Volker Bertelmann, best known as Hauschka, is the magnificent, avant-garde artist and composer who has defined the musical landscape of distinguished films and television shows, including Patrick Melrose, Adrift, Exodus, Gunpowder, and Different Kinds of Rain. Fusing diverse elements from classical traditions, the depths of electronic music, and sounds from found objects, Hauschka's rhythmic innovation and improvisational wonder has challenged and delighted audiences around the world. A masterclass in impactful minimalism, his collaborative score with Dustin O'Halloran for Garth Davis' Lion garnered prestigious nominations from the Oscars, the Golden Globes, and the BAFTAs among others. In our inspiring conversation, Hauschka shares his rich expertise of prepared piano and details his adventures in experimentalism.
Growing up in a tiny religious community in Germany, you started playing classical piano at age nine. Fast forward into the future, you had completed your first film score by age 18, got signed to a major record deal as a rapper with God's Favourite Dog, and created Drum & Bass albums with the project, Nonex. Can you give us a breakdown of your musical trajectory, starting from the early days of your career?
I was raised in a very strong Christian community in Germany. In our house, we were mainly playing classical music like Bach and choral music. We sang in choirs. It was a big advantage that my family was making music all the time and harmonizing vocals. Even at the age of 10, I was able to sing along a second or third voicing to a choir without any notes. I was able to listen and be like, “Oh yeah, that’s the Cadenza. I have to play or sing these notes”. That was my first thing. Then came the piano lessons, which were classical as well.
It was very conservative and at some point, I had to say, “I’m not doing this anymore because this is weird”. As a young man, I tried to escape from it because I wanted to discover what was the truth and what wasn’t. By the age of 11, I was already starting my first Rolling Stones cover band with a little synthesizer. I felt so much energy from rock music and I was totally amazed by the singing. We had an old rehearsal room, which we financed with our pocket money. Just a small room in our little village. Of course, the girls loved to hang out there because that was the only space to go. It all came together as a very nice experience and I think it motivated me, even more, to begin writing music.
A lot of the time, I’d lose my sense of time when I was in my room with a piano. I was just completely gone somewhere. Sometimes, I needed a couple of minutes to wake up and get back to reality before doing anything else. Onward from this band chapter, I went more and more into producing music. Learning how a mixing board works, how arranging works, how drum programming on a computer works. When I worked with the band, we had real drums and got into mic’ing. In a way, it was all on a semi-professional level. I was never working as an assistant in a professional, high-quality studio and I never did any training there. I was mostly doing everything myself and I tried always to find a good method of recording and performing. That’s still what I’m doing today. It's a mixture of producing, sound research, playing instruments, and being an artist that performs. I still find all these little components of my music career interesting. Even if I’m focusing on film music right now, I try to combine them all.
During your transition into being a solo artist, what inspired your pursuit of avant-garde and experimental music? What were some of the first musical concepts that resonated with you and were incorporated into what would become your artistic identity?
At the time, I would say it was mostly the material we were playing in the band, working with drum machines, listening to hip-hop, and experimenting with a lot of electronic instruments. I had the feeling that there was some depth to working with samplers and laptops, creating textures that were artificial but added something to my music as well. At some point, I had the feeling that the piano music and these textural parts could live together. I thought I could find a way of creating piano music that would be much more artistic and accessible, which featured both sides. I was thinking, “How can I create these electronic textures acoustically?” It was more like a practical thought. I was thinking, “How can I actually do it without having a laptop on my table where I have to stare always on the screen?” I just wanted to have the same quality of clicks and cuts like glitch music without using a computer. Through trial and error, I found a way of saying, "Oh man, if I put light filters between the hammers and the strings, I suddenly have a hi-hat on top of a piano note." It was a very easy way of achieving a different sound on top of the piano note itself. Suddenly, it sounded like a band because one hammer had a higher sound, the other hammer had a tambourine sound. The next one had whatever metal percussion sound. By playing altogether, you had the piano that played the chords, but on each key, you had a different percussion element.
I think that was the main influence. It was not triggered by existing artists that I was admiring because they were playing extremely experimental music. I would rather say that I was a little skeptical about experimental music because a lot of times, what I had heard was pretty dry and too conceptual, lacking any heart. Not everything, but I was maybe a little bit preoccupied with that opinion. Once I found this kind of method, I was like, “Oh man, there's definitely a way of getting in an experimental zone.” I think this is why I have a lot of fun performing because I can explore sounds onstage while playing an accessible melody on top, maybe with a dub rhythm. It can become a Pandora’s box because the combinations are endless. I am always searching for new ways to interpret my thoughts. I see people being inspired by that pursuit in their own work. When I have no idea what I should do next, I go to the piano and start taping and throwing things in to find a new sound by accident.
