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Friday, August 17, 2012

Hilary Hahn & Hauschka: Silfra (Deutsche Grammophon, 2012) ****

By Martin Schray

Yes, you are on the right website. No, we are not going mainstream now. But why then a review of a record on Deutsche Grammophon, the keeper of the Grail when it comes to classical music? And why an album by Hilary Hahn, the American Grammy Award winning violinist, who has hardly ever crossed the boundaries of classical music? Well, the answer is quite simple: The music on this album is completely improvised and Hahn, who improvises here for the very first time in her career, has teamed up with Volker Bertelmann, the German innovator of prepared-piano also known as Hauschka.

Inspired by Eric Satie and John Cage but also jazz musicians like Sun Ra, Hauschka is a prolific improviser who thinks that “it’s enormously important to get out of your individual bubble, and also to work with someone opens a lot of doors in your creativity.” So improvisation is the foundation of his work with Hilary Hahn and in order to make this possible they have worked together for two years exchanging files over the internet or ideas in rehearsal studios, where they regularly met “to create a kind of natural understanding”, Hauschka said in an interview.

Finally they developed certain goals where their project aesthetically should lead to but they had nothing written down when they met in Iceland to work with Valgeir Sigurðsson, who has worked with artists as different Björk and Bonnie Prince Billy. “The location and that particular studio,” Hahn said in an interview, “really helped us to get out of our own heads and away from our individual contexts.”

For Hauschka, who usually unsettles a conservative classical audience by putting small pieces of metal, clips, table tennis balls or different kinds of foils into his piano’s strings, sound exploration, randomness and spontaneity are crucial elements of music. Hahn is contributing to this spontaneous way of composing by adding sparse but concentrated (sometimes overdubbed) parts to the songs. Many songs work with clusters, that’s why there is a strong repetitive element which puts the music close to electronics.

However, “Silfra” is an album about nature and the central piece of the album, the 12-minute “Godot”, captures some of this spirit Hahn and Hauschka felt on Iceland while recording. The prepared piano sounds like metallic drizzle – very percussive, the violin is reserved, almost floating like an echo over the track and therefore creating a somber and nostalgic atmosphere. It is music for a personal soundtrack in your heads, I listened to it while watching the clouds and the wind in the treetops before a storm came up and I could literally feel the intensity of the playing.

“North Atlantic” refers to Iceland’s natural wonders – the piano sounding metallic again bringing up images of the breaking of the waves or geysers shooting water, Hahn adding minimal phrases as if she was playing while watching northern lights. The whole track is an improvised conversation of melodies and rhythms, music that would dissolve if you repeated it.

Silfra is a geographic feature near Reykjavik, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, a metaphor for the working process of the musicians. There is a great natural elegance, a calmness (“Stillness” is the name of the first track), and simplicity tangible on the album, it is just plain beautiful. Give it a try.

You can watch and listen to some music here:

© stef


Anonymous said...

Sorry to be that guy, but Hahn did not win the Pulitzer Prize. She commissioned a violin concerto by Jennifer Higdon, that went on to win the award. ( (

Wonderful review otherwise!

Martin Schray said...

Dear DC,
I'll correct that. Thanks for the information.

Iyarkaya said...

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