Oscar-Nominated Composer Volker Bertelmann on Creativity, Scoring for Film and Television, and the Director He’d Love to Collaborate With

photo via Redbird Music

Curiosity piqued as a child, Academy Award, BAFTA and Golden Globe nominated composer and experimental player, Volker Bertelmann (The Current War, Gunpowder, Lion) placed the first object into his piano at the age of thirty-four — a crinkly cellophane Christmas cake bag, covered with golden stars. “They have a really crispy sound.” By putting the bag between the instrument hammers, Bertelmann (aka Hauschka) was able to create new sounds, as if bringing in accompaniments and from that moment of discovery, he’s been opening up a world of prepared piano possibilities. “I thought, if I can put different material on each string, then I will have a box of instruments inside — on top of the piano — and I won’t need a laptop or anything else to create any weird sound like that, it’s already there, and it’s acoustic.  I was very fascinated by that..

From ping pong balls and binder clips, to metal skewers and plastic containers of Tic-Tacs, the German composer, whose score credits can currently be heard in Showtime’s latest dramedy Patrick Melrose, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Hugo Weaving, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Holliday Grainger and Indira Varma, as well as STX Films’ upcoming romance drama Adrift, starring Shailine Woodley and Sam Claflin wanted to create electronic music with the piano. He wanted to do something more than just play the instrument well.

… in a way it was not enough for me. I always wanted to have a certain sound in front of the piano that excited me … When I started to put little gadgets and material inside of the piano, I knew I had suddenly found numerous ways to create new sounds.  Creating in this manner meant I didn’t have to change my playing habits, I didn’t have to learn a completely new instrument. And that was one of the most exciting discoveries, I would say, in my life. Once I introduced that idea, and got a little deeper, I remembered this wasn’t the first time I had done this.  When I was around ten or eleven years old, I was putting in our piano at home, and began placing the pegs in all the hammers, because I wanted to synthesize the sound of the piano.  I was definitely not familiar with the word ‘tech piano’ at that time.”

Since my own son loves to riff on a keyboard, in speaking with Bertelmann it was easy to relate to his excitement over his particular method of creativity, and the joy of composing music in a new way — it’s a unique way of making something completely different, and stepping outside the box of traditional classical music means a fresh take for both player and audience.

We are living in a time where it’s very hard to think that your children will discover something, besides that, they might want to go to Mars at some point … is there anything, for example, in music, that they can discover in terms of making new and unknown music?

… In a way, experimenting and crossing borders and boundaries, may be necessary to find out that traditional composition is the best, or maybe you even discover something new, you know?  I think the prepared piano is one way of helping myself cross borders and discover new ways to create.  Thinking out of the box, really helps expand possibilities during the creative process.”

Now in high demand for film and television series — he’s got three more scores in the works, and non-stop commitments until a well-deserved summer holiday — Bertelmann’s first opportunity to blend his artistry with a method of self-support came through the director parents of a high school friend, who offered the teens a chance to provide music for two episodes of their German television series. Realizing he could make a living this way was an important moment.

We wrote and composed the music, and that was the first money I earned on my own making music. It helped me for a long time because two episodes that are running all over the world, bring you quite a bit of royalty income — which is interesting. I’m mentioning, of course, the income in that manner because the problem as an artist is mostly the stress from being a creative person and having your own ideas, and maybe creating your own identity to get to a place where you can actually make a living making music.  A lot of times the good art is not selling, you know, and in a way, you have to make a compromise. “

Over the years, Bertelmann was consistently approached at his concerts by people (directors) who wanted to collaborate with him, and he would often suggest trading services — “If you can do a music video for me; we can exchange.” This allowed for freedom and experimentation without expectations on both sides of the equation, and helped the composer to gain an understanding of what he liked.

It helped me get a feel for what I wanted to do … which I think you need to communicate with directors, because in the beginning you don’t know. Do I like loud music in a scene when people are talking, or do I like very subtle music there; what helps the film, what doesn’t? You don’t know, so you’re insecure about that. I think I slowly built a basis for my opinion.  And then suddenly, the films were getting bigger. .

Whether he’s chosen by a director who likes his work, or a collaboration comes through mutual contacts and networking, Bertelmann’s involvement ranges from project to project. “There are so many layers to why one works on a film (friends with directors, the work has to take place in a particular country, etc.). In the ideal case, someone loves your music, wants to collaborate with you, and can convince everyone who is responsible for financing to hire you, and then you get onboard.  That’s the ideal scenario, because you are wanted.”

It also depends upon what stage the work is in; “… with Lion [for which Bertelmann and his longtime friend and fellow composer, Dustin O’Halloran were nominated for an Oscar] the director wanted the two of us, the film was already finished so it was very easy. We didn’t even read the script because the movie was already done. With Patrick Melrose  I had a long conversation with the director.   I had to write piano pieces for Benedict Cumberbatch that he had to practice.  The piano pieces that Hugo Weaving plays in the series are written and played by me, so I had to write them before they were shooting … it was a pretty early involvement.

For Adrift, Bertelmann came in during editing, and after discussing scenes with director, Baltasar Kormákur, “[he] … just let me do what I wanted to do, and he gave me a lot of freedom, which is wonderful, as long as the freedom is not changing. Sometimes that freedom can change if  directors change their mind about what a composer has created, and the connection to what was in mind. You have to listen very carefully.”

Queried on whether there were any directors he’d really like to work with, in a way it was really no surprise to hear Bertelmann’s answer, given the similarities to another composer who works with one of Bertelmann’s choice .

Paul Thomas Anderson is one of my favorite directors, I love his work.  The deepness, and the music is deep as well — also [Composer] Jonny Greenwood is a great guy. Sadly, enough though, they seem to be a couple.” [Bertelmann laughs]

When I remarked that I’d wondered ahead of our talk whether he was a Radiohead fan, given the similarly experimental nature of the band, he answered:

I was already a fan when I was unknown, and I know they are listening to my stuff as well.  At some point, you know, we are passing down our music in a way, because we have similar fans — we work with the same musicians.    Jonny Greenwood works with LCO (London Contemporary Orchestra) in London, and I work with them as well. So, there’s a lot of crossover.”

Here’s hoping Bertelmann gets his chance with Anderson, or even perhaps transforms that movie couple into a trio.

Patrick Melrose airs Saturdays on Showtime; Adrift will be in theaters June 1, 2018.

Cindy Davis

Cindy Davis has been writing about the entertainment industry for ​over ten years, and is the ​Editor-in-Chief at Oohlo, where she muses over television, movies, and pop culture. Previous Senior News Editor at Pajiba, and published at BUST.

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