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Hilary Hahn & Hauschka

by Wyndham Wallace

It doesn’t take long talking to Hilary Hahn, the prodigiously talented American violinist, and Volker Bertelmann, the German master of prepared-piano known to music fans as Hauschka, to recognize the genuine enthusiasm and excitement that talk of their first collaborative album provokes. “In my life,” Hahn says, “I follow intriguing little paths where they lead. This collaboration was one of those paths that was wide open in front of me. I would have been nuts not to have followed it.” Hauschka is even more animated and expressive. “We have a common sense of exploring things,” he elaborates. “Maybe at the time of Christopher Columbus I’d have met Hilary somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic: she’d have been on her way to explore South America and I’d be on my way to find the land of ice. Our ships would meet, and we’d have a tea together and exchange experiences.” He laughs quietly at the thought. “What I mean is that we share an interest in wanting to find new things, combined with a true pleasure in life.”

It’s these qualities that are written all over SILFRA, their first album together. An ambitious, free-spirited and frequently innovative collection, its genesis goes back over two years, the seeds of the idea first planted by musician Tom Brosseau. The folk musician and storyteller is signed to Fat Cat Records, whose 130701 imprint has released a number of Hauschka’s solo records, and Hahn has also worked with him, both live and on his 2007 Grand Forksalbum. “Tom had mentioned Volker more than once as someone I must meet,” Hahn recalls, “and Tom doesn’t casually toss around ideas like that, so I paid attention.” Brosseau was meanwhile working behind the scenes encouraging Hauschka, with whom he’d on occasion toured, to experience Hahn’s work and, when she passed through his hometown of Düsseldorf, Bertelmann attended her concert where afterwards they met, albeit briefly.

That encounter was enough, however, to initiate the chain of events that led to the making of Silfra. “A couple of weeks later I had a concert in San Francisco with Tom,” Hauschka continues, “and he invited Hilary to play along with two songs. I played there with the Magik*Magik Orchestra and Hilary joined us for one last improv.” As Hahn puts it, “from there, this project evolved really naturally, as it began: one step at a time, everything in its own time. It feels, the way our work has fallen together, like this has been predetermined somehow and we are along for the ride.”

Hahn is known as one of the world’s best violinists, “one of those rare artists,” according to Allmusic.com, “who possess both a colossal technique and interpretive acumen.” Beginning her training at the age of three, she performed with a symphony orchestra for the first time at the age of eleven, signed to Sony Classical at sixteen, and was declared Best Young Classical Musician at the age of 21 by Time Magazine. Though she made an early name for herself with performances of some of the better known works in the classical canon – she still considers Bach to be one of her most significant touchstones – she’s never been afraid of delving into less conventional areas, whether it be work by Arnold Schoenberg, soundtracks – she worked on the score for M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village – or even with Texan art-rockers “… And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead.” Ask her what music she enjoys and the response is effusive: “I’ll go from listening to Heifetz to Postal Service to Etta James to Hauschka to Jeremy Denk playing Ives, to Lera Auerbach performing her own work, to Josh Ritter, to So Percussion, to David Lang’s ‘the little match girl passion,’ to Teddy Thompson to Woodie Guthrie to Adele to Isan to Collette to Alexi Murdoch and Caleb Stine and back to Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony.”

Hauschka, meanwhile, has made a name for himself with seven albums since 2004 devoted largely to prepared piano performances. Inspired by proponents of the technique from Eric Satie and John Cage to contemporary performers like Max Richter and Yann Tiersen, he’s a prolific musician, and his work has continually developed from his early solo improvisations to include electronic elements. (His most recent album, Salon Des Amateurs, indulges his love of dance music experienced in Düsseldorf’s club of the same name.) Like Hahn, Hauschka is no stranger to the idea of collaboration, whether with more formal outfits like Music A.M. (where he pairs up with fellow German Stefan Schneider, and novelist and former Long Fin Killie frontman Luke Sutherland) or when recording with members of acclaimed bands like Calexico and múm, both of whom contributed to Salon Des Amateurs.

When it comes to collaborative work, Hahn and Hauschka share a similar philosophy. “A collaboration has to make sense on all levels,” Hahn insists, “including instinctive. Both people have to be genuinely interested and curious to explore the working experience, otherwise it founders or becomes forced. If it’s an organic development, it’s wonderful.” Hauschka’s thoughts are similar: “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. But I am not a fan of collaborating for the sake of it, or for marketing reasons. All of the collaborations I do come from an interest and fascination in someone else’s work.”

