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Briefly Noted: 'Silfra'

available at Amazon
Silfra, H. Hahn, Hauschka

(released on May 22, 2012)
DG B0016798-02 | 52'02"
The PR on this new disc has been in full force, so you have surely heard of it by now. The fruit of a collaboration between the violinist Hilary Hahn and the prepared piano player Hauschka (AKA Volker Bertelmann), it is a set of tracks improvised in Iceland. The music was inspired by a place named Silfra, in the Þingvallavatn Lake, where the rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates is located. The style of music hovers between rock drive and New Age meditation, with both players creating some unexpected and generally attractive sounds on their instruments. Readers in Washington already know that we have recommended the duo's performance tonight, at The Birchmere in Alexandria (June 18, 7:30 pm), part of a national tour to promote the album.

So, this is obviously an important release, and it marks a departure of sorts for Hilary Hahn, who has many accomplishments but is not generally thought of as an improviser. In fact, as Anne Midgette has written in a fine piece for the Washington Post, improvisation is an area that most classical musicians avoid -- with notable exceptions among historically informed performance musicians and organists. In fact, if you are looking to hear what a top-notch classically trained musician can do as an improviser, the first thing to do would be to attend a service at certain churches -- Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, for one, and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the National Cathedral, and St. Patrick's in the City to name just a few local examples. The problem is that Hahn is a dabbler, even though this project was not her first foray into improvisation, and that is evident in the recording. Improvisation is actually something that requires a lot of work (this from someone who has only dabbled in it, and the hours of transcribing other people's improvisations, so that I could play them note for note, were excruciating), at least to make it more than just a sort of parlor trick, to be able to make music that is not only pleasing, that hits the chord changes and generally makes musical sense, but that also holds one's interest beyond just the moment.

Silfra, for me at least, does not do that. Over several listenings, it became less and less interesting each time. It has some lovely, atmospheric moments -- the cold, still air of the opening track, the crackling energy of Bounce Bounce and Sink, the sort of underwater world of Rift -- with musical ideas that evoke cracking ice, whale calls, volcanic bubbling, dripping water, and a whole moonscape of otherworldly sounds. It has been no secret at least as far back as Henry Cowell and John Cage's first experiments with the prepared piano that the instrument can be forced to make all sorts of unusual sounds. Hauschka pulls out a whole bag of tricks in this department that provide most of the musical interest in the collaboration. As much as it tickles the ear the first couple times around, the disc just left me cold, but it will still be interesting to find out what impression this odd couple makes in live performance.

Will Robin has much more in-depth thoughts on this disc at his blog, Seated Ovation.

Anne Midgette, Hahn and Hauschka at Birchmere (Washington Post, June 20)

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