Photo of Volker Bertelmann by Carsten Sander
You can listen to the full interview here:
A hundred-year-old harmonium – an organ with foot pedals to send air through its reeds – is the source of the haunting sound that runs through Volker Bertelmann’s score to the World War One drama All Quiet on the Western Front. When KUSC’s Brian Lauritzen spoke with him, he said sometimes your first instincts don’t need to be second guessed.
“I watched the film the first time and then I had a very brief chat with [director] Edward [Berger]. He gave me four or five sentences as an instruction. I went back home and I had the feeling that I need something that is very short because there were so many sounds and so much in the battle scenes that I need an element that I can actually put in little holes where the sound disappears. I did actually write the first cue on the next day after the screening. When I was finished, I was like, I think that’s it. Sometimes you’re skeptical. You think you have to work weeks and weeks to get a piece done. In this case, I have to say it was on the next day. I sent it directly to Edward and he loved it. That was good, because then my creativity was a little bit unleashed and I felt like I could work onwards on that kind of approach.”
That first cue introduces the sound of the harmonium to the landscape of the soundtrack, which hits ominously with a driving force, along with the sound of its inner machinery.
Bertelmann wanted to find an instrument that might have been in use at the time of the first World War, and so used the harmonium that had been at his great-grandmother’s house.
“I actually put microphones inside to actually amplify the machinery as well. And what I did to the sound is the lowest octave I could get, I boosted that with really big distortion and bass and made it sound like a synthesizer or something very raw. I had a feeling this is exactly what I wanted to do.”
Those simple instructions he received from director Edward Berger?
“The first thing was, can you destroy the pictures? He was asking me not to underline the pictures, but… finding an element that is in between the lines. Secondly, he was saying, I want to have a sound for Paul Bäumer’s stomach. Paul Bäumer is the main character. He wanted to have music for the constant loss of humanity that Paul Bäumer is experiencing… The third thing was I want to have a snare drum that is played by somebody who can’t play the snare. It should sound broken and totally off grid… You hear these weird snares that are just appearing here and there. And you, of course, think about military because it’s all about soldiers. But at the same time, you hear the destabilization of the regular grid… And the very last thing was, I want to have something from you that you’ve never done before. And these were the four things.”
Bertelmann, who also records and performs music under the name Hauschka (he was nominated along with Dustin O’Halloran for the score to Lion a few years ago) says all of his varied work helps his film scoring.
“The film music is profiting from that because every experimentation that I do as a person will help me to work on a film music differently. And I would say the biggest fight is to fight your own habits, because your own habits are mostly the ones that are keeping you lazy at some point. You go back to the things that are working, but you’re not developing as a person over the time, and I’m on earth to grow. That’s my feeling. And I want to travel from all sorts of different styles and learn from others that are doing different things.”