Last December, I headed to the Barbican for one of my many immersive pilgrimages into the piano soundscapes of Hauschka, aka Volker Bertelmann. I say ‘pilgrimage’ because the excitement and joy I experience at each one of his performances stems from embarking on a journey to a place that is both of sweeping humanity and deeply personal. Everything in this musical experience is an invitation to share a unique composer’s compassionate exploration of humanness.
I have been a convert to the prepared piano for a while, but the added novelty of this performance was Hauschka’s inclusion of two Disklavier’s – acoustic pianos controlled by electronic sensors – to play variations from his album Abandoned City as well as freshly improvised material. From where I sat quite close to the front, my view was of a shaded profile and of hands which evolved seemingly disconnected from their player… The light work for this performance was breathtaking, at times giving the impression of a haunting ballet on a deserted black-and-white causeway. Magic was complete when from the darkness, two more pianos on either side of Hauschka began grafting and morphing looped rhythms onto the main theme.
What makes these performances special for me is the depth of Hauschka’s creative integrity and respect for his audience, inviting us to journey alongside him and into our own inner worlds, despite not knowing where we may be going, rather than falling for the ease of a gimmick or the safety of playing the same set night after night.
I was again amazed by the juxtaposition of extreme focus with a capacity to be utterly at ease and intimate in such vast company. Where I might have found certain passages grating or unsettling, I surprised myself in maintaining my own inner state through some of the darker undercurrents. We were not led back to light or safety – rather, we rediscovered them together, simultaneously, and sometimes even a bit surprised to have resurfaced. We had the privilege of seeing an absolutely transparent creative process in the making. It did not matter when or how the piece would end, or whether it would “work” or not… such is Hauschka’s uninhibited surrender to the process. It demonstrated reconciliation and gentleness vis à vis our transient human states.
As piano tempests and lulls washed over us, cohabiting freely in layers or juxtapositions of sound, I was reminded of that suspended state of detachment we dip into now and then in meditation, cloud-thoughts passing behind closed lids.
Our conversation below captures the humility, discipline, and great heart it takes to ignite such states.
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Volker, would you introduce what you do – how are you an artist, a creative person?
I think I’m not only a creative person on the piano, but maybe the piano is the tool that I can use the most properly. On the piano, I can express myself and I don’t have to think too much, so maybe that’s very comfortable. But at the same time, you have to be creative in all sorts of things. I think creativity actually describes how you react to things spontaneously with an idea, and then maybe you materialize this idea at some point.
I was always like that – as a kid as well. I invented things for myself, built towns out of whatever – wooden pieces… I always tried to find a way of having a part that showed the real thing, but at the same time, I needed a lot of fantasy, too.
How did your creativity first express itself? It sounds like it’s always been a part of your life…
Yeah, not only of my life; I think it was also the surroundings I grew up in. In nature, when you go out, you have to somehow… We had no toys; there was not this humongous amount of toys that you get now… I sometimes had to wait one or two years to get the toy that I really loved. And in a way, waiting makes your fantasy much more moving, because you have to find a way of having the toy before you get it. So you go wherever – in the forest – to try to find material that you can maybe shape to play with it.
I remember wishing for a kind of bow and arrow that I always saw in a shop. It could shoot 100 meters, and I was like, Oh man, this is exactly the thing that I want. But it was expensive, and my parents may have seen it as a weapon, because it was quite dangerous. So I mostly went in the forest; I was always building bows and trying to find ways of making them stronger… We had a kind of challenge with friends, to find the best wood. And of course then you find the next tree, and the next, and then this one breaks, and you feel that there’s not enough moisture in the wood…
So I think that’s where it starts…
It sounds like there’s a material element, just as much as now, in how you handle the piano. It’s not just “up here” [I point to my head], but it’s also physical –
It’s physical, yes, yes. When you’re just in your head, that’s not a good thing.
Does your creative path meet your highest intention?
