The album cover art for Abandoned City shows the exposed structure of building. It provides something of a visual parallel to German musician Volker Bertelmann’s interest in how music functions and how individual elements interact and are pieced together.
Under the Hauschka name it is an area he’s explored in detail for the best part of a decade, initially via the inner workings of the prepared piano but more recently branching out into wider musical terrain. Seventh album Abandoned City proves that the twin concepts of structure and detail are as important as they have ever been to his music.
Abandoned City isn’t just a metaphorical title used to add colour to the album however; each track is named after an existing place that for various reasons has been vacated by human beings and left to take on an eerie, disengaged life of its own. It’s testament to his skill as a musician and an executor of ideas that he’s able to reflect this so vividly exclusively via the piano (all sounds heard on Abandoned City come from the instrument, despite often appearing otherwise). The musical landscapes he creates project a distinct lack of people and human form, focusing instead on geography, architecture and even in places phenomena such as weather.
Elizabeth Bay opens the album and offers one of the best examples of this. A feeling of suspense and intrigue flows through the piece, as the percussive possibilities of the piano are explored in full. The shuddering sonorities are elicited by the placing of wooden sticks between the strings of the piano, while the video for the track reveals a tambourine attached in a similar capacity. It shows that there’s something masterful about his control and knowledge of the piano, both in an orthodox and unorthodox fashion.
Similar can be said of Pripyat, a track named after the Ukrainian city that had to be evacuated after the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. A ghostly quality seeps through the track, moving paradoxically between mild claustrophobia and expansive openness. It is also one of the pieces that show how certain intricacies of Hauschka’s music are only fully revealed after several careful listens. Thames Town is underpinned by a more overt percussive drive while Agdam restores clarity, beautifully evoking a sense of journey and movement (largely down to the tiered Kraftwerkian cadences of the piece).
The gracefully cascading piano of Craco is one of the key moments of the album. Recent years have seen Bertelmann widen his sound, evidenced on the string-based compositions of 2010’s Foreign Landscapes and his collaboration in 2012 with violinist Hilary Hann on Silfra (each falling on either side of the brass-tinted portrayals of electronica found on 2011’s Salon Des Amateurs).
Craco however confirms that Abandoned City is very much a return to the sounds of the piano, demonstrated at their purest here. Indeed, it is arguably the most overtly classical he has been in his career to date, sounding closer to the likes of Nils Frahm. The background fissures haven’t been entirely eradicated but they are far less jittery or spindly than they have been in the past.
The irregular pulses of Bakerville and muted textures of Stromness close the album, showing just how close he is to perfecting the accessible complexity he’s been slowly developing over the years. The album may have been inspired by empty urban voids and desolate space but the ideas and execution found on Abandoned City conversely indicate a depth and creative vigour that is close to reaching peak form.