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The German Composer Who Made Pianos Play Themselves

On his new record, Hauschka used player pianos to become a one-man band and explore a disastrous possible future.

In 2010, the German pianist/composer Hauschka participated in a visual art piece called Ghost Piano. During the performances, various projections were displayed on a white piano while he appeared to play it. But projections are complicated because real life objects cast shadows and interrupt them. For the full visual experience, Hauschka would have to fade away.

And so it was that Hauschka was in another room playing a second piano out of the audience's view. His apparent presence was nothing but a spectral illusion. The ghost piano, true to its name, was playing all by itself.


Player pianos, or pianolas, peaked in popularity in the mid-1920s before improvements in recording technology rendered them obsolete. The self-playing instruments use a pneumatic or electro-mechanical mechanism to feed pre-programmed music into a piano so that it can play sans player—a novel, if not entirely practical, way to listen to music. Today, player pianos have utility beyond their playback capabilities. For Hauschka, whose real name is Volker Bertelmann, modern player pianos—now equipped to read MIDI—appeared as an opportunity to start his own one-man band.

"I had the feeling that this ghost, this piano that moves the keys by itself, could be my mind," Bertelmann told me by phone from Berlin. "These pianos in the background playing by themselves… I wouldn't have other instrumentalists, but I'd have these pianos that [I could make] sound like a drum kit."

The composer is a master at preparing pianos, a practice conceived by John Cage. It involves placing found objects inside a piano in order to change the strings' timbres and make them sound like other instruments.

"The first time I was doing that was my first record, Substantial," he told me. "It was in 2004 and I was in Wales, trying to create some electronic sounds with an analog instrument because I wanted to get rid of the computer onstage. I didn't want to work on a laptop and play piano at the same time; I always felt like I was at work when I had a computer. So I started to put plastic light filters and cake packaging between the hammers and the strings, and that created my first high hat in the piano."


The piano, already a champion of polyphony—harmony, melody, and counterpoint can be played concurrently, and it can accommodate multiple players at once—became even more so, now able to be entirely customized, like some analog surrogate for the synthesizer. "While I was working, I had the feeling that I could do this on every different key, so I decided to create diverse preparations for 20 or 25 keys on the piano without losing the piano quality of sound."

Bertelmann has done a couple shows with prepared player pianos, but his idea to arrange them as a one-man band wouldn't fully manifest until his exceptionally active 2016. Last year, he composed four film scores (one of which was the Oscar-nominated score for Lion, co-written with Dustin O'Halloran), wrote two orchestral pieces, and finished a solo record called What If, where finally he married his Ghost Piano intrigue with his love for the prepared piano.

For his solo project, which arrived on the last day of March, Bertelmann wrote music for a Yamaha Disklavier, singly feeding his MIDI compositions into the machine and then recording each individual output. "That allowed me to work on each single theme or motif separately with the preparations and see how they fit with each other," he explained. "It was a very interesting process because normally I'm playing, and here I was actually listening to an orchestra."

With his hands free to adjust his preparations, he could mix and match textures and even play additional melodies or provide harmonic support alongside his ghost pianos. Mostly, though, the player pianos did the playing. "At some points, here and there, [I added] a little color—I was maybe playing one piece on top of them. But with 'Constant Growth Fails,' for example, it's purely player piano and nothing else."


"Constant Growth Fails," hyped as What If's lead single, was garnished with an edifying behind the scenes video, as well as a salient music video by award-winning British director Daniel Gray, whose dystopian animations hint at the record's pointed conceptual framework.

Gray shows us a cleaver and other cutters sawing through obscure objects that have been magnified too much to identify. Musically, "Constant Growth" joins with verve. Multiple pulses arise and crisscross, establishing a complex foundation for subsequent melodies. As the melodies arrive, the cut objects, now sheared and torn, are sewn together with other pieces, and in the eventual reveal, we're shown commonplace items conjoined with small animals—a toy doll with a fish, a wooden racecar with a squirrel, a power strip with a snake. It's a commentary, perhaps, on the unnatural and even unforeseeable consequences of constant growth at any cost—alas, a central tenet of a world dictated by industry. The album is arranged so that "what if' can be affixed to the beginning of song titles and form questions like: 'What if… constant growth fails?'

"I just wanted to throw out these questions that are appearing naturally when you think about how the world and humans are developing," he told me. "There are problems with ecology and the climate, but nobody feels like they're urgent."

"I just wanted to throw out these questions that are appearing naturally when you think about how the world and humans are developing. There are problems with ecology and the climate, but nobody feels like they're urgent."


Urgency is What If's primary theme, its execution made possible through the bionic capabilities of the player piano. Machines can play faster and more precisely than people can, and that pell-mell speed, automated to impossible exactitude, adds an air of exigent dilemma to the album's tone. "It's obvious that things are changing," Bertelmann noted. "I wanted to find a personal attachment to those questions so that I could encourage people to listen to their thoughts when they think: What if I can't find water? What if constant growth fails? Where are we then?" Bertelmann uses a process of association when he needs to tap into this growing, subconscious essence. He keeps two folders, one for thematic content and one for music, and ultimately he pairs text with song through common correlation—"Constant Growth" with rushing piano lines, for instance, or straying piano droplets over a dusty electric backdrop with "I Can't Find Water."

En masse, What If projects Bertelmann's current observations onto an imagined future 30 years from now. It's complementary, in a way, to the concept behind the composer's 2014 album Abandoned City, which eulogizes cities that, for one reason or another, are no longer inhabited. Both contain ghostly visions of a theoretical future. I was struck by one particular sentiment he shared in an interview predating that release, in which he suggested that his inner world writing music was a balance of lonely melancholy and hope.


"I'd say [What If is] a development from a focus on my inner world to the outer world, and it incorporates a view into the future," he told me when I asked about this idea. "In a way, even though [abandoned cities] had a past, they have the future implanted because they represent the state of zero. We don't know what will happen to them."

Today, in this turbid political climate, it's not inconceivable to imagine a world 30 years from now that looks very much like an abandoned city, rife with ghost pianos and no players. Bertelmann also plugged into that possibility, suggesting that some catastrophe could send us all back to zero. "I think the question from watching these kinds of developments is: where do you get hope from?" he said. "I think hope is something that's generated by living and experiencing life with other humans, and that gives me a lot of hope."

The hope and wonder that arise from opportunities to experience life together sits central to Hauschka's new record, and to his oeuvre at large. "I want to wake up in the morning when there is stuff to do and when I know that I'll meet people and I'll go somewhere," he told me, sincerely. "That's why I make music. I try to generate an environment that makes people wonder in their minds, that creates fantasies, that creates creativity—all things that are making you move."

Photos courtesy of Hauschka

Keagon Voyce is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.