Well, I think the highest intention for me, the creative part, is a part of my life, without dominating it. I always feel balanced when I have everything that is important to me in my life… The hard part is to balance it out, to find things that give you a lot although you don’t feel it, or you don’t pay attention to them. What I’m trying to learn in my life is to actually focus on the parts that don’t receive as much acknowledgement, or that I don’t look at as much. Because I always look at the other parts. It’s always good to strengthen weaknesses. That’s what I’m doing.
Is there a theme, would you say, throughout your creativity?
I think the theme is to find a kind of resonance with the outer world. That actually gives me feedback about myself, and I’m trying to find a way of having this kind of relationship in the most natural way, which is also how I feel about everyone in my life. I’m trying to be as normal as possible, and sometimes it’s very hard to be like that. I also think a lot of people force you to be not normal. They want you to play a role and if you don’t, they may treat you differently, or they don’t even pay attention to you.
In earlier times, it used to get to my self-conscience very quickly, to my feeling about myself, and I would get insecure. But I’m much more aware of that nowadays. The theme in general is a kind of fulfilment in all my abilities; that I’m doing what I want to do without wasting any time. That may be the theme – or a couple of themes.
Just before you started playing yesterday, one of the last things you said was, “I hope we’re going to have a good time – I think we are, because you want to have a good time, and I want to have a good time.” I had the feeling that you were setting an intention for us. It struck me as an unusual thing to say, and it was quite beautiful, to set this intention – that we would all enjoy the evening.
Hmm… That’s what I’m for. Maybe that’s why my hands are lit and not my face. I talk to the light person a lot, and one intention is to not overload me as a person, so people can drift away in the experience. You invite people to have a good time, and say, “I’m here to help you.”
There was a kind of “So be it” to what you said.
Do you rest on certain personal rhythms, rituals, or environments in order to create?
Daytime is very important for me, especially the morning, from 8 to 12 or 1 o’clock, because I think that’s when there is the most power in my brain. But I’m also – and that’s the hard part – I’m also a night person. At night I can do other things, I can drift and let things go a little bit. But to bring things into shape…
When I’m on tour, I’ll play a concert and get home late, but the next morning, I’m working. Of course, I need sleep. But I’m so full of ideas that I wake up at 8, have breakfast, and at 9 I’m sitting at a keyboard or working on something. Sometimes people are surprised that I can actually release so much and work so much, but it’s actually just a matter of discipline. I think I’m getting there; I’m becoming much more disciplined than I was at a younger age.
You carry that structure with you wherever you go?
Yeah, and kids, for example, help you with structure.
Yes, they do! [We both laugh]
They help you get into a kind of rhythm, and also they help you to say, okay, I had a hard concert yesterday, or I’m tired, but so be it, I can sleep this afternoon, or whenever.
Can you describe what it is to lead an artist’s life, in terms of family, relationships, other choices you’ve made, obligations? Based on that question do any of these words describe how you mesh it all together – do you compartmentalize, we talked about balance, do you ignore certain things, do you integrate, do you transcend…? How does it all fit?
Well… hmm… it doesn’t fit! [Laughs] No.
I think the main thing is that you love your family and that you love your work; the problem is that these are sometimes incompatible. You can’t have both at the same time, BUT you can share as much as you can. That’s one part of the discipline – whenever you’re home, you can try to be at home, and you are there for everything, jumping in whenever something is needed. You help. The hardest parts are the transitions, when you are coming in from a world where everything is crazy, and going into family life, where everything rides like a train and you have to jump back on.
That can be a little bit difficult, but age helps a lot because the times where you are away are not so occupied by unfulfilled wishes and dreams. Which may sound like a negative thing, but it’s not at all. I think it’s very realistic. You can be at an after-show party, looking at people, and you try to find the ones you want to talk with and then you say, I’m going home. In earlier times, there was no end, it was continuous. And this created a lot of confusion, because maybe you met someone while you were in a relationship, and you would wake up the next morning totally confused. Everything becomes out of balance then. I think that has changed a lot.