I have a loop station like a paddle where I record myself and a little mixing board next to me, where I have different delays or a very long reverb tail. While I'm playing, sometimes, I like to have my hands free to mess around with the sounds without losing the flow of the track. I'm playing, then I'm working on it, and then I'm starting to play again. That is very nice because you have the time to relax and stop in between. Sometimes, I even play shows without any electronics, purely acoustic sets, but it depends a little bit on how I am feeling and where I play.
BBC's Gunpowder takes place in dark medieval times, focusing on the gritty and emotionally charged tale of the Gunpowder Treason Plot of 1609. What inspired your decision to bring electronic instrumentation into the context of a gut-wrenching period series?
Well, the show is about one of the first terror attacks on Parliament and Guy Fawkes who is one of the main people in this story. He's actually the guy whose face is on the white mask with a mustache that was worn when the whole stock market collapsed. You know, the film, V for Vendetta. That mask was based on Guy Fawkes’ face, He was the one to put all the gunpowder of England under Parliament. He was so close to making the whole thing explode but they found him because someone betrayed him.
I had a long chat with the director and he was very open to electronic music and dark music. The good thing is, when you combine electronic music with acoustic instruments, it always sounds modern, and at the same time, it sounds traditional. Crossing those two styles over gives you a lot of choices. It’s nice to be able to research the kind of music they were playing in medieval times and identify the instruments they used. At the same time, even classical music is already considered something that is dated. Every time you start to write for an orchestra, that’s considered period.
Writing for a series set in the 1600’s, I felt like working with traditional instruments and composing on them in the same way would make it less interesting for people to experience. I had a feeling that a techno bass or a scratching filter wouldn’t disturb my impression of older times. In a way, it would create a pretty violent and dangerous feeling. I worked on it with my two assistants. We combined the orchestral elements with modular synthesizers. They are total geeks, who sit at home with any kind of gear and just fix things to find out what they do, how they modulate. We loved experimenting.
I understand that J Blakeson has a deeper understanding of music than most directors. What was your collaborative dynamic like and was his musical knowledge an asset to the process?
J was very good and very precise in mentioning the spots where he wanted to have music. I think that’s very good because if you have to ask three people, where would you put music? Maybe you’ll get three different opinions. At some point, one person has to make the decision, so if a director has a clear opinion, I'm very glad about it. When I got involved, he had already spent two or three years with it. He had already done the research, gone through the story, found the actors, and was in the process of shooting. I came into the game in the last eight weeks before the mix.
I trusted him because he was really clear about what he wanted. He was also very precise when giving comments to the cues that we sent. It was very helpful. Once you have started, it’s always nice to send your music because then you can have a discussion. When you’re getting started, you might say, "Yeah, I want to have some darkness here.”, but my version of darkness could be completely different than his idea of darkness. It’s up to you to figure out where the director’s values are. Once I found that out, it was easier. Then the process becomes about, “Can you take this line a little down? Can you make the end a little smoother?”. It becomes more about edits than about content.
What is nice is when you have somebody who is actually learning with you and stretching, which I'm doing as well. I like the process of me seeing myself changing my opinion because somebody else is really right. That's something that I appreciate because I can learn from a process. When someone else tells me, "Man, look at this problem. We can solve it like this." then I am able to learn so much more. It’s better than being in my bubble the whole time and saying, “Yes, I'm the big composer. I know everything." That's not my cup of tea. In order to grow, you need to be willing to approach new challenges.
What specific sounds did you create for Gunpowder’s score that you would consider symbolic of the series?
There was one specific sound in the first episode when Guy Fawkes appears the first time. There was a very low, shallow line that was maybe in the vein of Sicario, as well. For the film, Sicario, Jóhann [Jóhannsson, composer] was creating all these lower glissando cellos and Kontakt basses that sounded like a low engine. We were using some of these kinds of elements plus an electronic, very distorted, filtering sound aiming to reach a certain peak. I love this combination of using elements that you normally would put on something made for a dance floor. Opening with the cutoffs and then the dance floor starts to dance. I think it worked well for this scene.
We also used a lot of these very high screeching violins. We had a violinist coming over here and she was scratching her violin without a note. Mostly harsh, very harsh noises. At times, she was probably thinking, "What are you doing? Are you kidding me?”. Once you find symbolic sounds, they can come back in the next episode and people will remember them because they become iconic. I’m a big fan of having both memorable melodies and having sounds that trigger certain situations. Sometimes, sound design is very helpful because maybe something is made better with a very low frequency and that's all that it needs. You don't need anything else and then you put an effect in there and you're like, "I think I don't have to do any other sound on top of that. It already sounds awesome like it is." Of course, tension can be made by composing movements of many melody lines and serves different functions in arrangements.
