Hilary Hahn and Hauschka at their first live appearance in tandem with the release of their collaborative album Silfra at the Yellow Lounge in Berlin, Germany, May 10th, 2012 (Photo courtesy of Stefan Hoederath)
When artists create the same kind of music consistently, even if it has been identified with the artist or group in some kind of iconic way, there is a natural tendency to want to break from that routine and take a road less-traveled for a fresh perspective. After all, musicians are still human and the tendency to clear their heads is just something that’s practically instinctive. Grammy award-winning violinist Hilary Hahn pretty much did this with the recently-released album Silfra–As a collaboration with indie composer-pianist Hauschka (aka Volker Bertelmann). The album marks not necessarily a big change of pace for him, but a very decidedly different direction for Hahn, and some critics and fans are somewhat divided on both the CD and the live improvisational work they have done to promote it.
Being somebody that has been an überfan of Hilary Hahn for about a decade, dipping her toe into other genres was something I had already seen and heard Hilary do in dribs and drabs over the years with a variety of different artists. My reaction to this stuff was timid at first, but I eventually had become invested enough in the idea of her collaborations by then that I even flew to Chicago to see her appearance at the Ravinia Festival with Josh Ritter (Great show, by the way). Having played alongside indie-folk singer-songwriters like Ritter and Tom Brosseau has allowed her to stay within her comfort zone stylistically, while playing on a few tracks with the considerably louder …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead had her working within a grey area (a lead part on one song and providing a background part on another; she’s also played electric violin with the band onstage), and she even did a reading of Béla Fleck’s fiddle tune “Down In The Swamp” (as a duet with mandolinist Chris Thile) that I had the pleasure of seeing played live twice. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention her one-off appearance with beat-boxer Beardyman at a DLD conference in Munich. After seeing at least 5 different examples of Hilary’s diversity, I can say with great certainty that she’s no stranger to going outside of the box.
When Silfra was announced earlier this year, I already knew about her association with Hauschka. Her violincase even tweeted about that very first appearance together in 2008 with Hilary, Tom Brosseau and Hauschka that has later been mentioned a few times, and that was the very first time I had ever even seen the name Hauschka. Me not having been such a hip music listener at that time, my exposure to him was just as sporadic as the next guy, but I had seen a few clips of him and I knew that prepared piano (even some 70 years or so after John Cage had started making music with it) was still considerably edgy, so I had anticipated that anything they could possibly do together would be challenging at the least. There had been an earlier appearance on his CD Salon des Amateurs where Hilary played a rather simplistic-sounding part on the track “Girls”–Nice uptempo piece that was status quo for Hauschka’s output, but the part she did almost sounded like it could have been any violinist, and it seemed to be far from being an indication of what was to come.
Having heard NPR’s First Listen stream of Silfra, however, during the week before the official release, I was really blown away by the distance the violinist had been willing to take with not only her abilities as a player, but how far she was stretching her personal expression, and even coming close to matching some of Hauschka’s ethical creativity by muting her violin on one of the pieces (which itself probably comes off shocking to purists of the violin, muting such a sonorous instrument, especially Hilary’s), strumming the violin, and reaching some of the highest possible pitches on the instrument. The recording of this album with Valgeir Sigurðsson at Greenhouse Studios in Iceland, home of the album’s namesake (which is what served as a sort of narrative backdrop for the recording), and where that particular producer and venue have made for some already fascinating music with Björk and Nico Muhly, was like capturing lightning in a bottle. I had said in my own review of the album that the dynamic of the two artists working with the producer came off “like a classical version of Electric Ladyland“, readily comparing the work on Silfra to the work on that recording between Jimi Hendrix and equally-visionary producer Eddie Kramer, and how artist and producer were invested in making the art the signature product of that team.
I also couldn’t resist putting Hilary Hahn and Jimi Hendrix in the same breath, considering they share a birthday.
[Photo left courtesy of Nordstrom]
I’m not sure if there had been any indication prior to its release that Silfra was in fact an album of improvisations–I certainly didn’t have any, but when the album became public, it was revealed that even though Hilary and Volker worked together on and off for a few years preparing for this recording, these pieces were indeed improvised. When it came time to go on the road to promote this album, Hilary and Volker decided to perform some shows at mostly artsy-but-trendy venues, first in Europe, like the Yellow Lounge in Berlin, and then in the US like Los Angeles’ El Rey or New York’s City Winery (They even popped up and did a surprise gig at the Seattle Nordstrom, where they have a superb-sounding baby grand), and the nature of these appearances was very similar to the album, but obviously they were playing all new music since it was more improvisation. Perhaps a few phrase ideas may have been carried over from the album, but most of it was new every time. Another way of extending the nature of the recording was for Hilary to use for the first time ever an electronic looping gear onstage. Could you picture Jascha Heifetz doing this?
