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Rebel with a Cause

music_HauschkaHauschka adds ping-pong balls and beautiful chaos to the piano
It’s a rare sight, but at a Hauschka concert, hipsters and classical enthusiasts really do collide. So do ping-pong balls, beer bottle caps, marbles, vibrators, tape, and anything else the German musician—whose real name is Volker Bertelmann—thinks will dutifully accessorize his piano strings.

“Normal classical pianists use the piano as a tempered instrument, but I don’t like the attitude that that’s the only thing you can do with it and nothing else,” the 44-year-old says from his home in Dusseldorf.

Stumbling upon the technique of prepared piano (made famous by John Cage), Bertelmann first started lodging random items into his piano at the age of 12, when, he remembers, “I got a box of tacks out of the cupboard and found that with the tacks and the piano hammers, the piano sounds like a harpsichord. Suddenly I had two sounds!”

His childhood curiosity has never ceased and a peculiar rock-infused approach on the grand piano has stuck. While he believes most pianists use only 30 percent of the piano’s capabilities, Bertelmann explores it as a string instrument, a key instrument and a drum instrument with small hammers.

Blurring the lines of chamber music, indie rock and throbbing electronic music, the cutting-edge composer’s current tour combines pieces from last year’s classically-based Foreign Landscapes with this year’s avant-garde Salon des Amateurs. Some shows will see him accompanied by symphonic players (like San Francisco’s Magik*Magik Orchestra), while others will see him flanked simply by a drummer (in Portland, it was Joe Plummer of Modest Mouse). For his performance at Kuumbwa Jazz this Friday, April 29, Bertelmann will present the latter set-up with Samuli Kosminen behind the drum kit.

Improvisation is everything to Bertelmann, who accumulates tools on the spot at each venue he hits up. Adding texture to the traditional piano, he implements wooden sticks to mute the strings, cheap chains from $1 shops to rattle, tin foil to get high-hat sounds and, yes, unruly ping-pong balls.

“Whenever I fill the piano with ping-pong balls they create a visual wave and they react to the sound simultaneously,” he describes. “But they also create chaos because they don’t jump like you want them to jump; they sometimes rest in the bass keys, so then my composition has to go to the bass area and I have to play there.” He adds, “It’s almost like a pinball table. In a way, it’s a game when I have to follow the balls with my ideas if they don’t go where I want them to.”

The title of his latest release, Bertelmann explains, is a reflection of that freeform methodology. “An amateur is someone who loves the mistake and who loves what he can feel. Imperfection makes it even more beautiful, and it’s a result of a little chaos inside of something.”

An experimental player whose structure-less songs can span loud club music to minimal, intricate plunking, Bertelmann’s current musical mosaic interlocks all his interests. “I’m putting together everything I’ve done in the past, rather than dividing my personality into a classical piano player or an indie rock guy or a dance guy,” he says.

He humbly reassures that he’s not alone. “When I came to America, people were asking me, ‘Are you inventing the prepared piano?’ But in New York they were already playing prepared piano in the ’40s and they were raging. It was like a punk movement rather than anything else.”

Needless to say, Bertelmann is one ballsy composer.

“These days, I’m still fighting against the same establishment,” he begins, “because whenever I go to a concert hall, people are very scared that I’m going to destroy their piano.”


Hauschka performs at 8 p.m. Friday, April 29, at Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. $15/adv., $18/door. 427-2227.

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