In the classic film composing genre, I would say that certain tonal structures and melodic structures were always done with instruments. After a while, it starts to feel like a long opera or a long concerto being performed by a big symphony. Sometimes, it is too much for the movie and you don’t actually absorb the story. For something like Star Wars, the films are very opulent and very glamorous, so that kind of music is appropriate, but I’m not sure if most films need that. I appreciate the sci-fi movies that have very subtle music where you suddenly feel the air in the space. You know, like Bernard Hermann for Alfred Hitchcock movies. Sometimes, there’s barely anything there, but it makes you go, “Oh my God”. A lot of times, less is more, so we can fill things in with our mind.
If you have good acting in a movie, it hardly needs anything. Funny enough, we are used to so much music in films, that I think it's good to question it for a moment. When you have a cartoon, of course, you need music to describe the artificial world. I think it’s a great genre and it needs very, very good composition to work through all these movements and be very precise with the time. I would love to do something like that at some point.
Showtime's Patrick Melrose explores the life of a British aristocratic family man played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who returns home to England to seek treatment for substance abuse after many years of suppressing painful childhood memories with alcohol and drugs. What influenced your musical direction for this series? Given that his character is so multi-faceted, disjointed in his social interactions with others, and mentally unhinged, how did you set out to push boundaries and underscore the elements of black comedy?
It is a very interesting series because it has so much diversity, from a punk attitude to a choir attitude. There's a lot of obscurity in it and I'm actually finding something that has a symbolic sound. It was not so easy in the beginning because the director, Edward Berger is very open to experimentation. I had enough space to actually create fun things. There was actually modern classical music in the temp, which was not Stockhausen. Music that was even harder than John Cage. There was one piece from an English guy called Cornelius Cardew that does all this kind of very abstract modern classical minimal music. I think that was very refreshing because in a way, you have to deal quite a lot of madness in the series and at the same time, you don't want to double the madness with music. Making music for somebody who's on a drug trip is not so easy because it's something that is not always a good feeling. In certain areas, it can be quiet for a couple of minutes, maybe he’s having the nicest time in the world, and then it's always shifting between moods.
From the outside, you also have a judging element where you are like, "Man, if he continues like this, he will die”, which plays into the series. Finding something to help elevate a moment like that is not so easy. I tried creating something that has a little bit of a punk attitude with key instruments. I hardly used real piano, I mostly used a lot of the prepared piano stuff. We have a couple of hip-hop things in there. I love the medieval champaloux tracks that are nearly punk music because they are so fast and wild. I had the feeling that this might be as well something that could help. There are also a lot of weird strings in there.
In a way, the series is about him trying to get sober, which I think is a very interesting development in the series. That you start actually with an addict, and along the way, you learn a lot about his past. He's obviously had a very, very hard childhood and when you have scenes like that, of course, there's also an emotional and heartfelt aspect of it. In total, it's a very interesting series to watch. When we were working in the studio and we received the new episodes we were all like, “Oh my god, it's an amazing series.” All the artists in it are great and Benedict [Cumberbatch, actor] is incredible.
You are the lead composer for the Baltasar Kormákur film, Adrift, which is based on the true story of a woman who was shipwrecked by the most powerful hurricane to ever occur in the history of the Pacific Ocean. She becomes stranded with her injured husband and has no way to call for help. Please tell us more about the musical treatment you designed for this gripping narrative.
It is a pretty classical score in terms of instrumentation. In a way, it's piano with strings and wood instruments. There are prepared drums in there as well from a guy that I work with a lot from Finland. His name is Samuli Kosminen, who’s playing is really nice. He plays with one of the bigger indie bands from Iceland called Mum. Samuli is the drummer and Hildur Guðnadóttir, the composer that worked on Mary Magdalene is part of the band as well. I think she did Sicario II and worked on the first Sicario with Jóhann as well. I actually met Samuli and Hildur at the same time.
For Adrift, we recorded the orchestra in London and mixed at Air Studios. While I was doing that, I learned a lot about my approach, how I'm working on film scores. I'm pretty happy with how it turned out. We scored a lot of scenes just by playing to the picture. There was no click track. I opened the film and I sat down at the piano. The main thing was crafting the chords, each chord after the other. Then we went back and I played it again, adding maybe two bars more. Then I tried to record that just to memorize it. And then I moved on to the next thing. Once you have a shape of the time or journey, then you go back and record it in a proper way, how you want to sound. Sometimes, that means you have to work for two days on one cue just to get it in shape.