It was presumably this shared vision that led Hahn to perform with Hauschka for the first time on ‘Girls,’ a track from Salon Des Amateurs. This time, for Silfra, improvisation was the foundation of their work together, whether exchanging files over the net or ideas in rehearsal studios, where they united regularly over two years “to create a kind of natural understanding,” Hauschka clarifies, “of how we play things, and to feel comfortable with allowing the music to breathe or with what the other person is playing.” They had few specific goals, and certainly no preconceived aesthetic, and purposefully arrived at the recording studio with nothing written down. There they worked with Valgeir Sigurðsson, the Icelandic producer, composer and musician whose Bedroom Community label has helped bring the likes of Ben Frost and Nico Muhly to the world’s attention, and who worked as an engineer and programmer for Björk on many of her recordings between 2000 and 2005. His airy Greenhouse studios, on the outskirts of Reykjavik, proved to be the perfect environment: “The location and that particular studio,” Hahn comments, “really helped us to get out of our own heads and away from our individual contexts just enough to be able to find a creative space where we were free to relate to each other and pursue snippets of ideas that arose as we played. I think we had more new – to us – ideas there in that concentrated, self-contained environment than we had in any situation we’d rehearsed in.”

For ten days they worked with Sigurðsson as co-producer and engineer, the process inspiring, natural and often so involving that, as Hahn puts it, “we were in such a concentrated mindset that we stayed in the album even when we weren’t playing.” Though they share common values – Hauschka, for instance, was also classically trained – they had previously spent considerable amounts of time operating within contrasting musical fields, and the experience together enabled them to investigate previously unexplored musical territory. Hahn, however, sees it less as the result of moving together from these disciplines than the outcome of melding different experiences. “It was,” she says of the process, “a matter of blending what I had already done outside of classical music, which is where I had done my only improvising, and the things I had learned and stored up over the years.” For the two of them, she continues, “it was a matter of finding a way to meet sort of in the middle of our musical creative tendencies, but also somewhere far away from our own individual tendencies.” This apparently contradictory approach reaped extraordinary rewards that defy classification and yet sound perfectly formed, an expression of their shared musical influences and methodology. As Hahn adds, “it’s a basic concept: it is the music that it is.”

That prepared piano and violin could sound so perfectly suited is surely indicative of the musical chemistry that their groundwork and setting created, something that Hauschka also ascribes to a change in perspective “and not being pushed too much into a corner where you have no chance to develop. In the building process with Hilary, I felt really pushed forward, and also heard a lot of new aspects to music, but I also felt a personal inner process. We found a way of interacting with each other in a way as one instrument.” Hahn echoes this view: “I think we have a really similar work ethic and personal ethic, and, while living different lives, we seem to have arrived at a place that is familiar to both of us.”

Silfra’s joys are many, and they are also remarkable. It begins with the knowingly titled ‘Stillness’ – most tracks on the album were named as some form of synonym for the music – before bursting open with the uncontainable energy of ‘Bounce Bounce,’ in which Hauschka’s piano crashes noisily behind Hahn’s virtuoso performance. (“I love what Volker does to those pianos,” she grins.) ‘Halo Of Honey’ is evocative and subtly exotic, while ‘Ashes’ conjures images of faraway places, its pulse quickening below a serene surface as it gathers complexity, and ‘Draw A Map’ highlights their more playful side. In addition, ‘Clock Winder’ is an atmospheric vignette with the charm of a music box, while ‘Krakow’ offers a romantic simplicity that is deeply moving. It’s the 12 minute ‘Godot,’ however, that both musicians recognize as their personal favorite, Hauschka identifying it as having captured some of the Icelandic spirit they felt while recording, and Hahn praising the space they allowed each other therein, “yet we were ready to pounce on a change if we felt like it.”

Silfra, though, works as a full-bodied entity, something even greater than its parts. As Hahn suggests, “you’re hearing exactly what evolved at the moment it came to life, in every second of this album. That is very rare. It was such a rewarding experience making the record that I get a little nostalgic when I hear it.” She’s not going to be alone. It may be unexpected, but Silfra might just end up being one of the most original and inventive albums of the year. No wonder they both sound so happy.

by Sylvia Prahl

Silfra, a project of American violinist Hilary Hahn and German pianist Hauschka, is the result of a collaboration that developed gradually and organically over more than two years. Hahn and Hauschka met through the American folk musician Tom Brosseau, whose 2007 album Grand Forks features Hahn as a guest performer. (Brosseau has recorded for the same label as Hauschka, and the two gave a joint U.S. tour in 2008.) When Hahn performed a concert in Dusseldorf in October 2008, Brosseau made sure Hauschka would be in the audience. Their brief meeting after the concert was positive and friendly, although there was no discussion of working together. That changed a few weeks later when the pianist performed with Brosseau and the Magik*Magik Orchestra at the Hotel Utah in San Francisco. When Hahn joined them onstage for an improvised finale, an idea was born.

Both Hahn and Hauschka wanted to collaborate on something completely new, a venture into uncharted musical terrain that would nonetheless preserve their individual artistry. The as-yet-undefined project, centered on exploration and experimentation, was motivated by mutual respect and curiosity about each other’s work. They began rehearsing together (although these were anything but formal rehearsals) in early 2009, discovering, through improvisation, more about their respective musical approaches while beginning to identify and define a shared musical language. When they were once again in different parts of the world, their collaboration continued through the exchange of digital music files, to which the recipient would add new improvisations and ideas. Only one public indication of their work together appeared during this time, when Hahn played a violin solo on the track ‘Girls’ on Hauschka’s 2011 album Salon des Amateurs.

