Hilary Hahn’s reputation as an acclaimed soloist in a wide variety of repertoire and in settings from solo and chamber to concerto is well established. Here she appears in a set of improvised performances along with the German ‘prepared piano’ artist/composer Hauschka (Volker Bertelmann), whose Foreign Landscapes
album from the Fatcat label is worth seeking out if you want to find out more. This particular recording is produced by Valgeir Sigurðsson, who has worked with artists such as Björk. In other words, this is quite far removed from your usual classical violin/piano album. The recording is often quite close, emphasising that fragile ‘nowhere to hide’ feel to such musical experiments, though there are effects used such as overdubbing and extra reverb where appropriate. The general acoustic picture is intimate but non-fatiguing.
“When you listen to this record, you are hearing the music the first time it was played. There were no retakes. These are the moments that brought these ideas to life.” Each title, and each ‘moment’ is given its own little story in the booklet, and it can be useful to see which associations and context the music has for its protagonists. Silfra itself is described as “the divide between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. It is preternaturally still, coloured in shades of blue and green not found anywhere else…” These kinds of atmospheres are a rich resource of inspiration on this album, and the opening track Stillness
is a good introduction: a brief, relatively simple but sustained statement with the ebow – a kind of electronic sustain gadget – making the piano strings ring like a glass harmonica. Bounce Bounce
does what it says on the tin; a restlessly up-beat number with plenty of rhythmic rubbery thuds from the lower piano strings. Clock Winder
has fascinating patterns of repetition: little mechanical cycles over which sustained layers build to create a pleasant musical arch form.
Hahn’s violin tones are given their first real voice in Adash
, which is linked to the inner world of a boy “who loves music and scratches lines into his CDs to create unpredictable catches, so he can hear a section over and over again…” Ouch! I feel all you collectors of precious silver discs cringing at the thought, but the result here is a substantial organic growth of textures and melodic fragments. Godot
is the longest track by far but has the least explanation – a single continuous take and the recording given no further subsequent treatment. This is an extended atmosphere of considerable hypnotic power. The piano taps and grinds, and while there are lengthy moments of static repose there is also always something ‘going on’ in all kinds of subtle ways, and the gently lyrical apotheosis is magical. If we are Waiting for Godot, then at least there is plenty to keep our imaginations fired up while keeping the park bench warm.
After the epic Godot
, the poignantly song-like Krakow
sounds like light relief. North Atlantic
takes us back into nature, but retains a grounding in clearly cadenced tonality, with chill flecks of ocean spray spitting out from the violin, and the buzz of prepared piano strings heightening the upper harmonics from an ostinato texture. Draw a Map
refers to the unpredictable geography of Iceland, and the syncopated rhythms suggest the playful nature of the way people occupy it during the long summer days. The Ashes
are of the volcanic kind as you might expect, and the changing colours of the sky are portrayed in this open sounding statement. Sink
sees the musicians separating into different spaces and only communicating through their playing as heard through headphones. This results in a healthily spontaneous feel in what turns out to be one of the liveliest miniatures in the programme. Gently expressive and another poignantly minor-coloured number, Halo of Honey
refers to a song by Tom Brosseau, who was the catalyst for the meeting of these two artists. Rift
almost sounds like a continuation of the previous track, referring to Silfra “as a tribute to the deepness and isolation there, and the sense of being engulfed by a beautiful phenomenon.”
I wasn’t sure in advance whether I would like this, but on listening seriously I soon found myself drawn into convincing worlds of sound created by two musicians who have become attuned to each other over years of working together. The violin can sound a trifle thin against the rich repertoire of resonances created in the piano, and it rarely takes flight in a genuinely red-blooded solo sense. This is of course not entirely necessary, but even in a collaboration like this it pays to make use of your strongest resources, and some extra power from the violin here and there would have helped in terms of contrast and expressive range. There is a sentimental feel to some of the numbers which contemporary music fans may find a bit much, but for listeners tentatively preparing to cross the bridge into the territory of improvised music there is much which is easily accessible here, and the ‘easy’ numbers will help you tap into the deeper regions of the more exploratory tracks. There are mercifully few moments where you feel the level of invention is fizzling out or that certain moments are being over stretched, though the fall-back piano accompaniment is one of ostinati with relatively few surprises in store once a pattern has been established. The ‘prepared’ element of the piano sound adds colour, texture and interest, and should hold no fears for the inquisitive.