“This record makes me think of highway driving patterns,” I wrote my editor halfway through my first listen of Salon des Amateurs, the new record by Hauschka, nom de guerre of Düsseldorf-based piano wizard Volker Bertelmann. Hearing Bertelmann’s collection of intricately crafted instrumental dance tracks, I imagined hurtling through the New Mexico desert at night, flanked in a V-formation by a pair of white Ford E-150s. “Is that good or bad?” he asked. There’s no way to answer that. It’s just kind of beyond.
The ten space cakes of heavily patterned, layered piano music that make up Salon des Amateurs—propelled by drums from Samuli Kosminen of Múm and Joey Burns and John Conventino of Calexico (with Grammy winner Hillary Hahn lending the occasional stripe of violin)—hold sound cycles for near-excruciating length before gently tweaking them to elicit waves of revelation. The method is a bit like autoerotic asphyxiation, though Bertelmann chooses a more family-oriented analogy. “I love keeping moments for longer that the normal consumer would hold it,” he says. “You can compare it with certain yoga styles. If you do a certain yoga posture, you have to stay in the shape for awhile, feel the shape. People who are not used to it jump off, they say it’s boring. Which is great, I’m happy those people are out there—this music forces you either to like it or not like it. There’s no in-between.”
Salon des Amateurs (named for a Düsseldorf hangout where artists and musicians are encouraged to experiment) might seem like a surprising direction for Bertelmann, a hardcore composer whose previous recorded experiments have drawn comparisons to brainy minimalists. But it’s also a totally logical way of integrating the wide-ranging interests of his long and varied musical career. “I have the impression that I’m finishing a kind of circle, because when I was a kid I had piano lessons from the age of nine,” Bertelmann explains. “I was already in a rock band when I was 12, and for about 20 years I was only in bands where we had loud guitars and I stage dived and there was a lot of physical action going on. Then I discovered the piano again and I went into a quieter zone. This new record is a little bit of a return to this energy I had at the beginning.”
Fascinating and thoughtful aren’t words you’d generally use to describe dance music, and it’s Bertelmann’s credit that he smuggles those qualities into the genre in a way that feels organic and thrilling. Each song was arranged on a prepared piano around a central structure, which was then elaborated on or winnowed down with help from his literal bags of tricks. Bertelmann appends accessories like bottle caps, Scotch tape and tiny motors to the piano’s innards to manipulate a host of unexpected sounds. “I record sometimes 40 tracks of piano and then shape each part,” Bertelmann says. “The effect is that you don’t know if what you’re hearing is a delay, or reverb, or why the piano suddenly sounds like a string in the background. It’s layers of maybe 20 pianos playing the same note.”