BY ANGUS MCPHERSON
With Special Guest: Hinterlandt Ensemble
The Basement, 19 November
Ping pong balls leapt off the strings like popcorn, rattling as they landed. Wooden chocks were wedged between piano strings and miscellaneous instruments (including a pink, plastic tambourine) littered the inside of an open Steinway grand piano at The Basement for German pianist-composer Hauschka’s third ever day in Australia. On tour to promote his album ‘Abandoned City’, Hauschka, AKA Volker Bertelmann, described the weather as “too bloody hot for a German in winter time!”. He nonetheless delivered a riveting performance, his preparations transforming the piano into a versatile sound generator, as he blurred the border between acoustic and electronic music.
A screen above the piano allowed the audience to see inside the instrument, where, amongst other preparations, a roll of gaffer tape rested on the strings. Driving percussive effects and exotic buzzings opened the acoustic equivalent of an hour long DJ set as Hauschka turned the Steinway into a kind of steam-punk MIDI keyboard. Distortion effects that seemed electronic were simply metal cymbals vibrating against strings. Some preparations were obviously placed with deliberate care, others, like the ping pong balls, were strewn at random. A low-register piano string, muted with a wooden chock, was amplified to create a resounding electronic bass drum, the hammer jumping in time with the beat. The music had the inexorable rhythmic propulsion of both minimalism and dance music, but Hauschka’s body language was reserved, his movements economical, as if he was simply facilitating and the piano was the star of the show. He introduced electronic effects with such subtle virtuosity it was almost impossible to tell where the instrument ended and electronic sounds began. The wash of music was transfixing, Hauschka producing a stunning array of textures and patterns from the instrument, which offered the timbral variety of a large ensemble. As the performance wound to a close, Hauschka’s hands appeared on the screen to remove preparations one by one, deconstructing his instrument until only solo piano was left. The denouement was peacefully bluesy and impressionistic, closing with four ascending chords.
For an encore, Hauschka performed ‘Gaffer Tape’ – a work named for his favourite preparation. He explained that the sound is somewhere between pizzicato strings and a synthesiser, as he stretched long strips of grey tape across the piano strings. ‘Gaffer Tape’ was bubbly and whimsical, Hauschka playfully exploring the pitched plunking of the modified instrument.
The support act was The Hinterlandt Ensemble, a quartet comprising cello, two violins and the ensemble’s mastermind Jochen Gutsch on guitar and trumpet. They opened the evening with ‘Alltagswelt’, or ‘Everyday World’ – a multi-movement work written specifically for the ensemble by Gutsch, which began with a repeated rhythmic cell. The meandering music traversed an array of styles, with grooving bass from the cello and trumpet melodies from Gutsch. Softer moments mingled with the clink and hiss of ambient noises from the bar. Hinterlandt rounded out their set with an eclectic series of covers. Beginning with ‘Song von der Ware’ by Hanns Eisler and Bertolt Brecht, they finished with an instrumental arrangement of Tom Waits’ ‘No One Knows I’m Gone’, Gutsch replacing Waits’ gravelly vocal lines with the tinkling of a tiny glockenspiel.
Hauschka’s performance was a stunning display of aural imagination and creativity. His ability to slide subtly between acoustic sounds and electronica, combined with a discerning sense of musical drama and pacing, created a gripping and innovative performance.
Image supplied. Credit: Chris Frape.