For Hauschka, who creates new sounds and modifies the dynamics of the piano by inserting small pieces of metal, clips, or different kinds of foils into its strings, improvisation is a crucial element of performance. For Hahn, improvising has become an important way to arrive at new interpretations of composed works.

Hauschka and Hahn first began talking about going into the recording studio early in 2011. Here, too, the process itself was the goal. They told no one of their plans, neither their colleagues nor their record companies, in the hope of keeping external pressures from influencing the outcome of their collaboration. Hahn and Hauschka met at the prestigious Greenhouse Studios in Reykjavik, Iceland, in late spring, arriving with no scores, ignoring pieces they had already developed, aiming to create new works entirely through improvisation.

The only exception to this was a single piano line Hauschka had previously sent to Hahn as a trigger for improvisation. Its sepia-tinted nostalgia intrigued her. They revisited the track, with Hahn reworking the violin parts on the spot, resulting in ‘Krakow.’ (This is also the only track on the album featuring unprepared piano.)

Hahn and Hauschka’s unconventional working method – after all, musicians usually go into the studio to record music they have already prepared – ensured that the spontaneity and prevailing mood of their sessions was captured in the recordings. In this they had the valuable and sympathetic assistance of producer Valgeir Sigurðsson, who has worked with artists ranging from Björk to Bonnie Prince Billie. The music’s positive energy is almost tangible, its combination of seriousness and a distinct lightness of touch reflecting the artistic confidence that had developed between the two musicians.

Titles of individual pieces reinforce their auditory associations. ‘Godot,’ the longest piece, exudes an austere agitation: a metallic knocking sound generated by Hauschka on the prepared piano is looped and made to rise and fall. A wash of vibrating piano strings creates a sense of mysterious urgency while Hahn’s violin floats above, conveying the imponderability of Being.

The cool elegance of ‘North Atlantic’ evokes the breathtaking clarity of underwater worlds – the piano’s metallic hues conjuring up images of sunbeams dancing just below the surface of the water, the seductive lightness of the violin gradually transforming into a powerful force that draws the listener down into the lonely depths.

Rapid changes of rhythm and pizzicato violin lend ‘Draw a Map’ an air of organized chaos based intermittently on patterns. A dialogue of melodies and rhythmic set pieces adds a note of optimism to the overall melancholy mood of ‘Ashes.’

‘On Halo of Honey,’ Hahn’s violin at times sings like a refined musical saw, while Hauschka’s piano produces sounds reminiscent of rusty doors. In its simplicity and calmness, however, the piece unfolds like an underwater saga.

The title of the album – Silfra – is also a reflection of how the two artists see their work together. Silfra is a geographic feature near Reykjavik, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. Hahn and Hauschka’s collaboration does not simply combine their separate musical experience but merges their different approaches into a single dynamic voice. And the world has gained some wonderful music as a result.

Hilary Hahn – Biography

Two-time Grammy Award-winning violinist Hilary Hahn has gained international recognition for her probing interpretations, compelling stage presence, and commitment to a wide range of repertoire as well as newly commissioned music. Hahn appears regularly with the world’s top orchestras and on popular recital series in Europe, Asia, and North and South America. In the fifteen years since she began recording, Hahn has released thirteen solo albums on the Deutsche Grammophon and Sony labels, in addition to three live performance DVDs, an Oscar-nominated movie soundtrack, and various compilations. In 2009, she released an album of Tchaikovsky and Higdon concertos; the Higdon concerto, which Hahn commissioned, won the Pulitzer Prize. Her most recent album is a recording of Charles Ives’s violin sonatas. Hahn celebrated that release with a concert at John Zorn’s The Stone in New York City. Outside the classical world, Hahn has collaborated with Tom Brosseau, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Josh Ritter, and Chris Thile. She keeps a collection of her writings at hilaryhahn.com. Her violin case Tweets from the road at @violincase.

Hauschka – Biography

Hauschka, the musical alias of Düsseldorf, Germany-based Volker Bertelmann, is predominantly known throughout both the classical and experimental music worlds for his seven albums since 2004 that explore the possibilities of the prepared piano. By modifying the piano’s innards with an assortment of odds and ends such as gaffer tape, aluminum foil, bottle tops, bells and ping pong balls he transforms the pure tuned instrument into mini rhythm sections. Inspired by prepared piano forefathers Eric Satie and John Cage to contemporary performers like Max Richter and Yann Tiersen, Bertelmann is a prolific musician whose work has continually developed from his early solo improvisations to include electronic elements. No stranger to collaboration, he has worked with more formal outfits such as Music A.M. (where he paired up with fellow German, Stefan Schneider, and novelist and former Long Fin Killie frontman, Luke Sutherland), San Francisco’s Magik*Magik Orchestra and has recorded with members of acclaimed bands Calexico and múm, both of whom contributed to his last solo release, Salon Des Amateurs, his piano and percussion homage to electronic dance music. In addition to his records, Bertelmann scored the feature film “Glueck,” produced by Constantin Film and directed by Doris Doerrie. His videos have been twice nominated for the UK Music Video Award and in 2010 he composed music for two major theater pieces at the Frankfurt and Düsseldorf Schauspielhaus.