Hauschka Room to Expand

[FatCat; 2007]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: modern composition, avant-garde, minimalist classical, experimental chamber music
Others: Erik Satie, John Cage, Library Tapes, Steve Reich

Düsseldorf native Volker Bertelmann has been active in a number of side-projects with a broad diversity of artists working in conjunction with the German experimental electronic scene. Bertelmann’s work under the pseudonym Hauschka, however, focuses on prepared piano and the composition of modern chamber and solo piano music. Room to Expand, Hauschka’s third full-length release (and the artist’s first on FatCat Records), is a rousing and accessible work of avant-garde classical that is an exercise in understated beauty. Although Hauschka’s output is generally considered to fall within the realm of minimalism, Room to Expand lives up to its name, consisting as it does of a panoramic series of lushly simple tracks rich in melody and commanding in the heartfelt nature of their execution.

Admittedly, it is easy to harbor preconceived notions about the material in question when the term “prepared piano” is bandied about, but in the case of Hauschka, the piano treatments are remarkably subtle, adding to the arrangements rather than serving as a distraction that undermines the tracks’ overall effect. On Room to Expand, Bertelmann’s treatments generally involve minor modifications, such as placing aluminum foil and other materials on the piano’s hammers and wrapping or muting the strings, rather than employing a radical deconstructionist approach. These preparations add a pleasantly percussive effect to Bertelmann’s compositions, which fall somewhere between the gossamer airiness of Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies and the flowery melodicism of Claude Debussy. These 12 short pieces run the gamut from the upbeat playfulness of tracks like “Paddington” and “Zahnluecke” to the more melancholic strains of “One Wish,” “Femmeassise,” and “Fjorde.”

“La Dilettante,” the album’s opener, is a positively stunning composition that serves as a powerful introduction to Room to Expand. A delicate piano melody, adorned with Hauschka’s trademark clicking, rustling treatments, is joined by a haunting and sublime cello melody fraught with a considerable degree of emotional resonance. In their most extreme form, the sounds that result from Bertelmann’s prepared piano are capable of sounding synthetic in origin, as on “Sweet Spring Come,” a piece that sounds deceptively like an experimental electronic track, but by and large, these ornamentations, however unorthodox they may be, act as a catalyst that draws out Hauschka’s melodies and heightens their impact. Room to Expand is a thoroughly enjoyable recording featuring a wide range of emotional expression and technical wherewithal.

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