There is a unattributed comment about the first Roxy Music album, saying that it contained about a dozen possible futures (it is usually credited to Eno, but I can’t find any evidence for its origins). The concept behind What If is slightly more modest in that the album envisions nine possible futures – 11 if you get the edition with the bonus tracks, so pretty close.
When making his albums, Volker Bertelmann – for he is Hauschka – likes to start his creative process with a definite plan musically, such as a limited choice of instruments, and in a more abstract sense, in that the music is going to be about something. This thematic discipline might explain why he is increasingly in demand as a soundtrack composer; it certainly shapes What If into a coherent whole.
Of course, any conceptual thought behind an album is rendered fruitless if the music itself isn’t engaging. Thankfully, Hauschka’s method of composing has a lightness of touch that feels like the music has been plucked out of the ether, reflecting the composer’s emotions at that very moment.
Bertelmann expands his instrument list on What If beyond just using the prepared piano, bringing in a couple of synthesizers for overdubs and a player piano for those tricky-to-play moments. The additional instrumentation offers a further dimension to the work capturing the few sounds that a prepared piano cannot. If you are familiar with any of Bertelmann’s previous work you will already know that he is a master of setting up a piano to make it sound like pretty much anything so it is not easy to spot where the acoustic keyboard ends and the synths take over.
Each of the titles here can be preceded by What If… to form the forward-looking theme – and it’s not usually a happy place that Hauschka inhabits. In fact, just going by the titles it’s a really dystopian album, although the bleakness is alleviated by the upbeat and bright melodies which pop up and the occasional jazz-inflected riff on the keys. It is as if Bertelmann couldn’t help himself and ended up with an optimistic apocalypse-themed work.
Arguably the most melancholic piece here is the most personally titled, wondering what if “I Can’t Express My Deep Love” through slow, untreated piano notes that set off sympathetic ripples of sounds. There are subtle music clues throughout, such as the creaking waterwheel that opens “I Can’t Find Water”, that Bertelmann conjures up through carefully preparing the piano. There’s even the ghost of “Happy Birthday” appearing momentarily on one track.
It’s often a case when engaging with a dystopian movie or novel that I wonder ‘how did they get to that point?’ and in most cases it’s put down to a single sudden event. But often change happens slowly, so we don’t even realise it is happening. It wasn’t that long ago that almost every house had a piano that was played, often as part of communal entertainment and gradually over the years they have been removed – or possibly reprieved as a silent stand for a flower display. It is perhaps a similar scenario to the one Hauschka was thinking of for “Familiar Things Disappear” which buries the piano beneath a mass of alien tones and percussive glitches. If we jettison pianos that easily what else can we lose?
Although pondering the titles suggests otherwise and may drive you to despair – what if trees only exist in books? – What If is not really an introspective or melancholic record, and it frequently feels generously big-hearted. It is perhaps Hauschka at his most expressively creative, as the ideas tumble out in a giddy rush of upbeat twangs, strums and plucks. In the end, uplifted by the closing “We Live A Thousand Years”, it feels as if everything’s going to be OK in the end. And if it isn’t What If will also work as that comforting album you put on as the ice caps melt and the waters rise. (Jeremy Bye)