11:40 am Jun. 22, 2012
In an era of well-packaged celebrity cameos, guest appearances, and sure-to-be empire-building collaborations, it’s refreshing to hear a new album from top-tier names that no one quite knows exactly what to do with—including the performers themselves.
That’s the situation with the recent new album, entitled Silfra, which was jointly improvised by the German composer Hauschka (probably the most well-known player of “prepared” piano among today’s indie set), and the internationally in-demand virtuoso violinist Hilary Hahn. There was no roadmap for this kind of thing, particularly—as even the most refined classical musicians can seem stuttering and ungainly in an improvised context. But the album is actually a quiet triumph: by turns wistful and energetic, it has a winning modesty even as it seems packed with small composerly events.
Because Silfra resides in the excitingly strange netherworld between various instrumental practices, its reception tells us a lot about the stratification of genre. The indie- and pop-centric Pitchfork—which has covered several Hauschka releases, and nothing by Hahn previously—reviewed the album on its day of release, but tellingly put Hauschka’s name first (in a reversal of the name order on the album itself). Meantime, culture sections that employ dedicated staffs to follow classical, folk, and improvised forms haven’t much covered Silfra at all, despite the names involved. (Think of a gently floating fly ball that drops in between outfielders, each of whom is hoping or expecting that a teammate might step in.) So far, the New York Times’ only mention of this major-label release from two names of this stature was a notice for the pair's Wednesday’s concert at City Winery.
That hour-long concert, like the album it was promoting, was mostly improvised. (Hahn and Hauscka related, in banter from the stage, how they spent time over the past two years rehearsing and getting to know one another, before recording Silfra.) Unlike the studio creation, however, there was no editing function available to these performers, who, despite their evident feel for one another’s art, are still developing as a live act. Silfra is a fully realized album—one of the most striking and original so far this year, and, for all its experimental qualities, one potentially of interest to a wide variety of listeners.
The live iteration of the project, in which the performers riffed on themes from the album while exploring potential new paths (while making sure to start and end at the same time), was a less sure-footed event. At the beginning of the concert, Hahn asked Hauschka if he’d like to say something about the free-form nature of the evening—how, in her words, “we don’t play what’s on the album?” The soft-spoken Hausckha more or less declined, saying he preferred to keep explanations short, and get to the improvising.
The first five improvisations, lasting about half an hour, glanced on various elements from Silfra—a bit of electric-like hum from the prepared piano on the opening number came from “Stillness,” while Hahn directly referenced some of the swooping, melancholic lines from “Krakow” and her opening motif from “Draw A Map,” at other points.
But unlike on the album, there was a sameness to many of the live iterations: no matter how the improvisation began, Hauschka seemed to ultimately find his way to a 4/4 ostinato stomp, with Hahn adding some textural filigree over the top. It also seemed like Hauschka’s piano wasn’t quite prepared enough; there wasn’t anything as grandly floor-shaking as one hears in the seventh minute of “Godot,” on the album. In these first live performances at City Winery, there wasn’t as much surprise, or a feel for pacing, as is evident on Silfra.
Curiously (and enticingly), however, when both players stopped referencing the album in any direct way, they seemed capable of greater invention. Playing what they called a series of “solos”—which the pair described from the stage as “those things where you play solo, and then I join you at the end”—they reached for a language beyond the one they’ve already set down on the album.
The second of these “solos” was the set’s longest, most free-sounding performance of the night, with Hahn showing off some extended technique (which she might have picked up while studying Schoenberg’s violin concerto), while, after joining her, Hauschka bucked the night’s trend of ending pieces in a gentle fashion, by reaching into his piano to begin a coda dependent on the stripping away of duct tape.
The biggest news of the night wasn’t just that two musicians with perfectly healthy solo careers could make their one-off improvised album work in a live setting—but that there might be a lot more they could do together in the future, should they choose.
More by this author:
- A free Philip Glass show, and more treats from him on deck
- Experimental composer Pauline Oliveros, having her big moment at age 80