The New Yorker’s chief music critic, Alex Ross, has consistently decried the term “classical” music: It’s a creative blockade, rendering the genre a stuffy, dusty antique that can’t possibly be updated or tampered with. Little wonder then that classical music is at an all-time low in terms of concert sales, radio formatting, and general public interest. The fanbase is getting old and dying, and it’s hard to get a new generation interested in the same 300-year-old sonatas. It needs a little star power.
Enter Volker Bertelmann, the German composer behind Hauschka. Within six years, he’s released six albums, all exploring the “prepared piano” technique first popularized by John Cage. By attaching nails, washers, tape, and even ping-pong balls to the piano’s wires and hammers, he turns the instrument into a percussive machine. On last year’s Foreign Landscapes, Bertelmann primarily used a conventional string section for his compositions, but with Salon Des Amateurs, he’s thankfully back on the cutting edge.
Salon is an effort to marry classical with dance music, in effect creating a highly organic electronic record. It’s not as slapdash as it sounds—the two genres both require careful composition and control, and Bertelmann is brimming with ideas. And he’s got a few friends this time around: Calexico’s Joey Burns and John Convertino and múm’s Samuli Kosminen form a live rhythm section for Bertelmann’s piano to play off of.
The songs are propulsive and dense—the opening one-two punch of “Radar” and “TwoAM” is a perfect introduction to the world of Hauschka: slightly whimsical, but constantly shifting between melodic ideas while the rhythm holds steady. On headphones the effect is more intoxicating. Details jump out both left and right, and songs like “Cube” slowly morph into symphonies of odd sounds as Bertelmann harnesses the clicks, taps, and buzzing of his piano. He turns the instrument into a living, breathing thing by crafting loops out of all the odd ideas.
His melodic sensibility is still apparent on songs like “TaxiTaxi” where he mimics the opening horn section with his own creation. The repeated phrase serves as a potent hook even as all the rhythmic gears threaten to crush the entire song. The highlight of the record is “Tanzbein,” which is more like Bertelmann’s previous work. It strikes the perfect balance between melody and experimentation, slowly building from a discordant, minimal theme before adding minor chords for emotional color. It proves that there’s a human element controlling all the whirring sounds, and the added pulse makes it that much more effective.
But on a whole Salon lacks more of these emotional moments. 2008’s Ferndorf was a stunner of an album because Bertelmann varied the tempos and the tools he used, oftentimes using silence as much as a prepared chord. Without the dynamics, the songs lose some of their weight. Salon is a bold step forward, to be sure, one that spells good things for the future, wherever that might take Hauschka. It’s about time we turned our own age into a classical one.