A Beat-Orientated Affair: Hauschka & Kosminen

by Martin Longley –

Hauschka lives close by in Düsseldorf, but this will be the first time he’s played at the Moers Festival. The pianist, who was born Volker Bertelmann, will be appearing with the Finnish percussionist Samuli Kosminen, a regular, but not too frequent collaborator. In a manner that’s sympathetic to Dawn Of Midi’s approach, these musicians employ acoustic instrumentation but with an electronic palette in mind. Hauschka reached a point in his playing where firstly he switched from electronic keyboards to acoustic, and secondly, developed the tendency of preparing his piano, after the fashion of John Cage.

The duo will be improvising, but to make another comparison, they pulsate in a regularly rhythmic fashion, reminiscent of the repeated amassing favoured by The Necks, those fellow instantaneous creators from Australia. In other words, the concept of Hauschka/Kosminen improvisation is not necessarily similar to that employed by most free players hailing from a jazz background. The density of techno, and other beat-based dance-forms is often implied by the pair’s cyclic build-up of percussive mass.

I ask Hauschka how his partnership with Kosminen began. “I met him on a tour,” he says. “I think that it was 2008 or 2009. I was on my way to Japan, and I’d met him earlier with the Icelandic band Múm. I was opening for them, and I was very happy that they took me on tour. So, I then met them all accidentally, on a plane.”

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Samuli Kosminen & Hauschka (Photo: Puschen)

Hauschka suggested that he and Kosminen work together, so they subsequently arranged an American tour, to tie in with the Salon Des Amateurs album (2011), which was quite a beat-orientated affair. They collaborated periodically on theatre pieces, or film soundtracks, and have now recorded some improvised material together, for a projected album release.

Hauschka considers his approach to spontaneous invention, as anticipated for the Moers set: “I’m mostly improvising. I have themes in my head from my current record, and sometimes I’m working with them, but a lot of times I just use them as a starting point. We will not rehearse much. We’ll meet up the day before, and play a few things, and leave it like that, so that we get a feel for each other, and on the next day we’ll make a quick list, of how long the pieces might be, and who’s starting, and maybe the pace.”

Surprisingly, Hauschka denies being particularly influenced by John Cage, although he did pick up some technical hints from the English pianist John Tilbury, who has been a regular Cage-ian interpreter down the decades, as well as being a long-term member of the British improvising group AMM. “What I liked about his approach,” says Hauschka. “Was that he always needed a starting point. They [AMM] used a lot of poetry. Before they started to play, they would read a poem, and they would choose roles for the poem, so while they were performing, they would remember their role. Whenever they lost track, they could remember what their role was, so that they could come back.”

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Hauschka & Kosminen (Photo: Nina Ditscheid)

When Hauschka first started to attach wood, metal, leather, rubber and felt to (and between) the piano piano strings, he was essentially searching for ways to regain his lost electronic vocabulary, following a rebirth as an acoustic pianist. In effect, Hauschka was returning to his childhood roots, but needing to maintain the feel produced by his later electronic work. It was a combination of all his artistic phases so far.

“I was much more into electronic music. I did a couple of techno records, playing synths and keyboards. The piano was always, in a way, a private role. I would always love playing, but I couldn’t see it in my public music.”

Then, he was in the midst of a recording session in the Brecon Beacons, Wales, and began to tentatively play a few tunes on the piano. The studio’s owner and engineer asked him why he hadn’t recorded an acoustic album, and suggested that they lay down a few tracks. “I wanted to keep the soundscape of electronic music in my piano music. I wanted to approach that without electronics. I didn’t want to have a laptop on stage…”

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Hauschka (Photo: David Daub)

With a naked piano, it was problematic for Hauschka to recreate the sonics of his albums of that time, and promoters seemed to lack enthusiasm for booking a 20-piece ensemble. With his piano preparations, Hauschka was able to expand his palette to reflect a wider spread of tones, timbres and textures. “I figured out a way of creating all the sounds that I want with one instrument, so that I can travel by myself, and the only thing I need is an acoustic piano. In a way, it’s electronic music with an acoustic instrument.”

Does Haushka ever have any problems with concert halls fearing that he’s intent on abusing their expensive pianos? “People are scared that I’m not treating their pianos well, but I am..! There’s still this sceptical approach, sometimes.” In London, he doesn’t get a Steinway; the promoters hire in a Yamaha.

I also ask him how much he varies the nature of his innards-doctorings. “I go through periods. I have a basic set-up, and sometimes it varies from piano to piano. The frame changes, the tone sounds different. There are a lot of differences all the time, plus the rooms and halls are all different. Concrete sounds very different to wood.”

Hauschka likes to spend time in the space before a show, savouring a room’s special qualities, thinking about how his playing will sound. A lot of the time, he appears in intimate places, so he’s looking forward to the larger space to be found at the Moers Festival, considering that greater amplification will give the duo a ‘rock punch’ that they will both enjoy, particularly when they’re probing their lowest frequencies.

Hauschka has been increasingly manifesting another side of his work, with an increase in commissioned compositions, usually with collaborators, ranging from duos or quartets, up to orchestras. “It suits my nature quite well. Ideas have been pouring out in the last seven or eight years. I’m finding the essence of my expression. The improvisation has a spontaneous momentum, but the composition has a different quality. I’m leaning back from performing, because I’ve toured every year since 2007, and I’ve also made many records. I think that it’s time to step back a little bit.”

So the Sunday Moers performance may well represent one of the last chances to catch Hauschka and Kosminen playing live together for quite some time …

(Featured Image: Mareike Foecking)

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