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Hauschka: Foreign Landscapes

img  Tobias Fischer

Volker Bertelmann has always been beset by an incurable desire for distant places. While, over the past years, his itchy feet have taken his personal take on the neoclassical vocabulary from one gig in a foreign city to the next, his album titles explicitly expressed a romantic longing for making the road his home. The name of his previous full-length Ferndorf, a self-created term encapsulating both the German words for „village“ and „distant“, made this amply apparent and pointed at the intriguing paradox that has marked Bertelsmann's entire career ever since his debut in 2004: That of a simultaneous interest in small pieces and endless expanses, in the familiar coziness of his native Düsseldorf as well as the exciting aura of an international metropolis like London, in the myriads of finely nuanced timbral shadings of his prepared piano and the majestic force of the conventional Bechstein still hiding underneath the wires, wood blocks, pieces of rubber and metallic objects. Underneath the face of a globetrotting bohemian still lurked the romanticism of a little boy – which is probably why Bertelmann successfully retained the sympathetic image of his early releases despite having long emancipated from them as an artist.

If he should therefore now set out to explore foreign landscapes then these, too, are of a dual nature. On the one hand, they point to very particular physical spaces which have left a lasting impression on the tireless traveller – presenting impressions from the historical Japanese city of Kamogawa to the idyllic Portuguese island of Madeira and from Berlin's central Alexanderplatz to London's bustling hub Union Square, the album at times resembles a colourful picture book collecting entries from all around the world. On the other, they serve as testimony to Bertelsmann's constant urge to leave charted territories behind him and perpetually move forward in a bid of avoiding repetition. Hauschka-albums have long considerably widened their palette and ambition, moving from the three-minute mood-pieces of Substantial to the still concise, yet far more extensive and challenging works of his more recent oeuvre. It is a progression rooting mainly in his increasing confidence as a performer: Contrary to most of his colleagues, Bertelmann has embraced improvisation and turned concerts from safe events with predictable outcomes into tightrope walks which can never be predicted with absolute certainty. At the same time, his music has gradually moved away from a remotely Ambient-related continuum of time-suspending loops to pieces with a clear beginning and end, reinventing themselves by means of thematic, timbral and harmonic variation.

What this means, in effect, is that, with utmost discretion and without making too much of a fuss about it, Bertelmann has transformed from being a producer with an inclination for the Piano into a veritable composer equipped with an eclectic knowledge of a wide variety of genres and an ear for captivating hooks, drawing inspiration and ideas from the live context.  A huge portion of the music on Foreign Landscapes is accordingly performed by others, with the author acting foremost as an accompanist, arranger and, through quirky sounds from his instrument organically integrated into the texture of the scores, as a slightly whimsical sound sculptor. For these sessions, a twelve-piece ensemble was culled from the ranks of San Francisco's Magik*Magik Orchestra and if there's still anything „minimal“ about the twelve pieces contained on the full-length at all, then it must be their Reich'ean rhythmical pulsation as well as slender orchestration, which pits different groups of the ensemble against each other in perpetually changing constellations. Clearly, although there are still three cuts for solo-Piano to be found here, they are to be seen more as islands amidst an ocean dominated by the earthly colours of interlocking strings, woodwinds and two trombones.

Sharing his own involvement in terms of production has allowed Bertelmann to focus on the essential aspect of creating a narrative to the album. Rather than coming across as a mere collection of well-crafted songs, Foreign Landscapes truly feels like a single composition comprising of twelve interrelated movements, each adding to the whole and drawing strength from its unifying architecture – thereby tapping into the tradition of symphonic poems, long-form constructs held together by a thread of creative thought, mood and melody and working with the epic sentiments of the symphony without actually adhering to its forms. Especially in the second half of the work, compositional ideas and architectural principles from the opening section are staging a comeback, with tracks like „Kamogawa“ or „Sunny Mission“ harking back to things already said, sentiments already expressed and situations previously experienced. Which may lead some to assume a lack of ideas. In reality, however, it is precisely the latter stages of the work which create the sensation of being part of a personal journey and of literally floating through a sonic space. The more the goal-oriented structure of the album crumbles, the more it frees the audience up to make this their own trip.

The narrative qualities are not just apparent on the macro-level of the album, however. Even more strikingly, they are manifesting themselves in the individual compositions. „Union Square“ opens with jagged, garish string patterns pulsating in nervous eight eight time. Rather than deepening this aspect of the piece, meanwhile, Bertelmann sets out to counterpoint it with major-key sequences, transforming what used to be hectic into a centre of bustling activity and what used to be alien into an energetic space. It is an open reference to the sensation of physically standing on fourth avenue, the shifting tectonics of bodies and shapes, the traffic, passers-by and commotion, the voices, noises and din as well as the gradual sensation of becoming accustomed to them and finding one's way through the maze. „Snow“ proudly belies it somewhat cliched title by portraying the dance of icicles and crystalline flakes with an unfamiliar warmth – pointing to the fact that these are  not the images seen by an arctic expeditionary but from a cozy place by the windowsill, a steaming pot of hot tea comfortably within reach. On the equally short and richly detailed „Early in the Park“, one is constantly left wondering what each instrument is depicting – a family of ducks, birds, joggers, elderly training tai shi, the pastoral quietude of a world in green.

Clearly, Bertelmann isn't just cheaply describing „moods“ or taking acoustic „snapshots“ - he is creating poignant scenes and recounting short stories whose renouncement of trivial punch line awards them a serene elegance and pictorial intensity. Perhaps this points to the fact that Bertelmann has never just looked for tourist attractions on his journey: He may have made the road his home, but in his heart, romanticism is still his compass.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Hauschka
Homepage: Fat Cat Records

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