Slamming Colour on the Canvas: A Conversation with German Piano Maestro Hauschka

Acclaimed composer Volker Bertelmann opens up about his latest project, scoring Garth Davis’ film ‘Lion.’

This year’s Toronto International Film Festival saw the world premiere of Lion, the directorial debut of Garth Davis, which stars an A-list cast including Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, and Rooney Mara. Based on the true story of Saroo Brierley, an Indian kid who loses his family and is adopted by an Australian couple at a young age, the drama follows him as an adult (played by Patel) as he embarks on a long search to find the place he once called home.

For its haunting score, Davis called on two well-known composers Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann, the latter who records and performs under the moniker Hauschka. While the German musician is best known for his prepared piano or chamber ensemble compositions—a handful of his records have been favourably reviewed by Pitchfork like 2008’s “endlessly listenable” Ferndorf and 2011’s house-embracing Salon des Amateurs (which featured members of Calexico and múm)—he’s no slouch when it comes to scoring films either. Among his credits are James Franco’s In Dubious Battle, which also played at TIFF this year, 2015 horror The Boy, and 2014 drama Futuro Beach.

We recently spoke to Bertelmann about collaborating with another composer on Lion, how his cinephilia influences his music, and more.

THUMP: How did you get involved with Lion?

Volker Bertelmann: I was on tour with for my own record [A NDO C Y] in Australia. Somebody asked me, “There’s an Australian director interested in coming to the show, could you put him on the guestlist?” A lot of film students are fans of my music, so they come and want to ask if they can use a piece of my music. As long as I can support that, I’m very happy to do it.

After the show I’m selling my records, then Garth [Davis] appears with his editor, and they said “We’d like to talk to you because it was a wonderful concert. Are you up for a drink?” He showed me a few scenes of the film: the nature shots, like when the train is riding over the bridge. I thought, “This is not a student film, this looks different…” And then Garth says, “I have someone else in mind and I’m not sure if you know him but it’s Dustin O’Halloran,” and I said, “He was at my wedding!” We’ve known each other for 15 years and if there is someone I can imagine working with it’s him.

Given that your work as Hauschka is a solo project, it must be interesting to work collaboratively.
Yes, and it’s also fantastic to work with a director [Davis] who loves your music. Sometimes there’s not a lot of trust in making a film score because a film score means deadlines. They have to rely on your ability to finish something. But before this I did seven film scores.

When did you become interested in composing for film?
When I was 18, I did a German TV series, and there are a lot of other films I’ve done. There’s a wonderful [2014] Israeli documentary called Farewell Herr Schwarz

Great movie! I wrote about it.
Yeah, I loved being a part of that, especially as a German. So I was sneaking into the film world and getting in touch with that. I sometimes worked as a production driver when I was younger so I had a sense what film work is like. And I’m a film lover, I watch a lot of movies.

Do you find loving movies aids your ability to score them?
I get the impression that only people who are into films are asked to do them. But I also think this is something that interests every musician, because it’s working from something that’s already existing, and you have to find a kind of language for it. There’s a lot of influence in what you’re doing so you can actually shape things in a very nice way, but it’s also important to know what a scene is made for, and discuss it with the director.

Lion is all about home, losing and finding and appreciating it. It reminded me of your 2008 album Ferndorf, dedicated to the place where you grew up.
The movie is touching a very emotional topic, and everyone can relate to that—finding home and being safe. Millions of people have lost their homes and are stranded. They’re going through things we can’t even imagine. We live in a very safe place—we wake up, the sun is shining, and we can do an interview. Other people are waking up and bombs are falling and kids are losing their parents. From one day to another, there’s a big catastrophe. This story is all about that. My parents were born in 1931 and they don’t understand that our world is actually going backwards in a sense. So I’m totally touched by this story and I think it’s wonderfully told.

Can you describe the instrumentation you used for certain scenes?
The scene where the boy is lost in the train station shows the whole drama. There’s noises of people talking, and prepared piano music mixes nicely with sounds of voices and background noises. When the body-snatchers are running after them, I thought it needed a constant tat-tat-tat to show their panic, so I prepared the piano to be very percussive. A lot of times I’m playing as I’m watching the movie, like slamming colour on the canvas, and then I’m carving things off. Maybe 20 percent is left, then I go back in again.

I know painters work like that—they put colour, colour, colour, then they’re scraping things off. What happens is that you can see the three-dimensional shape of things. Things are left in the foreground, things are left in the background. We wanted to have a very pure, old-sounding piano. It’s very dense and sounds very muffled, like you can nearly touch the piano. I love that because it’s really intimate. And of course at some point we brought in strings, some of those scenes I recorded in my apartment. I don’t work with samples so much, I make a layout and then bring in a string player to play it, so you can get a sense of the texture.

It seems like the more famous you are as a musician, the more attention the film’s music gets. The top tier might be someone like [Radiohead’s] Jonny Greenwood. In my opinion, scores work best when they’re seamlessly effaced into a film. Do you ever feel like composing a score is a thankless job?
Yeah, but that’s one guy with a very successful band. There’s also a lot of ways to fail. As an indie artist, you can easily get into a film where you have to make very cheesy string melodies. You’re trapped. But I disagree a little bit because I think when you have a good score you hear it. It sticks out because it’s placed very nicely and you can be surprised by it.

When I hear a score that surprises me I’m straight away looking for the record. I don’t see that as a thankless or depressing role, or something like that, I think it’s a wonderful way of collaborating. The only thing is maybe as a musician, you have to be more active to bring [the soundtrack] to the foreground. Every piece of music I make gives me a lot of pleasure, and I can grow, and get more involved with people who have their own visions and own way of looking at work.

Originally published on THUMP VICE (September 27, 2016).