Hahn & Hauschka


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It was folk musician and storyteller Tom Brousseau who first planted the seeds for Hilary Hahn and Hauschka’s debut collaborative album, SILFRA, encouraging his friends Hahn, the prodigiously talented American violinist, and Volker Bertelmann, the German master of prepared piano known to music fans as Hauschka, to explore one another’s work. The gestation period proved long, but – over two years later - it takes only a moment chatting to Hahn and Hauschka to recognise the genuine enthusiasm and excitement that lie behind this ambitious, free-spirited and frequently innovative collection.

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 played 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 by Time Magazine at the age of 21. 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 Schoenberg, soundtracks like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, or even with Texan art-rockers And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead.

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 whose work has continually developed from his early solo improvisations to include electronic elements. 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 his last solo release, Salon Des Amateurs.

So when it comes to collaborative work, Hahn and Hauschka share a similar philosophy. For SILFRA, improvisation was the foundation of their work, whether exchanging files over the net or ideas in the rehearsal rooms where they united when they could. 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. His airy Greenhouse studio, on the outskirts of Reykjavik, proved to be the perfect environment, and for ten days they worked with him 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”.

That prepared piano and violin could sound so perfectly suited is surely indicative of the musical chemistry that their groundwork and setting created. SILFRA 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 deeply moving, romantic simplicity. It’s the 12 minute ‘Godot’, however, that both musicians recognise as their personal favourite, 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.

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. 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.

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