Child's play

Hauschka toys with our emotions
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It can't be easy, capturing the spirit of childhood and distilling all that wondrous essence into effective, life-affirming art. First, there's the pile-up of cynicism we tend to amass over the years. Sure, we grown-ups might call this protective shield "realism," but it doesn't exactly lend itself to fostering the same wide-eyed exuberance we felt as youngsters. On the opposite end of the spectrum: over-sentimentality. Simply put, schmaltz can kill a mood in no time — so let's keep it away from the kiddies, shall we? There's the dilemma: how to convey the innocence and excitement of youth without succumbing to corniness. We can't all be Brian Wilson, after all.

Volker Bertelmann must have had a wonderful childhood. The Dusseldorf pianist and composer — known in the record shops simply as Hauschka — recently released an album's worth of meditations and reminiscences about growing up in a small, woodsy German town, and I'd be hard-pressed to cite a more touching instrumental recording from this year. Ferndorf (130701/Fat Cat) — named after Bertelmann's hometown village — glides along in a delicate dance between impish and introspective, evoking images of little boys and girls lost in playtime but also conjuring moments of quiet contemplation.

It's an enormously engaging listen, made all the more magnetic by its unsentimental depiction of the emotional lives of children. Joined by a string duo, an occasional trombonist, and a grab bag of subtle electronic textures, Bertelmann's comforting — but challenging — piano minimalism could very well be the new working definition for cinematic music. Ultimately, however, the 12 songs contained here should send listeners back to recreating scenes from their own childhoods. No movie required.

Hauschka live at Mutek 2007, Montreal

A classically trained pianist, Bertelmann has worked largely in the past as an exponent of John Cage's "prepared piano" technique, in which items such as corks, straps of leather, and scraps of metal are attached to the instrument's hammers and strings to create an endless array of clicks and rattles. With such a battery of odds and ends set in place, the piano can be transformed into a one-man percussion section of sorts. Earlier Hauschka works such as 2004's Substantial and 2005's The Prepared Piano (both Karaoke Kalk) were manifestos celebrating the possibilities of the technique. As one might guess, Cage's presence could be spotted on both discs, as well as those of several other modern composers: Arvo Part, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich.

Last year's Room to Expand (130701/Fat Cat) showed Bertelmann broadening his palette and introducing strings and electronics into the mix. Given that the pianist is also a member of synth-tweaking experimentalists Music A.M. and Tonetraeger, the addition of electronics to enhance the piano's versatility was perhaps a natural extension of lessons learned from Cage.

Much of Ferndorf's playfulness emerges from the prepared-piano technique. "Barfuss Durch Gras" is a sputtering, plonking hydraulics-overdrive containing as many as 10 different piano textures at once, while the twitching waltz of "Heimat" derives much of its spunk from the curious union of a quasi-ragtime melody with a soft-footed pit-er-pat rhythm and disembodied horn sounds, all of which have been somehow generated by the same instrument.

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