Over the years, we’ve come to know Hauschka (Volker Bertelmann) as a master of the prepared piano. Recent works have seen him expand to full orchestration. But this year, he’s stripping it all back for an album of solo piano, unadorned. The temptation is to call this new / old style “unprepared piano,” but we’ll resist.
The decision to go back to one’s roots ~ pun intended ~ is mirrored by a fascination with forests and the healing power of nature. The purity of a hike is the start and end point, while other track titles (“Bark and Moss”, “Skating Through the Woods”) emphasize the glory of the great outdoors. The images of the first video single underline the vastness of the tall trees and the limited perspective of the ground. At first there are buildings and borders; the protagonist must cut through a wire fence in order to access the forest. As she runs through the trees, we realize that she is the piano ~ white clothing, black hair. At the end she breaks through to see a tall, felled tree, the ocean, and the pianist. Does the title “Curious” mean that she is curious about what she will find, or that what she finds is curious? And how did Volker get his piano to the beach? Likely with the aid of Summer Shapiro (The Key), a reference long-time fans will appreciate.
Walking in the forest helps Hauschka to appreciate the finite nature of existence in conjunction with the eternal nature of beauty. The trees center him; he sees one that is over 500 years old and remarks on the perspective of time. When we become connected to our devices, we become disconnected from what is true; our idea of time becomes unmoored, connected to schedules and deadlines. Hauschka seems to be saying, teach me the slowness of trees.
The piano is the instrument through which he communicates his thoughts and emotions. No longer adorned ~ like a forest in winter ~ the piano still sounds rich and deeply hued. There is no rush, even on the faster tracks, none of which break a sweat. The music is measured and centered, far from the rapidity of Late Summer (which we loved, yet in a different way). “Hands in the Anthill” yields the thickest flurries and darkest notes and sits at the center of the set, but as the album unfolds it grows more pensive, as if awed, even sad. Life is so finite after all, and beauty so immense. “Ghosts” and “Another Hike” in particular conjure this feeling of hiraeth. While the bulk of the album is positive, a quiet reminder lies in the liner notes: that the album is also “a plea for us to protect and preserve our natural world.” What the green has given to Hauschka he now returns, ending this pristine set on a note of hope. (Richard Allen)