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Something in the Air Besides the Atmosphere
[Hilary Hahn and Hauschka : Silfra]


Silfra could have gone wrong down any number of regrettable paths, most of them leading to the dreary nether zone populated by the chittering shades of purposeless "Classical Crossover" recordings. But it did not. Rather, by dint of superior skill or rigorous commitment or perhaps just good fortune, Silfra emerges as a unique and rewarding creation, a lapidary melding of sound and idea that deserves extended and repeated attention.

The story has it that in 2008 violinist Hilary Hahn was introduced to the Düsseldorf-based composer/prepared-pianist Volker Bertelmann, who records and performs as Hauschka, by folk musician Tom Brosseau. Brosseau had collaborated with Hahn, and he was a label mate of Hauschka's on Fat Cat Records. A few weeks later, Hahn joined in a 5-minute improvised performance with Hauschka at the end of a Brosseau show in San Francisco. By the end of those five minutes a slow growing creative seed had been planted.

Hahn contributed a violin part to "Girls," a track on Hauschka's 2011 Salon Des Amateurs, but there was no public indication that the two were at work on anything larger until March of this year, when Hahn's label, Deutsche Grammophon, announced the forthcoming release of Silfra. In fact, at about the time that Salon des Amateurs was being released, Hahn and Hauschka were in Reykjavik's Greenhouse Studios, where they recorded Silfra over ten days in May 2011, after two years of planning and long-distance rehearsal. 

While Hilary Hahn will be the best known participant in this project for most listeners, I am far more familiar with Hauschka's previous work—and for that matter more familiar with the work of co-producer Valgeir Sigurðsson—than I am with Ms. Hahn, who is known to me only by reputation. The music of Silfra was for the most part created on the spot through the two musicians improvising an initial track together, then jointly or individually improvising further in response to it. The use of a variously prepared piano for Hauschka's parts added a further layer of the unexpected to each performance.

Much of Hauschka's work here is of a piece with the range of styles and tactics he has displayed in his own releases. That said, this is arguably the best version yet of those styles and tactics. "Bounce Bounce"—the 'single' of sorts, since it comes with a lovely hand-animated submaritime video—is in many ways a quintessential Hauschka number, violin and piano each setting their own insistent percussive counterrhythms as they slew across one another. Similarly, the stately dance rhythms and frayed and faded overcoat moodiness of "Kraków" would slip easily in to, say, Ferndorf. Stepping away from his prior work, however, Hauschka also explores a more abstracted, atmospheric approach on several Silfra tracks, laying a ground over which the violin can rummage for a path.

Hilary Hahn meanwhile, freed from the set expectations and more regimented milieu of the symphony hall and the Classical repertoire, has taken the opportunity to press and stress her instrument to see just how much she can command from it—and given her acknowledged technical prowess, she is able to command a great deal. Her explorations and discoveries in these pieces have less to do with unexpected notes or chords than with exploring of the range of tone and color and feel that her violin can produce. Silfra is in part an extended meditation on how the violin can sound, without venturing too far over the line toward distortion, and how it can be recorded. This is particularly the case in the album's long central piece, "Godot," a 12+ minute single take during much of which the piano takes on the role of contemporary percussion ensemble while the violin enters and recedes with snatches, drones, twitches and wails, until the two parts subside at the last to a resigned trudge of quiet chords beneath a fragmentary, plaintive melody.

Will Robin earlier this week posted an insightful piece on Silfra on his blog, Seated Ovation, in which he speculates persuasively on the extent to which Valgeir Sigurðsson, as engineer and co-producer, is almost a third performer in bringing Silfra to its final form. Sigurðsson today strikes me as the heir to Brian Eno's seminal work as a producer/musician in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with a clear willingness to embrace happenstance as opportunity, and to treat the recording studio as an additional instrument of sorts. In the case of Silfra, the fortuitous combination of Sigurðsson, Hahn and Hauschka yields music that is well-wrought at its center while shading intriguingly at its edges toward an unresolved horizon.


Some video.

First, DG may call it an Electronic Press Kit, but I call it a Coming Attractions trailer. Pretty good whate'er its name, with glimpses of the Hahn/Hauschka/Sigurðsson triumvirate at work:

Second, Hilary Hahn vids and chats up Volker Bertelmann as he Prepares his Piano:

And . . . Silfra.

Silfra Fissure
Silfra is scheduled for release May 22. This post is based on a requested review copy of the CD.

