NPR

Hauschka Gets The Most Out Of 88 Keys

Listening to a piece by Hauschka can be deceiving: What sounds like an ensemble of musicians and instruments is just one man, performing at one piano. His real name is Volker Bertelmann, and he hails from Dusseldorf, Germany, where he works with his "prepared piano." He wrests disruptive sounds from the instrument's 88 keys by outfitting the strings or mallets with objects such as ping-pong balls, aluminum foil and leather. His new album is titled Foreign Landscapes, and he recently visited NPR's studios to demonstrate his craft.

Resting on the strings of NPR's grand piano are bottle caps, a plastic necklace, a bell and marbles — basically the makings of a dollar store. Each item on the piano produces a different variation on the traditional piano sound. Together, they're disarming and hypnotic.

"They create a whole carpet of sounds underneath the tones that the hammers create," Hauschka tells Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "What I like about it is that there is something going on without my control."

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Transcript

(Soundbite of song, "Mount Hood")

GUY RAZ, host:

What you're listening to right now is one man at one piano. He goes by the name Hauschka. But he's not just a pianist, he's more like a mad piano scientist. And what he does is he takes various objects, like ping pong balls and bottle caps, and he puts them directly onto the strings or the mallets of the piano to change the way they sound.

(Soundbite of music, "Mount Hood")

RAZ: This is the piece called "Mount Hood." It's from Hauschka's new album, "Foreign Landscapes." But you're hearing him play it here in our performance studio. And resting on the strings of NPR's grand piano are some bottle caps, there's a plastic necklace, a bell, some marbles. It looks a little like a 99-cent-only store in there.

(Soundbite of music, "Mount Hood")

RAZ: Hauschka's real name is Volker Bertelmann. He's from Dusseldorf in Germany.

Volker Bertelmann, welcome to the program.

Mr. VOLKER BERTELMANN (Pianist): Thank you.

RAZ: Your technique is called prepared piano.

Mr. BERTELMANN: Yes.

RAZ: We are here in NPR's performance studio. You are sitting at our grand piano. Can you describe what is inside, because, I mean, there is just like, I don't want to say a junkyard because...

Mr. BERTELMANN: Yes. No, it is like that.

RAZ: What do you have inside there?

Mr. BERTELMANN: Well, when we start from left to - from the bass notes, there is felt wedges that are used by piano tuners. And they, if you take, for example, like the F note without the wedges, without the wedge, then it sounds like a normal piano note. If I put the wedge in...

RAZ: So once you get the wedge in, it like, dulls the sound.

Mr. BERTELMANN: It's like a (unintelligible) cello sound in a way.

RAZ: Yeah, it really is.

Mr. BERTELMANN: Then I have a children's drum with, like, these metal things in there. And I use that a lot of times when I need percussion. So if I put that in, it's like - you hear that? So...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BERTELMANN: That's like a drum that's actually...

RAZ: It's like a snare drum, yeah.

Mr. BERTELMANN: ...drum sound, yeah. Then I'm using a lot of bottle caps. This one is actually on the E string, you know, and you can hear this rattling. If I take this one out - this is also a chopstick.

RAZ: It's a chopstick.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BERTELMANN: This is just a E string with a bottle cap. And if you put a chopstick on top then it gets suddenly a drum sound.

RAZ: You have 40 different instruments inside this piano.

Mr. BERTELMANN: Yes, absolutely. I think, you know, the thing is that the capacity of a piano, I would say, with a normal piano player, it's only used 10 percent, like the brain of a human being.

RAZ: Well, you would think that what you would do with it, right? I mean, here you have a piano...

Mr. BERTELMANN: yeah.

RAZ: ...and it can make beautiful sound and, you know, you play the Goldberg variations or something and it's great.

Mr. BERTELMANN: Yeah. But you can actually use all, because it's a string instrument and it's a percussion instrument at the same time and you hardly have any instrument that can actually work...

RAZ: That's amazing. I mean, you say it's a string instrument and a percussion instrument...

Mr. BERTELMANN: Yeah.

RAZ: ...but of course, most of us wouldn't think of the piano that way.

Mr. BERTELMANN: No, absolutely not.

RAZ: I'm looking at - you have a lot of ping pong balls on the strings of the piano.

Mr. BERTELMANN: Yes. Yeah.

RAZ: What do ping pong balls add? I mean, what kind of sound do they produce that gives you the sound that you're looking for?

Mr. BERTELMANN: It's, for me, like watching through a glass that is a little bit foggy. You find it much more interesting than it would be like a clear picture. And when I play, the ping pong balls make waves. So optically, you don't need any light show or a thing like that because the ping pong balls jumped to the music.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: The ping pong balls are leaping...

Mr. BERTELMANN: Yes.

RAZ: ...almost out of the piano. And I should mention that our colleagues at NPR Digital have filmed this so you can see that at our website, npr.org. You can see the performance and watch those balls just leaping up.

Mr. BERTELMANN: And what is funny, sometimes they shoot out of the piano into the audience and the audience just, like, you know, what's going on here? Or it bounce - they are bouncing on the stage. And suddenly this noise that was made on the other side of the stage is actually suddenly a part of the composition, which is wonderful. Because suddenly, like John Cage was saying, like, every noise or every sound is actually music.

