Hilary Hahn and Hauschka Go Improv

Interview & Performance

Friday, July 27, 2012

Hilary Hahn is a heavy hitter in classical music, a violinist who debuted at 12 and recorded the Bach partitas at 18. She’s powered through the repertoire, mastering Paganini, the Mozart sonatas, the Brahms concerto, Schoenberg, Ives. In her ripe old 20s, she began stretching beyond classical music, playing alongside singer-songwriters like Josh Ritter. Her new project goes even further outside the box.

Silfra is a collaboration between Hahn and Volker Bertelmann, a German musician who performs as Hauschka. (They met through Tom Brosseau, a singer-songwriter and mutual friend.) Hauschka’s instrument is a “prepared” piano, its insides carefully altered with duct tape, felt mutes, bottle caps, and bits of junk so that the keys produce radically different timbres and rhythmic elements. At times he may play the strings with guitar devices like the E-bow. The music Hahn and Hauschka make is completely improvised. They’ll take a melodic fragment or texture and play with it as a composition emerges spontaneously. "To be quite honest, I think it's a very spontaneous way of living,” says Hauschka. “I love that a lot, to just go into a situation and think about it quickly, not having too much fuss about it."

The music might sound disconcerting to Hahn’s legion of classical fans. It’s sometimes disarmingly simple, even folksy; sometimes abrasive; sometimes ambient. But Hahn maintains, “I learned to play the violin by playing classical music, and there's so much variety in classical music that even the unusual techniques I use to get sound out of the instrument at various times, various environments, those also come from classical music.”

The duo is experimenting in other ways as well. Before joining us in the studio, we reached out on Twitter to get examples of tone rows (a particular type of melodic pattern well known to composers) for Hahn and Hauschka to improvise on. They chose one submitted to us by William Jeffery (@WJComposer), whom they had never met.

They also performed a version of “Stillness,” one of the pieces on Silfra, and a new untitled improvisation.


Bonus Track: “Stillness,” live in Studio 360

Hilary Hahn and Hauschka in the studio (Mujahid Suliman) Hilary Hahn and Hauschka in the studio (Mooj Zadie)
    Music Playlist
  1. Concerto in E minor, op 64: I Allegro molto
    Artist: Hilary Hahn
    Album: Spectacular
    Purchase: Amazon
  2. Bounce Bounce
    Artist: Hilary Hahn, Hauschka
    Album: Silfra
    Label: Deutsche Grammophon
    Purchase: Amazon
  3. North Atlantic
    Artist: Hilary Hahn, Hauschka
    Album: Silfra
    Label: Deutsche Grammophon
    Purchase: Amazon
  4. Improvisation
    Artist: Hilary Hahn, Hauschka
    Album: LIVE in Studio 360
  5. "Tone Row" Improvisation
    Artist: Hilary Hahn, Hauschka
    Album: LIVE in Studio 360


Hauschka and Hilary Hahn

Produced by:

David Krasnow

Comments [6]

john martin from Miami

this was fine stuff. No need for Hilary to talk about prepared pianos Cowell,Crumb and John Cage .Conductor's dont read essays about tone rows or medieval retrograde,magic circles etc before Xenakis or playing Berg. People always want to show what they know instead of share and absorb-it's ok .It's just human. Anyway ,that was a perfect portrait of stillness. It felt honest and anyone who can play Biber,bach,Paganini or the Schonberg concerto I'm sure can easily make up a pattern and follow it with sequences and rhythmic chatter.Invention and improvising can be done by the youngest child so long as they have a 2 minute primer on harmony(constructing conjunct melody and chord formation). Let's all get humble and recognize people do in the moment what they do . She knows music theory as well as any of us so inventing melodic lines would not be a problem. It's a little upsetting when people who haven't studied at Yale or Curtis etc. or had entrance into the studios of world famous teachers like Bell and Hahn share dare to slight them. I've noticed those who know don't comment on youtube -that says something!

Sep. 06 2014 01:04 AM
Jim McShane from Suffield, CT

This is a field that needs to be explored. Glad to see someone like Hilary Hahn doing that. So called "classical music" needs to expand. Improvisation will make it more exciting, more varied, more interesting. I liked the music, but it could use more depth and more development. I hope she keeps at it.

Jul. 30 2012 03:41 PM
Steve from Inwood, NYC

I'm sure Hilary Hahn's foray into improvisation is sincere, but the results, if the performance on the show is any indication, are those of a dilettante, not someone who has devoted a life to improvised music. If you want your listeners to hear what a real improvising violinist sounds like, invite Marc Feldman (http://www.markfeldmanviolin.com/enter.htm ) to be on your show. He's not only one of the finest musicians working today, he's funny and articulate.

Jul. 29 2012 03:01 PM
Bob Falesch

+ on the Cage, @Fishmael, but to me Hilary didn't sound at all comfortable "improvising" (by my definition, it was nothing of the kind). I must join with @cmih in trying to forget this awful segment.

Jul. 29 2012 01:02 PM
Fishmael from NYC

Interesting segment. But, you do your listeners a dis-service by not giving them the background history of John Cage re: the prepared piano. An unfamiliar listener might come away with the idea that Hauschka invented this.

It's fascinating how many classically trained musicians are uncomfortable improvising. Glad to see someone of Hilary Hahn's stature reaching out to embrace it.

Jul. 29 2012 12:00 PM

I'm sorry, but I thought that was just awful.

Jul. 28 2012 10:16 PM

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