the end of the piece, three-to-seven minutes later.  A resonant backdrop of acoustic and synthesized instruments adds moisture to the dry, percussive textures Hauschka favors on his keyboard.

You might think of the pieces on “Abandoned City” as modern prepared piano pop versions of Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonatas or perhaps Erik Satie’s piano works, with a little minimalism-lite added to keep it up-to-date.  The well-shaped selections have just enough inner life to compel concentrated listening, but if your mind is inspired to drift a bit, that’s OK too.  Perhaps at least one piece in a major mode would have hit the spot after all the minor-mode moodiness, but that might not have been true to Hauschka’s vision.  And for all the clever sounds and catchy rhythms, the highlights for me are the beautifully flowing melodies of the album’s most somber tracks, “Who Live Here” and “Craco”— which, not by coincidence, are also the tracks that feature the natural “unprepared” piano.  You know, even us modern hipsters might sometimes need to chill out with our equivalent of our parents’ and grandparents’ Roger Williams, Ferrante & Teicher or even (gasp) Yanni.  For that, but also for more than that, you could do much worse than Hauschka.

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