Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

What to Expect When You're Expecting (Something Else)

May 29, 2012

Hilary Hahn and Hauschka in Los Angeles Photo: mine
I love a prepared piano. So does German artist Volker Bertelmann who goes by the stage name Hauschka. The instrument has been the cornerstone of his musical output over the last several years. It’s not a new sound, of course, the term being coined by John Cage in the mid-20th Century to describe the various objects and techniques used to physically alter the sounding of strings in a standard piano. And while there were certainly precedents to these techniques long before Cage came on the scene, the tinkling, plunking, shattered resonance of the prepared piano has continued to resonate in a post-WWII mentality over the last half-century. The sound is still associated with Cage and a musical avant-garde. But composers have found ways to incorporate the instrumentation into a variety of music decidedly closer to the familiar or mainstream world of both concert and popular music. I first got hooked on the sound through Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa: music that is indelibly linked in my head with the upside down exploding piano in Rebecca Horn’s Concert for Anarchy (1990) the sculpture in the collection of London’s Tate Modern.

Rebecca Horn's Concert for Anarchy in the Tate Modern
But Hauschka takes all of this post-war angst of decades ago and re-integrates it into something associated more closely with contemporary popular music genres. His piano tinkles and rumbles along melodic and rhythmic lines that would be familiar to any listener of contemporary art rock. The instrumental songs slide along with a beauty that make them highly listenable and fairly addictive. In spring of 2011, Hauschka got a chance to collaborate with another musical figure known for her virtuosity, violinist Hilary Hahn. The pair, who have just seen the fruits of their work, Silfra, released on Deutsche Grammophon, intuitively seem like perfect collaborators. Hahn is known on concert stages throughout the world and not only has been a force in commissioning new music but has a public wit and intellect that sets her apart from others in her field. She’s the kind of solo performer whose self-expression rides more on music than a funny haircut and unusual concert attire. (And you know who you are.)

Hahn and Hauschka created a recording based largely on improvisation and spontaneous musical interaction during their studio time in Iceland. (The recording is named after an area in Iceland where tectonic plates nearly meet by a lake.) Long-time Björk producer, Valgeir Sigurosson, helped shape these collaborations into something unusual, but not unrelated to contemporary pop music. (See the example "Bounce Bounce" below if you can sit through the annoying commercial attached to the front of it.) And in the last few weeks the two musicians have brought the improvisational interaction to live audiences, which happened for the first time in the U.S. at the El Rey theater in Los Angeles on Monday night. The pair, by their own admission, had only played live together on a very few prior outings in Europe and would move on to Seattle and Japan before returning to the East Coast later this summer. And while things could feel a bit unrehearsed in the stage banter department, the musical collaboration flowed easily. The songs were based on elements contained on Silfra, but were still improvised and didn’t follow any rigid pre-planned format. Although each player had a brief solo number, the show was entirely based on their work together.

It was beautiful music, but clearly was an experience that pushed on some of the contemporary social traditions around musical performance. The show took place in a standing room hall more often used for rock concerts. Chairs had been set up for the general admission audiences that was far from capacity in the room. By necessity for balance, both Hahn and Hauschka were amplified. The crowd clearly enjoyed the performance, but many were uncertain of what to expect. At one point an enthusiastic fan took advantage during piano preparation time to directly issue a request to Hahn to break into Bach or Paginini. She politely refused indicating this is not what this show was about. Her rebuke was met with applause, but clearly there were others in the audience drawn to the performance on her reputation that may have gone away disappointed in not getting what they were expecting. Which was a shame, considering the strength of the collaboration.

Instead these two musicians offered unexpected music created from their own mutual exploration. It may not have been revolutionary or changing the direction of art music as we know it but it was sincere and as fiercely independent as anything you could wish for. You can listen to Silfra now, but even better, keep your ears open if you’re lucky enough to have them come your way.

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Hey, great that you saw this gig! I want very badly to see the NY one. Hilary is wonderful onstage, both asa musician and a personality, and I'm sure she handled that guy calling out for the classics really well considering that that's something she deals with on a regular basis whenever she tries something new. The album is incredible!
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