Sometimes when I’m on tour, I’ll talk to my kids’ teachers. I also have jobs when I’m on the road. I try to help everyone at home, especially my wife, so they don’t suffer from my joy. It’s also something you have to pay back at some point. You have a good time, and of course you have to stay at home and say, hey, now it’s your turn.
It’s not always easy, because sometimes things pick up, and you feel like you have to take care of them right away. But if it continues like that – and at the moment I feel like everything is picking up with more speed than I’m used to – then you have to really find that balance. On the other hand, when you’re responsible, everyone feels it, and everyone feels that responsibility is important; it gives everyone in my family a perspective. You have to be the head of the family in certain areas. I’m not saying that men have to take care of the income, but you have to make decisions that are clearly directed towards your family.
You started talking about this a little bit, but can you tell me more about how others fit into your creative or inner world?
…those who have a similar vision?
…those who don’t understand your work?
…those who are supportive without necessarily participating?
First of all, people who interfere with my world are great, because they make me think differently, which is awesome. Over the years, I have found many people, especially because my work is perhaps a little awkward… The approach I have to the piano is not as mainstream as others. If you do mainstream work, you easily have people on your side, but they jump off when you’re no longer mainstream. With me, people take a little longer deciding, but when they do decide for me, they really stick with me. It has positive and negative sides.
The positive side is that it feels really true, and I think I’ve found a way of creating a kind of style that attracts people who honestly say what they think. On the other side, you see people who are doing mainstream or more accessible stuff, and they grow much faster, and you are compared with them. I was happy filling a space of 500 people, while others are suddenly filling the Royal Albert Hall for 6,000 people and you’re like, wait a minute! And then people look at you, and they’re like, “Yeah, man, to be honest, 500 people…” I’m just saying that because it means there’s a nice part and a difficult part to it. It’s a personal thing that you have to handle.
Over the years, I have found people who really support me. I work with a really awesome team – the sound guy, the light guy, and my assistant, and one guy who works with me on scores and stuff like that. They love to work with me, and I love to work with them, and that’s all that matters.
Collaborations with other musicians, they come along. I see them more like a drifting, suddenly they’re next to me and we’re talking, and it’s like, “Yes, let’s do something.” And things are established.
What is your guiding energy, your main source of inspiration?
It’s the vision of finishing an idea. It’s a clear sense of – I have this idea, I want to hear it, or I want to see that, so I’m going for it. I can’t judge before I have heard it. That’s what I’m doing.
Do you ever get stuck and if so, how do you get beyond that?
If I get stuck, I put it to the side. I wait and I pick it up a week later. I don’t force myself to finish it. Sometimes you have to. But if I can avoid that, I’m very happy.
Where does your gratitude flow?
Mmm… to satisfaction! [Laughs] And fulfilment… maybe fulfilment is a better word, because it’s detached from the urge of needs. It’s more like existing in a kind of happiness without… forcing it.
It seems like an obvious question for what you do, but how does playfulness fit into your work?
Ah… [Laughs] Well, playfulness is one part of my nature. I think my whole existence is a kind of reaction to what comes along. Of course, I take the lead in my life and I make decisions, but a lot of times, I’m open to options. It’s very interesting that this actually leads to success as well, while other concepts are so strongly directional…
But it doesn’t mean that people are happy when they go like this [hand flies up] and things are going up and up and up and up… And we’re talking about successful people; there are a lot of people who are just going down, down, down, down, especially at the moment. It’s weird, because five years ago, I did not think that what is happening politically, with the refugees, would happen. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I did not think that this would happen.
It reminds me that things can always twist and turn very quickly into a situation where you are not in control. At the moment, my mind is more often with people who are not as gifted. Not personally, but people who have to work very hard, or who have to walk for a thousand kilometres with their kid in their arms. And I sometimes look at that, and think, man, just seeing my kid suffering already breaks my heart. And they are walking through the rain, they have no food – and we’re not talking about a day… This somehow influences my whole life.
