Hilary Hahn and Hauschka
Hilary Hahn, violin and amplified violin
Hauschka, prepared and unprepared piano
City Winery, NYC
Wednesday, June 20th, 2012
Written by Jeremy Shatan
Hilary Hahn is that rare artist who has transcended her place in the firmament of classical music, moving from performer (though she is superb in any music she plays) to the role of musician. Through the choices she makes, she is composing a career that is about more than mere virtuosity and staking a claim in the standard repertory. So it really should have been no surprise when her two-year collaboration with the man who calls himself Hauschka came to light.
However, it was surprising – and tantalizing to contemplate. Hauschka is known mainly for his atmospheric work with the prepared piano, sometimes with a minimalist bent, sometimes leaning toward Eno-style ambient sounds. He is a composer, a performer – and an improviser.
It is in this last role that his collaboration with Hahn took shape. Essentially, they jammed off and on for two years and then alighted in the studio for ten days to record the pieces that became Silfra, a gorgeous collection of music that is by turns propulsive and lyrical, and filled with color and textural variety.
When they announced that they would be playing some concerts, they made it clear that they wouldn’t be playing the pieces on Silfra, but rather improvising further, sometimes incorporating themes from the album.
So it was with an open and eager mind that I waited for them to take the stage at City Winery on June 20th. As soon as they appeared, it was immediately apparent that they were delighted to be working together and excited to journey further into the distinctive sound-world of Silfra.
After a few brief remarks, they began playing, and it was astonishing how quickly they plugged into the trunk line of sound that powers the album. While some of the sequences were familiar it was obvious that they were listening deeply to each other and going to new territory. There were playful moments, as when they batted motifs back and forth, and other moments when one would step back and allow the other to shine.
The music they make can be mesmerizing, and I occasionally found myself adrift and growing hypnotized, but I would get pulled back by a change in rhythm or a dramatic finale. Mostly, however, I kept my eyes on the stage, observing their eye contact and watching Hauschka’s ping pong balls, chopsticks, etc. as they bounced around inside the piano, reflected in the lacquer of the open lid. The rest of the audience seemed similarly riveted, including the guy who was desperate to be the first to clap before the final note of a song had even died away.
We didn’t learn all the stuff Hauschka had in there until just about the end, when he yanked everything out piece by piece. While he seemed to expect and welcome the audience’s amusement at this, and at almost any modification he made to his preparations, there’s nothing funny about the sounds he coaxes from the instrument, or the precision, with which he obtains them. There was pizzicato plucking, snare-like rattling and dense washes of harmony. If there is another musician who has reached this level of artistry with prepared piano, I’d like to know about it.
Speaking of a variety of sounds, Hahn also used the full conventional palette of her instrument, with delicate whisperings, power chords and lush ribbons of beautiful tone at her command at any time. I say “conventional” because she did not indulge in some of the more deconstructive techniques that are heard on the outer borders of music these days – tapping, scraping and the like. And this was fine because, while Hahn and Hauschka’s project is solidly avant garde and sounds like nothing else, it’s not especially challenging. No shame in that – when you get right down to it, it’s no mean achievement to create music that is very different yet unafraid of making an instant connection with a fairly broad audience.
After playing several works that used themes from the album and a couple that did not, they played one encore with unprepared piano that had a simple folky quality – it was lovely. For their final encore, Hauschka returned a few items to the piano and Hilary explained that the song had not been recorded yet and that it’s working title was “The Hit.” They then launched into what was indeed a catchy little number, one that could go Top Ten in an alternate pop universe. It was the perfect way to end the night, leaving everyone with a smile on their faces and the warm glow of having heard two of our era’s most distinctive musicians finding joy in crossing boundaries and creating a new comfort zone.
Jeremy Shatan is the writer and editor of the blog an earful (anearful.blogspot.com).