We like to think that classical music is the squarest genre out there. Housed in stuffy performance halls, the musicians merely read the notes printed on the page—lots of feeling, maybe, but little latitude. So it’s refreshing when others come along to open some windows and let all that hot air out.
Hilary Hahn straddles this divide in classical music. Born and raised in Baltimore, the violinist first performed with the city’s symphony at age 12, and since then she’s played in London, New York, and Chicago with some of the finest orchestras in the world. But Hahn is a restless spirit. She’s dipped her toes in the indie world, playing alongside folk singer Josh Ritter and prog-rockers …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, and she’s outspoken about her belief that fans should be able to dress however they wish when they see her perform.
Hahn’s found a kindred spirit in Hauschka, the musical moniker for German composer Volker Bertelmann. He’s something of a mad scientist, taking John Cage’s prepared piano technique and running with it over the course of seven sparkling albums. Here, Hahn and Hauschka team up for an understated set that nevertheless gently pushes each out of their respective comfort zones.
The title refers to a geographical rift in Iceland that separates the North American and Eurasian plates, but it can also be seen as a meeting point between these two sides of the world. Indeed, they recorded the album in Reykjavik, not far from the actual Silfra. The two artists bring their own respective sensibilities to the table: Hahn’s dizzying virtuosity smashing up against Hauschka’s percussive inventiveness. What’s most compelling is the fact that most of the notes played on Silfra are improvised. Hauschka often prefers to work that way, and the two built the record out of several meetings that were essentially classical jam sessions.
The results sound liberating for Hahn. Her staccato stabs on “Bounce Bounce” show off how utterly rhythmic and jarring the violin can sound. She makes the instrument positively glow on the appropriately-titled “Halo of Honey.” On past releases, Hauschka’s piano melodies are allowed to wander and eventually find a sticking point, but here he’s content to play the architect, constructing subtle but complex frameworks for Hahn’s playing. It’s pretty engaging to watch Hauschka live as he attaches all sorts of hardware to his piano’s strings to create the unique effects he specializes in. Part of the fun of Silfra is imagining what objects he uses for the buzzing gears in “Clock Winder” or the menacing tapping that undercuts the twelve-minute epic “Godot.”
The fact that the pair works so well together is pretty amazing considering the differing backgrounds. The set feels loose and exploratory, two adjectives that you don’t often hear on your local classical radio channel. Patience is required, as the two often circle each other for a while before honing in on a specific sound. But you’re rewarded with a few surprises that jump out instead of being confined to staffs on a sheet. “Draw A Map” is another perfect title; Silfra itself feels like musical cartography.
If there’s one minor quibble, it’s that the set doesn’t go as far into left-field as it could have. Hahn comes close, and it would have been nice to hear Hauschka egg her on (or even try out a prepared violin). As it stands though, Silfra is an engaging, emotional work. Hahn and Hauschka meet in the middle but still push and pull each other to new heights.