The fourth release from Dusseldorf-based pianist and composer Volker Bertelmann is at once nostalgic, optimistic, and weighty, with deft melody sparkling among percussion and drive. "Ferndorf" carries an evocative richness and depth throughout its quick-paced, often light-hearted compositions. Named after the small German village where Bertelmann grew up, the album is a Utopia-tinged paean to the simple nature-bound life he lived as a child, filtered through the knowing lens of the world-traveling city-dweller who left the village for a reason.
Review by Heather Phares
The Prepared Piano and Room to Expand summed up their purposes in their titles, with the former demonstrating Hauschka's finesse with the prepared piano (a piano with objects placed between its strings or on its dampers and hammers) and the latter, prepared piano expanded with strings and electronics. In its own way, Ferndorf also conveys its purpose with its title; named after Hauschka (aka Volker Bertelmann)'s hometown, this set of pieces goes beyond the cleverness of his previous albums, digging into childhood nostalgia and other more complex emotions while retaining Hauschka's essentially playful approach. Unlike The Prepared Piano and Room to Expand, only about half of Ferndorf's tracks were improvised -- but even these tracks show how much Hauschka's range has expanded. "Blue Bicycle" is as delicately lovely as anything else in Hauschka's repertoire, but there is a unique urgency in its rippling piano that suggests spinning spokes and rushing air; "Neuschnee," on the other hand, has a languid, end-of-the-day calm. Insa Schirmer and Donsa Djember's cellos add richness to "Morgenrot," a piece inspired by the red dawn peeking through Bertelmann's window when he was a boy, and intertwine lazily on "Alma." As good as the improvised tracks are, the composed tracks make Ferndorf some of Hauschka's most accomplished music. "Rode Null" showcases the album's propulsive, percussive sound with Schirmer's driving playing and Sabine Baron's brisk violin. The prepared piano's sounds come to the fore on "Freibad," its metallic rattling underscoring the chilly quality of the strings and Bernhard Voelz's trombone, and on the excellent "Barfuss Durch Gras," melding its rustling with electronics into a taut, sparkling mesh of sound. "Heimat" and "Eltern"'s hesitant beauty exemplify how happily technique and emotion reside together on this album -- though the influences of Michael Nyman, Philip Glass and Steve Reich still loom large in Hauschka's music, Ferndorf's appeal is closest to the work of Bertelmann's FatCat labelmate Max Richter: Richter and Hauschka both have a remarkable talent for honing in on the sweet spot where classical, avant-garde, electronic and pop music meet.
[Fat Cat; 2008]
The previous records I've heard from Dusseldorf-based pianist and composer Volker Bertelmann, who records as Hauschka, have revolved around the titular instrument of his 2005 release The Prepared Piano. That album seemed to crystalize certain connections between the modified piano and later developments in experimental music. Bertelmann began with an approach to piano popularized by John Cage, who in the 1930s placed screws, pieces of rubber, and other objects between strings in order to turn the instrument into a kind of miniature percussion orchestra. As with avant-garde mainstays like Christian Wolff or David Tudor, Bertelmann in concert has been known to climb inside the piano itself between pieces to modify its innards, adding treatments and monkeying with the wires in search of new textures. But unlike any of these composers, he prefers melodies with a folk-like simplicity, pieces you can hum, with the comforting repetition of Glass/Reich-style minimalism serving as a rhythmic underpinning. So Bertelmann transports these innovations into a more melodic neo-pop context, while also adding some light electronic processing as a tip of the hat to the possibilities of computers. He's showed how familiar music can be transformed and made new by manipulations in the physical and virtual realms, but his music is easily enjoyed by listeners with no time for classical music.
While previous records focused on piano, Ferndorf, while keeping that instrument at its center, finds Bertelmann expanding his palette further. He's joined here by various combinations of a violin (by Sabine Baron), cello (by Insa Schirmer and Donja Djember), and trombone (by Bernhard Voelz). Sometimes the short pieces-- most are between two and five minutes-- are fleshed out the way you might expect from a small chamber ensemble, with the strings adding counterpoint or extending melodic ideas. And sometimes, like on "Barfuss Durch Gras", which incorporates about eight or nine different textures-- buzzes, trills, scrapes, and drones-- it's hard to tell who might be playing what.
While the latter is abstract enough to remind me of the electro-acoustic experimentation of Ekkehard Ehlers, Joseph Suchy, and Franz Hautzinger on their 2004 album Soundchambers, "Barfuss Durch Gras" is an anomaly; the bulk of Ferndorf reflects the vibrant, cheerful pastoralism of the record's title (it translates as "distant village," a reference to Bertelmann's childhood in rural Germany). For example, deadened bass strings form a pulse that could almost be described as "groovy" on "Rode Null", and when the strings fall in and the melody begins, it has the charming, easy swing of a Vince Guaraldi number. "Neuschnee" is more lyrical, with an underpinning of yearning, as it moves from big swells of sounds to hushed contemplation. And then the closing "Weeks of Rain", which finds Bertelmann alone at the piano, is as romantically melancholy as its title, bringing to mind a half-drunk Bill Evans in a sentimental mood playing a Chopin nocturne.
Ferndorf as a record isn't something to get you hearing music in a new way or an open up a new world, but it does succeed very nicely for what it is. Bertelmann takes an approach to piano founded in mid-20th century avant-garde, brings along a few other instruments form the classical world, and pushes the whole in the direction of simplicity, remaining unapologetically musical and getting over on chords, melody, and a little bit of texture. How appropriate that the record comes to us from the Fat Cat label, home of Max Richter and Mice Parade. Like these artists, Bertelmann has a way of pulling aspects of several genres not necessarily known for their accessibility into an instantly likable whole. Ferndorf is the sort of record that can brighten any room.
- Mark Richardson, September 18, 2008