RAZ: It's interesting you mention John Cage, because obviously, you're not the first one to sort of experiment with a piano like this.

Mr. BERTELMANN: Yeah.

RAZ: He is the most famously associated with the prepared piano. Did you study what he did?

Mr. BERTELMANN: No, no. I was - actually, I was in a hip hop band in Germany and I was...

RAZ: Really?

Mr. BERTELMANN: ...yeah.

RAZ: Because if I saw you walking down the street and someone said, do you think he is an experimental pianist or a rapper, I would say an experimental pianist.

Mr. BERTELMANN: Yes. Yeah. Actually, my whole socialization music-wise was actually pop music, rock music. I had long hair, I stage dived. I did a lot of, like, physical stuff.

RAZ: So you're not a classically trained pianist.

Mr. BERTELMANN: No. Well, I actually learned in a public music school for 10 years piano.

RAZ: Now, you have been, obviously, performing your music with your sort of found objects. And I should tell you, Volker, that we have brought our own found objects for you. I have a bag here, hold on.

Mr. BERTELMANN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of bag crumpling)

RAZ: Let me just dump this out here.

Mr. BERTELMANN: Oh, that's...

RAZ: All right, let's see what we've got. All right. Volker, you have not seen any of this but we're going to ask you to prepare the piano with these objects and to tell us how they affect the sounds. So we have some plastic-coated paper clips. I'll give you that.

Mr. BERTELMANN: Yes.

RAZ: We have...

(Soundbite of shaking objects)

RAZ: ...two boxes of Tic-Tacs, a seashell necklace.

Mr. BERTELMANN: Yeah, that's great.

RAZ: And let me give you this. This is my personal favorite, and I think this will come in handy. This is a nose hair trimmer.

(Soundbite of buzzer)

Mr. BERTELMANN: Let's see it.

RAZ: Not mine, by the way.

Mr. BERTELMANN: No, no. But I'm just...

RAZ: Okay. All right. So you have...

Mr. BERTELMANN: Should we do it individually so that we can find...

RAZ: However you're going to do it.

Mr. BERTELMANN: Yeah. Well, the interesting thing about material is that they look sometimes that they could do, like, an amazing sound but sometimes they do nothing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BERTELMANN: And that's actually something that I try to find out...

RAZ: Like a Tic-Tac box, right?

Mr. BERTELMANN: Yeah, exactly. Well, I think the Tic-Tac box will work...

RAZ: All right.

Mr. BERTELMANN: ...because it has already an own percussive sound. And I think we will trigger that while I'm - but this, for example, these - what are these called?

RAZ: Paper clips. They're like legal document clamps.

Mr. BERTELMANN: Yeah. If I'm using those clamps, I think the best way to use them is in here because then - like this was - this is before and this is after. So the tone is muted. So we have this short.

RAZ: It's all right.

Mr. BERTELMANN: Then I took a Tic-Tac box on top of that.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BERTELMANN: That's a Tic-Tac box.

RAZ: Who knew?

Mr. BERTELMANN: Yeah. It's actually a whole percussion set. This one...

RAZ: These are the seashells.

Mr. BERTELMANN: The seashell. Let's do that on the bass notes because there's hardly no preparation.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: Can we hear it without the seashell?

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BERTELMANN: That's clear.

RAZ: All right. There's just one thing left, which is the nose - I should say nose and ear hair trimmer.

Mr. BERTELMANN: I have the impression that you mightn't use that only in your nose.

RAZ: So you're trying to figure out how to use that, and that may not work, right?

Mr. BERTELMANN: No.

(Soundbite of vibrating)

RAZ: Now, it sounds like a dentist's tool.

Mr. BERTELMANN: No. Nothing that...

RAZ: It's not going to work. All right.

Mr. BERTELMANN: No. And actually, it occupies my hands, you know? I have to just...

RAZ: Exactly.

Mr. BERTELMANN: ...put it together so...

RAZ: Well, you know what, I'm sure there's somebody in the building who will make good use of that ear and nose hair trimmer.

Mr. BERTELMANN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: You know what? In fact, we can give it to you and you can take that.

Mr. BERTELMANN: Yeah. Maybe for my older age.

RAZ: All right. So we've got the paper clips, we have the Tic-Tacs and the seashells. And can you...

Mr. BERTELMANN: Should I perform something with that?

RAZ: ...can you perform something with that? Yeah.

Mr. BERTELMANN: Yup, absolutely.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: Incredible. That's Volker Bertelmann, who performs as Hauschka, with an improvised performance. And that was made using paper clip clamps, Tic-Tac boxes and a necklace of seashells. His new record is called "Foreign Landscapes." If you'd like to see Hauschka in action, we have full songs and videos at our website, nprmusic.org.

Volker Bertelmann, thank you so much.

Mr. BERTELMANN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. You can hear the best of this program on our new podcast, Weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Subscribe or listen at npr.org/weekendatc. We'll be back tomorrow with the winner of Round Five of our Three-Minute Fiction contest. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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