Playing Around With A Piano For 'Abandoned City'

Volker Bertelmann is the master of using household junk to create haunting instrumental pieces. NPR's Rachel Martin speaks to him about his new album, Abandoned Cities.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

German musician Volker Bertelmann doesn't just play the piano, he plays with the piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Bertelmann, who makes music under the name Hauschka, started playing as a child in a small German village. As an adult, he was close to choosing a career in medicine but ultimately gave it up and went back to music. First hip-hop, then techno, finally he settled on this sound. It's what's called the prepared piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Hauschka latest album is called "Abandoned City." And like his previous albums, Bertelmann has crafted his sound by opening of this piano and attaching all sorts of stuff on a string: bottle caps, ping-pong balls, tambourines - trash even. And in that process, he creates multiple instruments out of one. His experimental sound has drawn fans, fans who want to help.

VOLKER BERTELMANN: People coming to my concerts bringing me bag full of things that they...

(LAUGHTER)

BERTELMANN: ...say, hey, we collected...

(LAUGHTER)

BERTELMANN: ...this year stuff that we think could be awesome. And - but it's funny.

MARTIN: How often is that stuff actually useful? And how often is it just stuff they found under their couch cushions?

BERTELMANN: Well, sometimes the stuff that they found under their couch cushions are awesome. But...

(LAUGHTER)

BERTELMANN: But the funny thing is that you have a lot of times you have a different imagination of what can sound awesome. And in the end, it sounds like nothing. One example is these metal pads that you're using for cleaning pots, metal wool a little bit.

MARTIN: Yeah, steel wool pads. Yeah.

BERTELMANN: Yes, steel wool. And I went into a shop and I thought, aw man, this is exactly what I need today.

(LAUGHTER)

BERTELMANN: So I bought a couple of those and I brought them home. I put them in the piano and I played like a maniac to make something with it.

(LAUGHTER)

BERTELMANN: But there was nothing happening.

MARTIN: Oh, you didn't sound good.

(LAUGHTER)

BERTELMANN: It was just lie there like stupid creatures in the piano.

(LAUGHTER)

BERTELMANN: So, you know, I took them back in the kitchen and we still using them for cleaning our pots.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: When was the first time that you realized that there are all these options open to you with something like a prepared piano?

BERTELMANN: Well, the first time I think when I was maybe around 10 or 11, because I was a big fan of synthesizers. But the touch of the keyboard was much nicer on a real piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BERTELMANN: I wanted to have a different sound on the piano without not sitting in front of it. And I had no money for anything. So - and the only thing I could imagine was that I change something with the hammers. And so, I used a lot of tacks and I put all the tacks in every hammer. Then suddenly the piano changed to a harpsichord. And my mom realized at once because she wanted to play Bach in the evening...

(LAUGHTER)

BERTELMANN: ...and she was, like, oh, my god. You know...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: What did you do to our piano?

BERTELMANN: Yes. And that was the last time I was preparing the piano when I was a kid. And then, later when I did my first piano record in 2001, I was thinking, how can I create high hats on the piano without using a computer. And I used like these Christmas cake bags and they are really crispy. And so, I put them in between the hammers and the strings and that added a kind of high hat sound.

And what happened actually straightaway was my whole kind of piano playing changed radically.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Why? How so?

BERTELMANN: Suddenly the function of those keys are differently - they are actually percussive elements that you want to, for example, of you play a kind of groovy track, you want to have those sounds going through the whole track. So, you somehow, you have to find a way with the size of your hand to play, for example, two keys that are doing a constant rhythm. And the other three fingers are using the other keys to play may be a melody on top of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You must like a challenge though, re-creating what the piano can do. And then that forces you to adapt.

BERTELMANN: Totally. It leads in a lot of questions about yourself. Are you able to actually jump over habits, are you able to actually work on a bigger scale than you normally think, and feel that things that seem to be impossible are suddenly possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Let's talk about this new album.

BERTELMANN: Right.

MARTIN: You named your new album "Abandoned City." Every track on it is named apparently after a city that that is vacant, that has been abandoned somewhere in the world.

BERTELMANN: Yes.

MARTIN: Why?

BERTELMANN: Because when I finish the music - and I wrote all the tracks - I was looking for a kind of metaphor for a feeling that I have when I'm working, concentrated on something. I'm in a kind of state of mind that is always switching between loneliness and fulfillment. And I was looking for a metaphor that somehow expresses this. So a friend of mine gave me this picture of a parking garage in Las Vegas that is not finished. I saw this picture and I was completely attracted to that.

I felt like, oh man, that's exactly how I feel when I write. It's actually something that has a kind of structure and the shape is beautiful. But there's also a kind of very rudimental loneliness in there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Volker, you feel like an empty parking lot?

BERTELMANN: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

BERTELMANN: Yeah. In a way, yes. Well, you should see a picture of that. It's beautiful.

(LAUGHTER)

BERTELMANN: Nobody - I don't know if you know what I mean. I mean when you write something, for example, or you work intensively even when you do some gardening or things like that. And I was actually looking for pictures that are expressing a kind of similar feeling. And abandoned cities in a way have that. It's a kind of civilization that has gone, in a way. And on the other side there is a huge chance of starting something new.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Volker Bertelmann is the man behind Hauschka. His latest album is called "Abandoned City." He spoke with us from Dusseldorf, Germany.

Volker, thank you so much for taking the time and talking about your music with us.

BERTELMANN: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.