Normally, you can't afford that much time anymore because the movies have to be done very quickly. Then they suddenly will call you and say, “It's actually great but we cut that scene out.”. Sometimes, they go, “We just made it 4 bars shorter.” and they took exactly those 4 bars out that actually made the whole motif work. Suddenly, you are there without a motif and your work for the day is on that scene. In a way, there needs to be a lot of trust and at the same time, it can work when a film is already very close to being finished. In this case, it was already in a very good shape.
So, I improvised for a couple of scenes and I played a lot of stuff with felt piano as I did for Lion as well. There was maybe one piece that was pretty challenging because it was playing all the way out on the sea. You have always seen all the waves and the spectrum of waves is full on. Once the wave is crushing over the boat, the music is gone. You hear the full volume of the whole subwoofers. You’re a small piece with the bass and the string quartet is wiped out. You have to make some choices when you are actually using music, maybe not to be stronger than the waves. That was a big challenge. I already recognized this from the beginning, so I knew what to do, but I had to make sure it was taken care of.
Your mesmerizing score work on Garth Davis' Lion was a flawless exercise in contained minimalism and the subtle power of a textural approach to scoring, which garnered recognition from the Academy Awards and The Golden Globes among others. From your perspective, what are the greatest similarities and contrasting characteristics between you and your collaborator, Dustin O'Halloran? What specific themes within the film did you deem most important to highlight with the score?
First of all, Dustin and I have been very good friends for 12 or 13 years, which came out of a big interest in each other's music. Of course, his music comes much more from a tonal background where piano pieces have a tradition in the style of composers like Chopin. I come from a much more sound-oriented background. We always had the feeling we can work together very well. After Lion, we did The Current War together, which is a film with Michael Shannon and Benedict Cumberbatch. The premiere was at the Toronto Film Festival last year and it was actually the main horse in the Oscar race for Harvey Weinstein. Then, of course, we know the stories, so it just stopped. We heard it might be released this year but it depends who picks it up. Dustin and I already had a couple of options to do another movie, which hasn’t worked out yet because he was working on a film and then I was.
The connection between the two of us is great. We’re able to get a lot of things done together because we inspire each other. Musically, we’re both indie guys. We love creating records and taking care of our own music without any restriction. That makes it exciting because we can bring in our own musical worlds on the blade, which function well together and combine in a very personal way.
In terms of the theme of the whole Lion score, we were intending to split up the work, so I’d do the first half of the movie and he’d do the second half. I would score Saroo’s world as a child and he would take his adult life. We started in two different studios. He started in his in Los Angeles, I started at mine in Germany. We started with a first draft where everybody has their own surroundings. I think I can work the best in my studio. That's where I walk in, I know the knobs, I know where I can get which sound from, and that is the easiest. He was working in his but at some point, we felt like it may be nice to spend at least 5 weeks together, do all the recordings, and finish the final writing. We had all the ideas in mind and then met in L.A.
Once we started working on it together, we found out that approach didn’t make sense because Saroo’s experience as a kid was reflected in his later life. The main theme was happening during my part even though the main theme was supposed to come through in the second part as well. After that, what we did was write and mix our ideas with each other, deciding which ones were the most strong. It was nice because when I was finished with an idea on the piano, then he would continue with the idea on the same piano while I took a break. I would come back and then say, “Oh, maybe I can do something here” and then he would go off for a coffee. The continuity was always there. What is very wonderful is when you can discuss with someone how you might do something and they say, “I would do it that way. Why don’t we try it?”.
The nice thing about working with Dustin is that he has hardly any attachment to his ideas, it’s the same for me. It’s more like, “Let’s finish it in the best way we can finish it.” It doesn’t really matter who is doing what. In the end, we just share and there is no ego at all. In collaboration, the only thing that has to be clear is that you are sharing. One of you can have a bad day, but you’re still sharing with another person and when the other person takes over, they are still sharing with you. That’s something that makes a job like that very efficient because you are both motivated to make the best score ever and work as hard as you can. A lot of times, at the beginning of a collaboration, there is a feeling of mistrust. You might look over at someone and think, “What is he doing? He’s not doing the right thing.” and then you try to work your own stuff into it. That’s not us. I feel like we will make more films together in the future.
Your artistic approach to the prepared piano has been celebrated time and time again. What are the most unusual objects you've placed inside a piano?
