The Music Gallery, Toronto
Thursday, April 28, 2011
Forgive the opening tangent, but I have to admit right off the top that, until very recently, I was predisposed to dislike all German music that didn’t have something to do with the Cabaret soundtrack (which I love unabashedly).
There were few exceptions, of course: Kraftwerk and The Notwist, to name two, perhaps because both incorporate characteristic emotional repression into their entire raison d’etre. Beyond that, bad childhood memories of Nina Hagen and the oppressive boredom of the minimal techno crowd led to my racist belief that German music was either a) ridiculous or b) terminally uptight.
It was the latter that I expected from the German pianist and composer Hauschka (born Volker Bertelmann), whose discography features lovely, orchestrated piano pieces. His latest album, Salon des Amateurs, focuses on his prepared piano technique, and finds him collaborating with two drummers: Calexico’s John Convertino and Mum’s Samuli Kosminen, with the latter joining him on tour. While the record is lovely, with lilting melodies and a percussive propulsion that is somewhat related to club culture (though only peripherally, not explicitly, as this reviewer seems to think), it’s also a bit repetitive, reserved and, well, uptight.
Hauschka’s live show, on the other hand, is anything but. Here, he uses looping pedals, his prepared piano technique, and live mixing to give the compositions plenty of room to breathe. Kosminen is a percussionist, not a drummer: he rarely, if ever, played four on the floor, and no cymbal ever rang out for more than a microsecond. Such was his intimate role in the arrangements that he may as well have been inside Bertelmann’s piano, moving around the metallic objects inserted between the strings himself. Bertelmann could probably have pulled off a show like this himself, but Kosminen elevated it to a whole other level by introducing playful exchange.
Most of the material from Salon des Amateurs, which Bertelmann introduced with amusing anecdotes, was barely recognizable, other than fleeting motifs. A few songs took on subtle reggae rhythms; one was more overt, and juxtaposed a minor-key vamp with a major-key melody. By layering the textures bit by bit, there was more room for the listener to be drawn in; when presented all at once on the albums, the effect is lessened. Not that the process is the point here; the music simply sounds better as its being unravelled.
Why Hauschka albums don’t capture the magic of his live experience is a mystery. Furthering my gross cultural stereotypes from the opening, maybe we should chalk it up to German engineering. Next time, maybe Bertelmann should join Convertino in the Arizona desert and get his hands dirtier.