In Hauschka’s world, beauty is in the tiniest details. The Dusseldorf, Germany-based composer (his real name is Volker Bertelmann) uses orchestration not for sweeping drama, but to color his minimalist tunes. Foreign Landscapes is a travelogue of sorts, with each piece addressing a specific place frozen in time. It’s instrumental music on a human scale, drawing a fine line between classical, pop, and the avant-garde.
Since 2005, Hauschka’s main instrument has been the prepared piano. First popularized by John Cage in the 1930s, the technique involves attaching everyday objects to a piano’s strings to create odd rhythms and sounds. Hauschka uses everything from gaffer tape and magnets to bottle caps and ping-pong balls to modify his piano. These mundane objects reflect his love of mundane, everyday life—walks in the park, people-watching, even a simple blue bicycle on his previous album Ferndorf. The inherent artiness of the prepared piano could be overbearing and obnoxious, but Hauschka knows how to connect with the listener with loose and playful melodies.
He expands his lens a little bit on Foreign Landscapes, both with the geography-hopping song titles and the instrumentation itself. Hauschka is accompanied here by a twelve-piece string and woodwind ensemble, and his trademark piano is largely relegated to the background. Gone is the whimsy of his past work, replaced by moodier songs that take a page from Philip Glass or Michael Nyman in their use of repetition. Each instrument interlocks with one another; there are no solos or spotlights in Hauschka’s complex machinery.
Titles give clues to the songs’ overall sound: “Union Square” is busy, crowded and discordant; “Snow” slowly builds and builds; “Children” bobs and weaves with abandon. It’s apparent Hauschka loves the new tools at his disposal, especially on the radiant “Alexanderplatz.” Named for the famous Berlin plaza, the song shows off his knack for melody and simple structure, folding a basis of woodwinds and lock-step cellos into a slice of perfect chamber pop. He even sneaks in one of his minimal piano compositions midway through the album (“Early In The Park”), the buzzing and clicking strings perfectly matched to Hauschka’s low-key style.
Like his past work, Foreign Landscapes takes nostalgia as its key theme. In others’ hands, this could be maudlin or self-indulgent, but Hauschka’s attention to detail is his strongest characteristic. The songs here rarely hit the heights of previous albums, but that seems to be the point. This is a cycle dedicated to those personal, patient moments found in day-to-day living, regardless of geography or language barrier.