Abandoned City, 2014
Review by Kent Manthie
After listening to a New Yorker “podcast” of a piece in the latest issue by the great David Remnick, the next thing that popped up was a pleasant surprise: an album of “prepared” piano solo pieces by Hauschka, entitled Abandoned City. Both the title of the recording as well as the accompanying “cover” art were very apt, indeed, capturing the essence of the haunting, melancholy, sparseness of this album. Abandoned City is a concept album, of sorts, an album of solo “prepared” piano pieces that are each named for a particular ghost town in areas all over the world.
It begins with “Elizabeth Bay”, a ghost town, of which I found a couple of photos that capture the essence of the place. And no, we’re not talking about the tropical Galapagos Island resort town nor are we writing about the city in New South Wales, Australia. This Elizabeth Bay is in Namibia. No doubt, it must’ve once been a thriving mini-metropolis in the middle of Africa, teeming with life, back in the good ol’ days of colonialism. Now, independent, this is the price they were made to pay. The colonialists, who had no more need of the place, packed up and left or were “helped” to get out.
Other pieces include “Pripyat”, another ghost town, abandoned solely because of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. It is in the northern part of Ukraine, in the Kiev region, on the Pripyat River, not far from the border of Belarus. If anyplace can be described as truly a “ghost town”, it’s the sad fate of Pripyat, a city in the Kiev region of northern Ukraine, not that far from the border with Belarus. Because of what happened at the horror of Chernobyl – the nuclear power plant that exploded and has rendered a large swath of land uninhabitable for reasons of health. I mean, who would want to live in a place that is a bubbling cauldron of radioactivity? This is not the story of some one-time boom town that had a thriving industry of some sort, be it mining, manufacturing, tourism or even a combination of those things and then suddenly, one day the bottom falls out of the market for that commodity or the town company decides it can’t abide the restrictive facets of the rulers of the country, so they get out while they still can and re-locate elsewhere, taking everything with them and leaving the once thriving boomtown a desolate desert. No, this is not like that at all – Pripyat, on the banks of the Pripyat River in Northern Ukraine, was wiped out by a terrible accident that killed many Russians, mutilated many others, made innumerable sick and even 10-20 years after the initial incident, there are still, of course, people, now feeling the effects: radiation sickness, cancers that have quietly spread throughout the human body and consumed the bodies of untold millions. This is a terrible, sad chapter in the history of peaceful nuclear power. I’ve collected a few pictures of some of these places and I found two particularly poignant photos of abandoned buildings in Pripyat. Pictures that could easily have been taken at dozens and dozens of the affected sites around Chernobyl.
Another abandoned city that is put to music by Hauschka is Agdam in Azerbaijan, one of the many former SSRs (Soviet Socialist Republics, which made up the full USSR) which, after the Hammer & Sickle came down and the Warsaw Pact countries all overthrew their puppet governments, my favorite “people’s coup” being Romania, where the vicious, vile dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, along with his wife, were both dragged from their “presidential palace”, or whatever it was called, both shot in the head (multiple times? I wouldn’t doubt it with the anger of these long-oppressed people) and then, Mussolini-style, strung up in the main town square of Bucharest, the capital. After places like Poland, Czechoslovakia (which soon split apart and became proper independent states – The Czech Republic which is a thriving country and the other, Slovakia, a place that, unfortunately isn’t doing as well), of course, East Germany was eventually absorbed by the bigger and much more prosperous West Germany under the 1990 reunification. Following the successes of these Eastern European countries, the various and little known, to the West, former parts of the Russian and Soviet Empire decided that they too wanted their independence, so during the 90s you saw the emergence of such nations as Turkmenistan, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan to name a few.
I mention these former fiefdoms of the USSR because another of the abandoned cities on Abandoned City that is a song here is Agdam. The song “Agdam” is towards the latter part of the album, where the tempo picks up a bit and one gets the vibe of sudden changes, via the juxtaposition of the music and the busy-ness of it. A little history: a relatively unknown place, extant for some 300 years, Agdam was a rather small, but peaceful town, inhabited by some 40,000 people. This was not some cosmopolitan Shangri-La, where jet-setters and globetrotters yearned to get inside, it was just an insulated little place that was home to the residents here and for centuries not much really changed.
Agdam was a relatively small town in Azerbaijan, but, on a more local level, it was inside the Nagorno-Karabakh area, a small, land-locked area enveloped in the southwestern part of Azerbaijan. Well, that particular region, Nagorno-Karabakh, was a disputed territory. There’d been agitation for independence for some time from both the then-USSR and, after the end of the Leninist Empire, Azerbaijan was the target of independence agitation from people in the region who claimed allegiance to neighboring Armenia. So, of course, it was a tinderbox, just waiting for something to set it off. Of course, that spark would come.
In 1993 the city came under siege during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. Forty thousand people were forced to flee when Karabakh-Armenian forces shelled the town without mercy. Eighteen years later the town sits vacant, still a part of the Armenian buffer zone (with special thanks and a “shout out” to www.sometimes-interesting.com).
So, getting back to the music: I think Abandoned City is a superb and blissful relaxing piece of music. The fact that Hauschka’s album is a paean to a number of real-life ghost towns, each with their own histories and reasons for demise. The fact that it’s an album of instrumental prepared piano solos, sans vocals, i.e., it’s not filled with political rhetoric is an interesting facet; it could be a “protest” record – just like the history of myriad classical works: symphonies, sonatas, concertos and the like which were written with an undertone of anger in them; anger directed at the king (in whose country they may have been living which is why it wouldn’t have been an overt theme, yet is in there nonetheless). But, in the end, who can say for sure what was in Hauschka’s mind when he wrote the songs. My guess is that it was the question of why these places have ended up as ghost towns and are still extant in that sort of “freeze-frame”, where time has, seemingly, stopped and no one’s called attention to these areas – maybe it’s because there’s no precious natural resource(s) there, like oil or precious metals (gold, silver, copper, magnesium, zinc, bauxite and on and on). If there were such cash cows to be had would the IMF or World Bank rush in and re-build, put on PR shows all over and try to repopulate the place, attracting foreign capital in order to 1) attract people; 2) bring multinationals to the rescue, in terms of getting them in there to rape the land and 3) rebuild a handsome city with which to attract people to come and settle here and seek new opportunities, bring new, technological and environmentally sound opportunities that would sustain and resurrect a ghost town.
I’m not quite sure what the reason is for Elizabeth Bay to have become the ghost town it is today – the scenario just laid out could be what sealed its fate. As to the other examples – we know why Pripyat became the ghost town it is: the Chernobyl nuclear disaster made it uninhabitable for probably the next, ½ a million years or so, or however you calculate the half-life of radioactive decay. And the poor waste of Agdam was a casualty of a bloody and vicious war over boundaries, independence and who got to control what.
I hope that this album, Abandoned City gets listened to more and more as time goes by – not only because it’s a good album made up of good music, but also to educate a lot of people – especially in the west – in fact ESPECIALLY in the U.S. – who have never heard the names of these places and so have no idea what they are let alone why they are the way they are. Good luck with the whole project! -KM.