Hauschka is a composer, songwriter and experimental musician who has brought an exciting new perspective to the prepared piano. The prepared piano is a technique for getting new sounds from the acoustic keyboard by resting pieces of paper or drumsticks on the strings of the instrument. This technique has been used for centuries but Hauschka was unaware of the tradition when he began exploring ways to get new sounds out of his Bechstein grand upright.
He explained: “I wanted the sound of a hi-hat (cymbal) to add a percussive effect to a composition I was writing. I took foil from a Christmas cake and wrapped it around the strings [inside the piano]. From there, I was inspired to use other objects on the strings to get bass drum sounds or tacks on the piano hammers to get the sound of a harpsichord.
“When I was playing techno music, I had samplers where you could get a different sound on every key. I thought it would be great to have that effect on an acoustic piano. I was not aware of John Cage (one of the first 20th century composers to use prepared piano) when I started searching for ways to alter the sound of the keyboard but as I got more into prepared piano, I was influenced by Cage’s theories.”
Abandoned City was recorded in Hauschka’s home studio in a burst of creative energy following the birth of his first son. He said: “With the exception of Elizabeth Bay, which is based on a piece of music I wrote for a reinvention of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, the music was composed and recorded in ten days. After the baby, I had to concentrate to find time to work so the process was very intense.”
The compositions on Abandoned City awaken the loneliness and unattainable romance of timeless, unfamiliar places with cinematic melodies full of resonant overtones, bright cheerful keyboard patterns and dark percussive touches. Abandoned City has been announced for a March 17/18 release on Temporary Residence Ltd. with Pitchfork already premiering the jumping new piece Elizabeth Bay. The track can also be heard on Soundcloud here. He will be bringing his new live show to North America in 2014 as well with a string of dates announced for January and April.
The tracks on Abandoned City all bear the names of actual vacant cities. Elizabeth Bay evokes a deserted mining town in Namibia with sinister Bo Diddley-esque bass notes underscoring ghostly keyboard fills that float through the air on a cloud of distorted dub effects. The suggestion of a vaguely Latin melody moves brightly through the background, clashing with sharp techno percussion patterns. Hauschka said: “I hear the sound of the wind blowing through a piano playing in an empty room. Jamming wooden sticks between the strings of the piano creates the drum sounds by bending the notes and giving them a percussive resonance.”
Pripyat was a city near Chernobyl, abandoned after the meltdown of 1986. The song’s structure owes a debt to minimal free jazz and the pulsations of Terry Reily’s In C. A single repeated note anchors the composition, moving it from a droning, atmospheric pulse to a jittering collection of interlocking percussive elements. Hauschka creates the sound of a brittle industrial music box by blocking the strings with his fingernails.
Agdam is a deserted city in southwestern Azerbaijan desolated by the country’s civil war but the music owes a debt to Hauschka’s current hometown of Düsseldorf, birthplace of Kraftwerk and Neu! The piano plays simple, hooky, repeated Kraftwerkian note clusters, propulsive rhythms that swish like brushes on a snare drum and bright pizzicato accents that sound like a cross between koto and violin.
The songs were recorded using nine microphones. Six recorded the sounds coming from the piano strings through an analogue console feeding directly into a computer to preserve the instrument’s full, warm sound. Three others passed the tones through a mixer full of effects – delay, distortion, echo – that can be triggered separately or used simultaneously. Hauschka creates the music and the arrangements as he goes, trusting the music to take him in the proper direction. He explained: “Most of the songs were played on one piano; I was mixing as I played. If I needed more piano, I overdubbed with another twiddling of effects. All the sounds – harp, balafon, Melodica, drums – are produced by the keyboard.”
You can catch Hauschka live in 2014 on the following dates:
Friday January 10 – Cincinnati, OH @ Contemporary Arts Center
Saturday January 11 – Chicago, IL @ Constellation
Sunday January 14 – Minneapolis, MN @ Aria (Liquid Music) (w/Hilary Hahn)
Sunday April 20 – San Francisco, CA @ Yoshi’s
Tuesday April 22 – Los Angeles, CA @ Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever
Wednesday April 23 – San Diego, CA @ The Loft – UCSD (ArtPower Music Series)
Thursday April 24 – Boulder, CO @ Boulder Theater
Sunday April 27 – Philadelphia, PA @ First Unitarian Sanctuary