On Foreign Landscapes, his latest Fat Cat recording, composer and pianist Volker Bertelmann has retained a penchant for prepared piano, complete with ping pong balls! But he’s also widened his palette to encompass other instruments. Nine of the release’s twelve pieces feature a dozen additional musicians: members of the San Francisco-based Magik*Magik Orchestra. The group’s strings and winds lend greater depth to Hauschka’s sound world, often imparting a sense of cinematic sweep to the proceedings. The language of much of the material here is inspired by post-minimalism, and the motoric ostinati that populate pieces such as “Madeira” and “Union Square” are certainly abetted by the varieties of timbres and energetic performances contributed by the Magik*Magik players.
On one of the recording’s most striking ensemble works, “Kamogawa,” both arcing melodies and repeated oscillations are brought together in a particularly fetching arrangement. Led by a sepulchral ground played by the bass clarinet and accompanying figures played by pizzicato strings, the ensemble crackles with rhythmic vitality, building an engaging essay out of myriad interlocking repeated figures.
Elsewhere, as on “Mount Hood,” Hauschka opts to place his piano front and center, combining a harmonic language of considerable lyricism with the percussive interjections of the instrument’s prepared strings. It is a delicious juxtaposition – sometimes reminiscent of Cageian experiments and at others of a well-worn saloon piano pressed into service to play a 19th century salon piece. The resulting ambience allows for an exploration of Romanticism – but with a deconstructive sensibility and detachment that denudes the music of any overly sentimental residue.
Whether he’s performing solo or abetted by collaborators, Hauschka continues to grow as a composer. Foreign Landscapes is a significant step forward for an already compelling musical artist.