Room to Expand

(Fat Cat/130701; 2007)

By David Greenwald | 13 April 2007

Sometimes experimentation only requires a piece of rubber. Or a few of them, squeezed and shoved between the strings of Volker Bertelmann's piano. The German composer, who goes by the moniker Hauschka, isn't the first to delve into the prepared piano, but he explores its possibilities with intricacy and beauty. Playing on a piano with materials including leather, felt and aluminum hissing between its strings and under its hammers, his compositions on Room to Expand range from meandering melodic explorations to cluttered, thickly rhythmic songs.

It starts innocently enough. "La Dilettante" seems straightforward, staccato piano jabs juxtaposed against a repeating two-note figure and skylarking strings. But things get wilder quickly, the violins stretching violently against each other before dropping out, leaving the piano to plod loudly back to the opening theme. The violins return with an ascending four-note riff that threatens to open a new section, but then the song abruptly ends. "Paddington" has the beat-oriented focus of an electronica composition, with the piano, horns and percussion all moving within their own neat rhythms. The only thing that throws it off -- and fascinatingly so -- is the buzz of the piano's accessories bleeding across the meter. "One Wish" is slow and languorous by comparison. Bertelmann hovers over the melody, lingering softly on certain notes and playing with sudden energy on others. The filled-up nooks and crannies of the piano are revealed in full force here, buzzing and scrunching and tapping as he ranges across the keys.

The nature of the prepared piano places it somewhere between classical composition and jazz's adventurousness, but unlike jazz players' improvisations, even the performer can't predict all the resultant noises of his instrument. The songs are steadied by the addition of other instruments, from the violins of the open track to the heavy-breathing brass of "Chicago Morning"; a nod, perhaps, to the city's rich jazz tradition. "Belgrade" tempers its complexly unfolding click-clacking with a boisterous horn refrain. A metallic plucked string in "Sweet Spring Cone" distracts, as it intends, but too much so. It's the album's sole moment of over-preparation: an upright bass could have been a better choice, as "Watercolor Milk" proves. Things slow down through the album's second half, and while the album is well-paced, another more rhythmic composition would've rounded it out nicely.

Still, Hauschka manages to succeed across the board with Room to Expand. The album's pacing varies enough to keep one's attention, and the prepared piano never overshadows the real preparations: the compositions. Especially on beat-centric tracks such as "Paddington" and "Watercolor Milk," this is an exciting album, one that rewards careful attention richly. A collection of instrumental, piano-driven tracks might seem best suited to soundtracking a night in with a good book. While Room to Expand can certainly accomplish that, be careful: once all that felt and foil starts crinkling, it'll be hard to pay attention to the pages in front of you.