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Hilary Hahn and Hauschka at the Icelandic Improv
on May 22, 2012
First of all, anyone expecting this to resemble any of violin virtuosa Hilary Hahn's previous work will be severely disappointed. However, this album does fit in very well with certain contemporary music, including a lot of other great music coming out of Iceland. Judged against this background, Hahn and Volker Bertelmann, a master of prepared piano who performs under the name Hauschka, have come up with an exciting set of recordings that pack an artistic and emotional punch.
The album was recorded at the studio of Icelandic producer Valgeir Sigurðsson, who founded the Bedroom Community record label and has frequently worked with Björk. The recording sessions for Silfra lasted ten days, and Hahn and Hauschka brought practically no material with them to the studio. They set out to create new music, and the recording process appears to have mainly been based on basic tracks recorded in joint improvisation which were then filled out with successive layers of overdubs to fill out the sound and add new dimensions.
Broadly speaking, I found two main types of music on this album: rhythmically driven tracks and slower, atmospheric pieces. Where rhythms are strong, they are often downright exuberant. Many tracks -- particularly Bounce Bounce, Adash, Draw a Map, and Sink -- are just a lot of fun. Others, such as Stillness, Ashes, and Rift, are more subdued, wistful and/or contemplative.
The centerpiece of the album, the 12-minute opus Godot, varies between searing atmospherics and edgy, often jackhammer-like percussive sounds from the prepared piano.
The most traditionally structured track is Krakow, which was the only piece of music that did not wholly originate from the Iceland sessions as Hauschka recorded the basic piano track at his home. This is a beautifully melancholy meditation on the grand but also sad Polish city of Krakow.
What does it sound like? Good question that isn't easy to answer. I'd call it post-modern and post-minimalist. I heard definite hints of minimalism, with rhythmic and melodic lines sometimes being repeated, altered and transformed along the way in a manner that could probably be traced back in spirit to Terry Riley's "In C". Adash is a great example of this type of work.
However, this is only one aspect of the album as a whole. In structure, feel and atmosphere, it has a lot of similarities with the music of producer Sigurðsson, who also plays prepared piano on some of his own solo music. Also, the use of simple, beautiful and repitive themes also suggested to me a shared sensibility with one of my favorite contemporary composer-performers, Iceland's Johann Johannsson (with whom Hauschka is actually touring in Europe this summer).
At first I thought that on most pieces the prepared piano -- a normal piano modified by objects placed on or around the strings, hammers and dampers -- was creating a rhythmic and harmonic space within which Hahn could maneuver her violin. But after listening a few more times, I realized the picture is actually much more nuanced. The division of labor between melody, harmony and rhythm is much more evenly divided between the two artists than I had realized at first.
Hahn and Hauschka have a YouTube channel, a Facebook page and a website -- so there is a lot of information and multimedia available out there to explore if you'd like to do that before making a decision. For example, there is a short documentary with interviews and in-studio footage of Hahn and Hauschka. Another is a live-animated video for "Bounce Bounce" -- the first "single" from the album. This video is an amazing artistic achievement in itself, by Brooklyn-based animator Hayley Morris. I thought I saw a few visual references to "The Nutcracker" sequence of Disney's original Fantasia.
Highly recommended, although I imagine there are people to whom this album may not appeal.