The poetry of entropy: Hauschka’s concept for Abandoned City is possibly one of the most beautiful and simultaneously brutalised ideas for an album ever conceived. To compose music for and soundtrack the ruined and empty metropolis – from Elizabeth Bay, a deserted mining town in Namibia to Pripyat, a city near Chernobyl abandoned after the nuclear disaster of 1986. On hearing these requiems for lost civilisations you think of the crepuscular buildings in Tarkovsky’s Zona or the dystopian visions of JG Ballard. They are what author and blogger Mark Fisher has termed ‘Hauntological’ and they are also ontological, dealing with being and nothingness to paraphrase Sartre.
Thirtysomething Hauschka (aka Volker Bertelmann) occupies that compelling and increasingly populous hinterland between electronica and modern or neo-classical music. Think of a similar sort of audio to Nils Frahm – piano virtuosity and techno beats, references to minimalism and the avant-garde including Glass, Reich, Satie, Cage and Terry Reilly but also adept at electronica production techniques and what is broadly termed ambient. The structure of Pripyat, for example, owes something to Terry Reilly’s In C. It was all recorded in Hauschka’s home studio in Dusseldorf using a piano and nine microphones, six to record sound directly from his piano’s strings and another three to feed into a mixer with delay distortion and echo effects..
The album opens with Elizabeth Bay, which, as mentioned previously was once an industrious mining town in Namibia. This is undoubtedly the best track and the one worth downloading most, unless you intend to purchase the album in its entirety. It is based on a piece of music Hauschka wrote for a reinvention of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman and was recorded in ten days flat. Sometimes speed can aid creation, force and urgency can produce the most striking and dramatic effects and so it is in this case. Elizabeth Bay is the most song-like, the most impactful melody on the album and it emanates a sort of decaying grandeur and loss very eloquently. The next most compelling track is Craco, named after a Medieval Italian village that got swallowed by a sink hole in 1963 and a cinematic roll of undulating, modulating, resonating piano motifs.
I listened to the whole album whilst driving at dusk in the pouring rain and, whilst it is arguable that all music sounds more heightened and romantic in this context, there was a certain frisson between the spotting of raindrops on my windscreen and the insistent throbbing and dotting of piano and string effects on Pripyat – pretty soon the rain seemed to be choreographing a kind of syncopated yet random spattering dance to some of these staccato sounds. It is arguable that post-Elizabeth Bay, which has the most profound melodic structure, the album runs on into more soundtracky, backdrop, ambient mode with each subsequent track feeling like a variation on a major theme, rather than what you might term a song in its own right. Played as an entirety it works however and the loneliness and melancholy of this music is sometimes, nothing short of sublime.