When you detach fulfilment from the goals of satisfaction – that’s why I changed the word – you become open to looking at these people as well. It’s not a luxury; it’s more a state of mind that you can be in even when you are poor.
Joseph Campbell wrote, “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are—if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.” Do you agree? If so, how do you “follow your bliss”?
I totally agree. You can see it that way. What is nice is that he describes it like there’s this road sitting there, just waiting, and you are here on the side and you are trying to go left, right, left, right, and at some point you may be on the road for just ten minutes [laughs] and then you leave it…
Yes, I think the art of living is to actually feel that, and stay on that track. That gives you bliss, because when you are on that track, things fall in the right place, without you forcing it, they just happen. I don’t know why, but when I become looser and let things go, I receive so much more attention from other people, just because they feel that I am not attached. There’s hardly anything that is more attractive than someone who is not attached, which is of course a problem for the person who is attached! [Laughs hard]
Where do you turn for solace – does it include your creative work?
Yeah, if I didn’t have the possibility of working…I can read for a while, but I can’t just go to pools and read and lay on the beach for too long… I get mad at some point, and not because I’m a workaholic. Part of my living is to go into a room and work and do music.
That’s one part, but I love going in nature, to remote places, being in quietness. It’s very nice when you are disconnected from the internet for a while, when somebody takes care of all the letters and everything, and you can just say, can you just give me a break for a week or two? That’s nice… Because when you are very busy, you lose the space that you need for interviews like this one. You go to a city, like London, and hardly have any time… I would have loved to have gone to the Tate Modern but I cannot go, because I have no time. If I extended my stay, I would lose time with my family, and I already extended it by one day – today – that was not my original plan. In a way, things are very tight, but you can’t be everywhere at the same time.
What is the place of longing in your work? There’s a strong sense of longing in your earlier work, perhaps, that sense of reaching for something, and I’m wondering if that’s still active now.
Absolutely… absolutely. I would say that right now, I’m trying to incorporate all the parts of my music and my ideas into one, which is of course longing, but it’s also happiness, fulfilment, craziness… I want to find a home for all these things… The ideal situation would be to combine them with sadness and melancholy… I would say my previous work was also ruled much more by my search for things, maybe the search was the longing, as well. And I’m still searching, but sometimes the search slows down, especially when you’ve already done something; you have to incorporate the things that you have done. You can’t say, okay, now I’m going to start something from scratch, because you have done something already that creates this atmosphere.
Listening to you play last night, it seemed there were lots of different moods, and sometimes they were side by side, and sometimes they were on top of each other. It was interesting how you would just go back and forth between those different…
The different levels!
Yes, the different levels… Moods piling up!
Where are we going?!
Yes! I think it’s very nice that you can follow me. By doing that, it’s more like looking at someone who is painting on a canvas…
What is your closest experience to simply being, or to a state of connection?
Mmm… [long pause] I think when I’m playing the piano.
What are you most excited about at the moment?
I had the idea of working on many films, and now I’m working on many films! [Laughs] So I’m excited about that; that you have ideas and they take root. That makes me very excited, because it means that there’s no limit.
How do you most enjoy being remembered?
[Long sigh, long pause] Maybe as a good father? Maybe…
Would you like to add something?
I really liked your questions; I think they describe exactly what I am, what is important to me, and not only in music… Music is something that comes and goes, and it’s inspired by a lot of different forces. I think to detach that, to see the person and the music is sometimes very difficult. Of course, music describes someone’s personality; but the personality sometimes disappears in the music and also in the expectations. That’s often very sad.
Recently, I saw the documentary about Amy Winehouse, and that’s an example where you feel like someone can be so talented, but surrounded by people who are not listening… They’re totally lonely. As a musician, you’re lonely anyway, because you’re always in yourself, trying to find ideas. But if you feel that when you come out of this phase you come into a surrounding that is not paying attention, because they just use you for their own purposes… In that regard the questions are very good and go into all the things that are important to me.
Thank you very much.
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