WITHOUT HIS PLAYING, Hauschka's modified pianos would be a lovely interactive installation. With him, they become orchestras. During a filmed segment in the studios of NPR, Hauschka has set out to create another: He's challenged to work only with items found in the radio station office.
"The interesting thing about some materials," says Hauschka, AKA Volker Bertelmann of Düsseldorf, "is that they look like they could have an amazing sound." Bertelmann drops his tone and his face goes slack. "They sound like nothing."
But having done this since the mid-'00s, he's developed a pretty good idea. "The Tic Tac box will work," he says to the camera, placing one on the strings of the studio's baby grand. He continues—five big plastic clasping legal paperclips create a clacky rhythm section. A seashell necklace makes the lower notes shimmer metallically like a harpsichord. He tapes down a bottle cap, and finally adds a few steel shish-kebab skewers.
Combined with one of the paperclips, the skewer creates a remarkable snare drum-like "pop." Bertelmann rattles off a drum roll that could fool anyone not watching. Asked what he will call this improvisation, Bertelmann decides on "Random Gifts," before embarking on a shimmering, up-tempo, polyrhythmic, staccato weave.
The creation of the prepared piano, as the modifications are traditionally known, is credited to avant composer John Cage. A classical understanding of the instrument underlies Bertelmann's technique, but his pieces run the spectrum. They combine glitchy claps, buzzing tones, drum, bass, and static of modern digital sounds with classical vamps, jazz, and styles all Bertelmann's own.
In person, the performances are haunting, inspiring, and staggeringly beautiful. Hauschka played Holocene in 2009 and the audience was rapt—it's rare to see such virtuosic genius in person, especially in a rock club. "I am really happy if I can get new people into my concerts and with my music," Bertelmann writes from tour. "I need a lot of help from friends and fans, and it takes time. With a rock band and singing, you find a much faster dynamic in growing, while piano music seems to, a lot of times, need a much longer time to develop... Hopefully it then stays longer, as it seems timeless."