Amplified acoustic piano and a bag of tricks

HAUSCHKA at the Polish Combatants Hall (206 Beverley), Saturday (April 11), 8 pm, all ages. $17 advance.

On Hauschka‘s recent album, the German electronic musician and pianist born Volker Bertelmann scaled back his palette of instruments and collaborators to focus fully on piano’s possibilities. 

Through a combination of electronic effects, unorthodox mic placements and physical adaptations to the piano itself, the acoustic instrument becomes otherworldly and ethereal on Abandoned City, out on FatCat. The percussive sounds from the objects he inserts into the strings generate rhythms and tones closer to techno than to experimental classical music. 

The equipment he brings on tour to prepare his pianos for performance raises some eyebrows at the border.

“I have a full bag of materials that a lot of times customs is curious about. A very weird mixture of magnets, vibrators, ping-pong balls and all sorts of things,” Bertelmann says from his home in Düsseldorf. “Maybe if it weren’t organized like it is in my bag, you would consider it junk you’d find lying around in your garage. But I actually need all these things.”

Bertelmann often performs in soft-seat venues for audiences inclined to sit quietly and applaud politely at the end of each piece. However, his live set-up is flexible enough to work in spaces with room for dancing and with sound systems powerful enough to accurately reproduce the low end required to inspire movement.

“If I’m playing in front of a club audience and I’m in the mood, I can play the whole evening more like a DJ remix set, in a way,” he says. “I can create big bass drums on the piano, and I can loop those rhythms and work on top of that.”

That versatility is partly enabled by his creative approach to amplifying the piano, using multiple mics to boost certain frequencies and details far beyond what pianos are capable of acoustically. 

“Miking up a piano is very difficult, especially when you work with very loud sound – the feedback issues are big. I like finding ways to amplify piano so loud that you can play dance music and have it be very pumping. We’ve tried a lot of different things with microphones to get that.” | @benjaminboles

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