Improvisational Artist Crosses Barriers, Blends Worlds

There are a number of musicians today who seem to defy categorization, appealing to a broad spectrum of listeners from all musical walks of life.  Of course, variations on a theme have been a part of music as long as there has been music, but the lines now being crossed seem to get blurrier by the day.

Some of that can be attributed to technology.  Someone can have an idea in the morning, record it in the afternoon, and post it that evening, receiving nearly instantaneous feedback on whether or not it works.  Much of it has to do with artists no longer content to allow artificially drawn boundaries to keep them from trying other things.

A case in point is Hilary Hahn.  In 2008, she collaborated with Josh Ritter, a musician better known to the Newport Folk Festival or to listeners of Mountain Stage than to classical concertgoers.  At one point he said that, “it was cool to play in a place without a neon sign behind him and without anyone throwing beer bottles.”

In a story written for NPR, Tom Huizenga stated that, “While Ritter is warming to upscale classical venues, Hahn has a different challenge. She says she’s still learning how to improvise around Ritter’s gentle rock songs.”

What a difference five years makes.  Hahn has recently joined forces with German composer/musician Volker Bertelmann, who goes by the name Hauschka.  He is John Cage for the 21st century in that he is a proponent of the prepared piano.  Together they have released a recording entitled Silfra.  Silfra is at times mesmerizing, at other times serene, energizing, and captivating, with every note heard from Hahn’s violin completely improvised.  It is a recording which defies description but very difficult to stop listening to once you begin.

There is also a very visual aspect to the recording.  The musicians teamed with New York artist Hayley Morris whose work uses “traditional and experimental animation through stop-motion and hand drawings to tell stories.”

Yes, you can still hear Hilary Hahn in all of her classical glory in concerts the world over, but she is simultaneously following the lead of Yo-Yo Ma and reaching into as many musical worlds as she can.  I applaud her for venturing into the unknown, while also drawing a different audience into her musical world.

Watch Bounce from the album Silfra

Volker Bertelmann demonstrates his piano preparation in an NPR interview

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