Camilla Eustance

It is unexpected that the casual flinging of a load of household junk into the seldom-touched innards of a Steinway can result in such mesmerising rhythms and melodies as those of Volker Bertelmann. On the 17th of November, the Melbourne Recital Centre in Southbank welcomed the supremely talented musician to perform in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. Predominantly known as Hauschka, the German pianist is widely renowned as one of our century’s most interesting experimental pianists.

Having studied a decade of classical piano, his musical knowledge is undeniable, attesting to his competency and entitlement in playfully upturning and challenging both genre and instrument. The underlying drone that wraps around his prepared piano pieces is reminiscent of a traditional choral technique: before the voice next to you runs out of breath, you inhale and continue the note yourself to sustain the solidity of the overall sound.

This was Hauschka’s piano in concert, despite the varying texture of the sound which imperceptibly transmuted from tinny metallic tapping to hollow zangs to bleeping reminiscent of '90s dial-up internet and far beyond. The occasional fragment of more recognisable piano was welcome within this synthesised world, its emotional quality surprising and its fleetingness making it all the more beautiful. Bertelmann does not linger in emotion in the same tendency that some well-known German experimental pianists often do, and this too is welcome.

As well as altering the sound of the music, Hauschka’s miscellanea demonstrates a more conceptual adaption — challenging the original high-art status of a grand piano. The objects Hauschka used for his music that evening included mallets, masking tape, a red tambourine, a broken toy drum, scrunched-up tea-light candles and what appeared to be a plastic tomato.

Indeed, [Bertelmann] was the creator, but he was also only the reflection of a face for the most part of the performance. The focus is, instead, on the mastery of what makes the sounds.

At one point, the large screen behind Hauschka depicted the pianist casually throwing ping pong balls onto the strings of the piano. The physical effect of these bouncing balls reveals the internal movement of the assumedly ‘static’ instrument. These curious objects create a sound very different to that which one would expect: it was a deep buzzing zing. The exact placement of these objects are slightly different in each performance, reminiscent of composer John Cage, who recreated instruments as he went along in a piece of music. He was, like Hauschka is now, an advocate of musical indeterminacy.

Further back in time, one might recall Marcel Duchamp, the father of conceptual art, with his ‘readymades’: found objects that blurred high and low art with an emphasis ‘on chance, my chance’, as Duchamp himself expressed. The concert’s large onstage screen highlighted such perceptual nuances, depicting Bertelmann as merely another constituent that produces them. Indeed, he was the creator, but he was also only the reflection of a face for the most part of the performance. The focus is, instead, on the mastery of what makes the sounds. 

After the gradual accumulation of zings, plucks, and booms of Hauschka’s final performed piece, the sound was stripped down to simple, ‘pure’ piano. Nonchalantly, Bertelmann began to remove the found objects from the Steinway, detaching the tape stuck to the lower A and E, the toy drum situated on middle C, the ping-pong balls and the rest of the piano’s oddments, all with something of a comic impatience.

With these gone, the piano’s sound was profound. For the first time, melody and pitch were the key elements and it was a delicious change, one that would not be so if the previous forty-five minutes had followed suit. Far from rendering the piano’s sound dull, the absence of the add-ons revealed the inherent magic of the actual instrument.

The Collective