New York City's highly regarded Wordless Music series, in its exploration of the middle ground between indie and contemporary classical, has trained the spotlight an emerging new subgenre: call it Wordless Music classical. Many of the composers and musicians the series has featured — Nico Muhly, Caleb Burnhans (of itsnotyouitsme and Alarm Will Sound), and German-born pianist Hauschka — emphasize ambient textures and fleeting, Impressionist sketches in their music, foregoing the rigorous complexity of the academic avant-garde or the anarchic spirit of the contemporary classical underground. Instead, they tap the same vein of wistful, pensive melancholia that has found expression in American indie as long as relatively well-off men and women have found themselves sad for no particular reason. Basically, if you are currently making your indie film about a divorced, emotionally constrained New England professor who yearns to reconnect with his estranged adult daughter, you have just discovered your soundtrack in its entirety.
Hauschka's chosen instrument is the piano, prepared John Cage-style with little screws, bolts, rubber erasers, and such. If you've never heard prepared piano before, this is still probably the best place to start: Cage was the first to tinker inventively with the strings of the piano, finding astounding ways to make the instrument sound like a Chinese zither, a Javanese gamelan ensemble, or like a music box playing on a sunken ship. Hauschka's preparation is much lighter: the piano still sounds recognizably piano-ish, just tinged with hollow, buzzing noises at the edges. Almost every note he plays is steeped in pedal, helping create the warm, hazy glow that envelops the album. Like Muhly, Hauschka is often drawn to odd, toylike sounds — "Rode Null," with its cheerful menagerie of tootling and scraping instruments, inexplicably put me in mind of the gruesomely mismatched action figures in Sid's bedroom in "Toy Story."
Also like Muhly, Hauschka seems mostly unconcerned with theme development, preferring to sustain and explore a single mood. This approach leads to moments of disarming beauty: the opening of "Freibad" traces a long-limbed and sorrowful melody on cello before dissolving into picaresque, while the wandering "Nadelwald" finds Hauschka's playing at its most soulful. Ferndorf is autumn-gust music, full of wispy little half-melodies and evocative flurries of plucked notes, and there really is no better soundtrack to watching rain fall on your window on a Sunday afternoon.