Photo: Silfra Fissure near Lake Þingvallavatn, Þingvellir National Park, Iceland, via Wikimedia Commons. The album title refers to this rift or fissure outside of Reykjavik, filled with glacial melt water of near perfect clarity and marking the point where the North American and European tectonic plates meet.


Epithalamium Redux Redux

Gustav Klimt - Sappho 1888-90
The poem below first appeared on this blog on February 26, 2004, during the period when then San Francisco Mayor (now Lieutenant Governor) Gavin Newsom unilaterally directed the City of San Francisco to license same-sex marriages. That original post had a tentative "do I dare" quality to it that irks me a bit now, though that tone was more or less consistent with the tenor of the time in which it was written andmight serve as a marker for how the times have changed. The poem itself is something of an oddity, bringing a light verse form to bear on a subject of some little seriousness, but I still like it eight years on.

Back in 2004 the California Supreme Court ruled within a month that the City of San Francisco had no legal authority to license marriages not specifically authorized by state law, but it also invited the City to challenge the limitations of those statutes in court. The City did, and that case eventually worked its way through the system and back to the court that suggested it. Four years ago today, May 15, 2008, the California Supreme Court declared in In re Marriage Cases that the restriction of marriage to couples of differing genders was impermissible under the California Constitution. On that same day four years ago it seemed appropriate to republish, and I did, with less circumspection than on the first time round.

In the ensuing four years, the voters of California have amended the state's Constitution via Proposition 8, for the express purpose of reversing the state Supreme Court's decision. That Court has confirmed that the constitutional amendment was lawfully adopted and is binding upon it, so that there is no longer a state-constitutional basis for an expansive definition of marriage. Quite the opposite in fact: the state constitution is now explicit in defining marriage as strictly a man-woman arrangement. A challenge to Proposition 8 under the U.S. Constitution has since produced decisions in the U.S. District Court and from a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals finding the Proposition constitutionally impermissible. The outcome of the challenges to Proposition 8 remains inconclusive, however, pending further en banc review by the Ninth Circuit and an expected/inevitable petition to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Given that I have republished it on a rough four year cycle, and given that the President of the United States made his views on this subject explicit suring this past week, the time seems right to roll these verses out again, so roll them out I shall:




Hymen, Hymenaeus!
Gay men and lesbians
Flock to the City Hall,
Follow their bliss,

Purchase their licenses,
Swear to their permanence,
Pose for the camera crews
Sharing a kiss.


Damned, sir?  They’re damned, you say?
Possibly, possibly:
Love has led millions to
Suffer a Fall.

That’s for the next world, sir;
Here with the living -- well,
What was it Chaucer said?
“Love conquers all.”


Poets, sir. Love poets.
Some of the best have been
Gay, sir.  Consider this
List I’ve compiled:

Wystan Hugh Auden and
C.P. Cavafy and
Sappho. James Merrill, Thom
Gunn, Oscar Wilde.


Legally, legally,
Should an impediment
Rise to the marriage of
Minds that are true?

Sure as there’s only one
Race, sir -- the human race --
How would you feel if it
Happened to you?


Citizens, citizens,
Leave to your churches these
Questions of sanctity,
Tough and profound.

Secular governments
Ought to facilitate
Binding of lovers who
Yearn to be bound.


Hymen, Hymenaeus!
Cleave to the one who’s your
Heart’s true companion, the
Thou to your I.

Now, when the times are so
Fearsome we all must, as
Auden says, “love one a-
nother or die.”


Of Course You Realize This Means War
[wildUp, The Armory, Pasadena]

They also serve who only stand in parks

wildUp, the musical collective/contemporary chamber orchestra under artistic director/conductor/composer Christopher Rountree, returned to the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena Saturday night with The Armory: Music About Art, War and Peace.

Typically for wildUp, the program featured a mix of new pieces, new pieces based upon older pieces, and older pieces spun in new ways. Also typically, some pieces proved more successful than others, but the cumulative impact of the evening was thought provoking and invigorating.

The evening hit the beach explosively with Andrew Tholl'still not a place to build monuments or cathedrals. Tholl is a regular composer for wildUp and typically plays violin in the ensemble, but here he picked up the electric guitar. Scored for ensemble, guitar and electric bass, still not a place... is above all loud, an escalating series of raucous, confrontational crescendos. It is a difficult piece to judge on first hearing, because the thick layer of surface noise is so impenetrable.

