Though composer Maurice Delage tinkered with the form as early as 1912, the prepared piano is most closely associated with John Cage. In 1994, Tori Amos’s “Bells for Her” further revealed the technique’s ability to convey intensity and emotional heft, while Hauschka’s entire career has concerned itself with the prepared piano’s technical possibilities. On his latest release, Abandoned City, Hauschka (a.k.a. Volker Bertelmann) has let his guard down and allowed himself to add a certain depth of feeling to his usual showmanship and rhythmic panache.
Abandoned City’s song titles come from actual vacant places, such as Pripyat, a city emptied out after the 1986 nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl, and Agdam, a town deserted in the wake of the Azerbaijan civil war. Hauschka evokes the sadness of these barren landscapes, while constructing an unusual new dance music; imagine if Harold Budd’s Abandoned Cities was imbued with a quiet clatter, the melancholy polyrhythms of rainfall against mud and rusted swing sets.
Hauschka augments the prepared piano on Abandoned City with delay, distortion, and reverb, giving the album a meditative, impressionistic undercurrent, sometimes even bringing his hectic minimalism to a mournful legato. Instruments that sound like harp, melodica, and drums seem to weave in and out of the music’s fallow tundra, but they’re actually the sounds of the prepared piano, either on its own or treated with effects. The uncertainty of knowing where one instrument ends and another begins is ironically, for an album about alienated places, never alienating. There’s an openness that welcomes listeners to immerse themselves in its ghost towns.
Experimental music, like its cinematic counterpart, often toys with notions of faulty perception and the patchiness of memory. In this sense, Abandoned City is more an unreliable narrator’s retelling than a journalistic account of the places it depicts. It’s pretty but troubling, like the washed-out light and manipulated frames of a Stan Brakhage film. By allowing himself to trust his instrument and push himself to make bolder, more resonant statements, Hauschka has created the finest work of his career. His songs continue to connect on a personal level, but the breezy, conversational tones of his Salon des Amateurs are gone. That album’s casual levity of nights out in Düsseldorf were pleasant enough, but Hauschka truly excels when he digs in deeper and gives the conversation more weight.