BY JENNIFER KELLY
If you don’t know anything about Hauschka, you might assume that twitchy, jumpy “Thames City” was the work of the world’s coolest jazz trio, as piano, acoustic bass and drums all skitter about in an angsty Futurist jitterbug. Or you might think that for “Who Lived Here?” the artist enlisted a small chamber orchestra, since cello, viola, oboe and brass all seem to swell and subside in the piece’s melancholy crescendos. And yet both of these pieces, and the remaining seven others, were played entirely by Hauschka and came entirely out of his piano, an eccentric man-of-a-thousand-faces type of instrument, hooked by wires and tubes to an array of effects, modulators and other paraphernalia.
Hauschka plays a “prepared” piano; that is, a piano so altered and amplified that it is hardly a piano at all, except when it is, as in the lovely, lyrical “Craco” which could float out of any open window, in any music conservatory. Elsewhere, his keys sound like a creaking rocking chair (“Pripyat”), a turbulently bowed cello (“Elizabeth Bay”) and a dazzling array of percussive instruments. Yet once you get beyond the how-did-he-do-that, parlor trick aspect of Abandoned Cities, what strikes you is not Hauschka and his piano’s versatility, but the translucent communicative-ness of the music.
The artist made these songs quickly in the weeks following his first son’s birth, sitting alone at his keyboard and conjuring a ghostly orchestra. Perhaps a bit lonely, perhaps intrigued by the iconography of desertion, he named most of the tracks for actual abandoned cities. “Pripyat” was a town near Chernobyl. “Agdam” is a ghost village in Azerbaijan. “Sanzhi Pod City” is about a futuristic enclave in Taipei, which was razed in 2010. The compositions, thus, have a technological sheen, a percussive insistence that invokes machinery continuing on without human oversight, a forgotten factory, perhaps, where tool & die stampers bang down eternally, but there is nothing on the assembly line anymore.
Still there is also a nervy, human presence, almost a neurotic insistence that we are here, somewhere, even if it looks rather empty on first glance. “Sanzhi Pod City” layers tango stepped seduction and typewriter clacks, human longing pulsing through a Rube Goldberg contraption, which is, come to think of it, an apt metaphor for what Hauschka is doing to his poor beleaguered piano.
Abandoned Cities is gorgeous and disturbing and a bit chilling, like old photos hanging on walls about to be demolished, like memory, like loss, like loneliness experienced in the midst of family life. It sounds remarkable enough, even when you have no idea how he is doing it, and more so when you realize it is just Hauschka by himself.
DOWNLOAD: “Elizabeth Bay”