Loudness and aggression were the hallmark of all three pieces on the first half of the program, but each offered its own variant. Andrew McIntosh's Inch and Mile, worked off of the conceit that myriad small things can lead, when combined, to much larger things: inches to miles, small subgroups of instruments to full ensemble, seemingly rational choices to conflict and war. Written largely in just intonation, McIntosh's piece was as loud as Tholl's, but also featured passages of real beauty with sonorities reminiscent of the more tranquil bits of LIgeti's Atmospheres (cf. 2001).

And then all hell broke loose, with Nicholas Deyoe's aptly titles A New Anxiety. Deyoe derived his inspiration from the churning rhythmic and tonal pile-ons of the most unapologetically committed Death Metal bands. The result is uncompromising in its aggression but ultimately fascinating in its combination of seemingly impossible shifts of speed and direction, in its array of textural effects, and in its unrelenting insistence that it will not be ignored. At the center of the maelstrom, bassoonist Archie Carey roared away, his amplified instrument run back upon itself through looping and effects pedals in a reasonable approximation of the orc hordes of the Apocalypse. Carey was also called upon, whilst wailing bassonically, to assault a pan full of broken crockery repeatedly with a power drill. These descriptions may make the piece sound unlistenable, but my own reaction was the opposite: the rigorously disciplined, cleansing abandon of the piece broke through all resistance, leaving me wide eyed, nodding and grinning in stark amaze.

Post-intermission, peace and contemplation returned, at least on the surface. The bright lights of the first segment were dimmed for Christopher Rountree's For Allen Ginsburg, in which wildUp's eight string players first established a rich harmonic drone reminiscent of the pump harmonium with which the poet often accompanied himself. Rountree and others emerged from the darkness, placing small bouquets on the empty conductor's podium, before joining in a blossoming Sanskrit chant derived from the Heart Sutra (om gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā). 

The peaceful surfaces of Chris Kallmyer's Here We All Are, Moving Forward masked a guilty war-torn secret. Again the strings were the center of the piece, now joined by a quintet of percussionists tapping quietly on wooden boxes. As the strings perfomed an arrangement of a William Byrd Sanctus, the hushed patterns played by the percussionists mirrored the number of deaths, month by month, sustained by coalition forces in the Iraq war. In performance, this potentially gimmicky arrangement was surprisingly affecting, the wooden taptaptap beneath Byrd's hymn of praise reminding that in the midst of life we are in the midst of death, and that our own lives are bought sometimes with the unacknowledged death of others.

Score of casualties
To conclude the program, wildUp turned to Stravinsky's popular L'Histoire du Soldat ['The Soldier's Tale'], but with a typically wildUp-ian variation: rather than utilize the traditional text written by C.F. Ramuz, this performance turned to the alternative "American Soldier's Tale" written by Kurt Vonnegut in 1993. As Vonnegut told it, he was invited to narrate a performance of L'Histoire, but became incensed when he read the text: a whimsical tale of the devil, a violin, and a "soldier" who had nothing to do with the actuality of soldiering. Later, at the suggestion of George Plimpton, Vonnegut wrote his own version, drawing on the awful reality he knew well from his own World War II experiences. Vonnegut's version is acrid and foul mouthed, its rhymes a sarcastic counterpoint to the casual dreadfulness of the story he chooses to tell: the execution by firing squad in 1945 of Pvt. Eddie Slovik, the first and only US soldier to be executed for cowardice and desertion since the Civil War.

For this performance, Vonnegut's four characters—Soldier, General, MP Sergeant and "Red Cross Girl"—were perched on the upper level of the Armory space, the small mixed ensemble of musicians below. In Vonnegut's telling, Slovik is just the unluckiest mug in the world, tossed aside and crushed by way of "example," with strict precision and adherence to the Manual. The seeming jollity of Stravinsky's score, always deceptive, contrasted pungently with the sordid business of bureaucratized death.

So ended what Christopher Rountree declared the second full season for wildUp. Having now attended three wildUp events, I would not select this one as my favorite—January's "Ornithology" and April's "Brooklyn/LA" programs are running a dead heat for that title—but it displayed what are now the expected hallmarks of a wildUp show: intriguing new music and unexpected angles on older music, all of it played with skill, vigor, and a commitment to the ideal that even ostensibly "difficult" music can give pleasure and that The New is where you find it.


Top Photo, by the blogger: the Pasadena Civil War Memorial, Memorial Park, Pasadena, CA, across the street from the Armory. Middle Photo, by the blogger: Earplugs, thoughtfully supplied by wildUp. Lower Photo, by the blogger: Timeline of Iraq war casualties, with woodblock.