Hilary Hahn & Hauschka performing one of many untitled improvisations at El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles, CA, 5/28/12
Aside from the improvisatory nature of the music, there’s this decidedly hipster nuance to the act. Again, it seems when we are talking about Mr. Bertelmann, his appearance is apropos, but not something that strikes you as weird–however, when you turn your attention to Hilary, instead of seeing a gorgeous concert dress, she has had very sort of anti-concert-looking clothes for these shows, between polka dot or gingham patterned dresses, big flowery hairpieces, and to top this off, cowboy boots with a power-switch attached to them for her electronic gear for the violin.
Now, another thing that has been interesting is how the audiences have been–they have been mostly cool at the shows thus far, but, there were a few reports of at least one attendee that seemed to disapprove. This review printed in the blog section of the website for the satellite radio show Linked Music reveals the incident in detail (Posted on 6/3/12):
“On Monday, remaining true to their concept for Silfra, Hahn explained to the audience that just as the album tracks had all been first take recordings, every piece they performed that evening would also be a series of improvisations meant to recall the memories and moments of their shared experience recording together in Iceland. But halfway through the show, an adoring Hahn fan rose during an applause to say,
‘Hilary, as far as I am concerned, you are the best living violinist that has ever lived, even better than Bach himself. Can I make a request that you play something by Bach or [Nathan] Milstein’s Paganiniana?’
To which Hahn replied, ‘No, I’d rather play with this guy,’ and motioned her bow towards Hauschka. [Applause from the audience.]”
It’s obvious that this man was completely unaware that Hilary’s shows with Hauschka were bereft of classical material, and perhaps it should have been publicized that way for people that aren’t so “hip” like the audience members that were there for Hauschka, or Hilary’s younger audience, but I have to admit that there’s a big part of me that sees the older generation crying out to Hilary saying “Please stay classical! Don’t change!” as if their child is growing up before their eyes, having shed a modicum of innocence.
On the other hand, the prospect of tearing down the classical diva image that Hahn has been utilizing ever since her earilest CD covers is something I welcome. Yes, it’s a beautiful image, and Hilary rocks those gowns just as brilliantly as any of the concert divas out there, but it’s also known that Hilary likes the indie stuff, so, I get the impression that this avant-cabaret show she’s doing with Hauschka is something very liberating for her as she has room to experiment with her image AND her music.
[Photo right courtesy of Mareike Foecking] There’s also been some divided press. While there has been a majority of reviews for the album from people that seemed to get it, the shows haven’t been as fortunate. The Washington Post’s Anne Midgette attended the show at Alexandria, VA’s The Birchmere (Her review was posted on 6/19/12), and though she seems to like the album, at the concert she thought that…
“…listening to their performance was like watching an artist doodle on a notepad. Some of the doodles are mundane, others are promising and none of them are quite on the level of a finished product…On the album, produced, the whole thing sounded more purposeful; here, it often seemed rudimentary.”
She did go on to offer some positive thoughts about Hilary’s improvisational work.
“There are techniques to learn, and ideas to be processed, that help any artist hone what she wants to say. Those techniques, it seems, still lie in Hahn’s future. I hope she chooses to explore them, and I admire her for having the guts to go out on a limb in public, but I don’t feel the need to hear her improvise again for a good long time.”
Perhaps not everyone likes their brand of improvisation, but the duo have also been making some really good appearances on radio, between WNYC’s New Sounds and the syndicated show Echoes, they have made equally exciting live music that sounds worthy of being released as a live CD.
The audiences are probably going to continue to part ways, if only because several different generations of listeners that already like Hahn for her superb technique and choice of classical repertoire don’t always agree on how she spends her time stretching out with other styles of music. The audiences for classical music are changing over, and are eventually going to be comprised of music students that are studying not only the dead white guys but also the more contemporary stylings of Gyorgy Ligeti and Iannis Xenakis, and also happen to like indie-rock, so these people are HH&H’s crowd for sure.
As for the musicians, I’m certain that Hilary, who also has the massive project of 27 contemporary encores going on, is going to resume playing Beethoven and Tchaikovsky with even greater prowess than ever after this process of experimentation is over for the time being. Every musician I’ve spoken to that plays classical and another genre have told me that they have had very positive results with their technique afterwards. The classical style is strengthened by any genre that allows for more passion and more rests, while the other style is also helped out by classical’s colorful orchestration and precision.
All well and good, but I wonder if Hilary has been trying to get Hauschka to play some straight classical to up his technique for indie classical.
Draw a Map (from the album Silfra; video directed by Eric Epstein)
Hilary Hahn (Hilary’s official website)