I'm using a lot of vibrators, specifically these small ones that you can buy at the airport. They work great because they fit exactly on one string, you can adjust them, and they just rattle on that isolated string. I still use a lot of ping pong balls. When I first started preparing the piano, people were excited about the visual effect of watching them jump inside the piano. They create a very random noise carpet on top of what you play. When they jump, they also make their own rhythms because some of them fly higher. That's a very interesting thing.
More recently, I've started to use little mortars, like electronic mortars that you can trigger with MIDI. So, they can actually trigger certain keys or they can create percussive sounds inside of the piano. I also use EBows. You need two to actually get the bass strings rolling. If you only have one, the bass strings will not resonate, but if you put two in a row, they start resonating. You can also create chords by putting three on different keys and then press the sustain pedal. Suddenly, you have a swell that is really beautiful, even like a synth sound. In a way, all these techniques are coming from the idea or from the feeling of wanting to sustain notes without playing the key. The piano only has certain sustain and then it dies but if you use the EBows, they are steady.
For example, you can take three keys down just with the white keys. You'd tape them down and then you put the EBows on those keys to make a permanent chord. You never touch these keys and they are just there. Then you can play with your two hands somewhere else. So, it's also about economy in terms of your fingers because if you have to hold the chord with one hand, you'll have one hand left and of course, you can play things but it’s great if you have certain techniques that help you to create the feeling of a band.
There are actually guys in London at the university, who have developed EBows for each key. So, you can press on the midi-keyboard to engage the EBows. That sounds like a classic harp with piano strings. So, there are endless ways of working with a piano. The piano body itself already has a natural reverb, which you can use when you press the pedal and sing inside of a grand piano. You’ll notice that your vocals sound like they’re very far away. There are even people who use the frame of the grand piano as a reverb.
What DAW do you use?
I mainly use Pro Tools, but I also use Logic every now and then. It depends a little bit on what project I'm working and with whom I'm working with. I'm switching between those two. In the beginning, I worked with Cubase, but I ended up losing it along the way. I hear that there's a new version out that is pretty amazing.
I use Ableton for live performance, which is wonderful, but for composing or recording real instruments, it’s not the best platform for me. You can rewire Ableton and ProTools, which helps a lot because you can do all the DJ work in Ableton and the more acoustic recording in ProTools. There are a lot of ways to work but I’m really happy that I am familiar with some different shortcuts. Lion was actually the first time I worked in ProTools.
The music world has recently lost a treasured talent, Jóhann Jóhannson, who was a dear friend and collaborator of yours. Would you like to share a special memory you have of him or the music you worked on together?
We happened to work on a piece together. We were actually on the same label, so Dustin, Jóhann and I went on tour. I would say that was the most intensive time that we spent together. We had the ACME Quartet with us, which Dustin and Jóhann shared while we were in the U.S. In Europe, we were driving with a bus.
From my memory, we had always very nice conversations after the concerts, reflecting about the shows and looking at what we could do better. Jóhann had always a connection with film, that was already there. A lot of his performances were supported by videos. I was always a guy that wasn’t sure if I needed videos in a performance. I'd rather have it pure and simple with maybe a white light.
With Jóhann, it was always great to exchange ideas. He had a very serious approach and was committed to finding truth in everything he was doing. I was always touched by that. The last time I talked to him, it was about a movie, which was interesting. In that conversation, we were talking about the option of working together. He was saying, “Well, it makes sense that we should do something together at some point.” That was in December.
Sadly enough, he's not with us anymore, but another great memory was when Dustin and I met up with him at the Golden Globes Awards, where we were sitting at a table together and had quite a bit of fun. It reminds me how every day is important.
If you were alive to create an album 100 years from now, what would you anticipate Hauschka would be doing musically in 2118?
I think I would wear a suit that connects my brain to all sorts of instruments. Maybe I could even imagine tonal events and they would happen. At the same time, I would have the suit be able to play virtual triggers and modules in a way where I would be in a 3D space. I think I would switch in between wearing the suit and taking it off during my show. In the end, I would sit at an acoustic piano with no electricity. People would be amazed that you could do something without any technology that would feel like the sound is traveling to you from an instrument simply made out of wood. Naturally, I’m a big fan of the forest and instruments that play by air, or with your fingers. At the same time, I want to be open for new technology.
I can totally see that there will be possibilities like this in the future. They are already working on the human brain sending digital impulses. In that, you think of something and it’s been done for you already. You’ll think, “I want to have some food” and instantly the meal will be delivered. That reality is not that far away, I can only imagine that music will be going that way as well.
Adrift is out in theaters now. All episodes of Patrick Melrose are available to stream on Showtime.