Next Tuesday marks the release of Hauschka’s latest project, Silfra, a duet recording with world-renowned classical violinist Hilary Hahn, on Universal/Deutsche Grammophon. The recording features twelve strictly improvised tracks captured in pristine fashion by producer Valgeir Sigurõsson, known for his work for with Björk, Camille and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.
“At times joyous and at others grippingly unsettling, Silfra can be adored on its evocative merits as beautiful instrumental music in the lineage of vanguard neo-classical pioneers.”
Silfra, named for the geographic feature near Reykjavik, Iceland, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, represents the breathtaking locale where the album was recorded but also signifies the unfamiliar terrain where these two distinct musical minds met to collaborate.
Spending ten days at Greenhouse Studios in Reykjavik in May 2011, “We felt that we could go anywhere we wanted within the music we created it in an environment that allowed us the freedom and independence to explore”, the pair explain in the album’s liner notes. That prepared piano and violin could sound so perfectly suited is surely indicative of the musical chemistry that their groundwork and setting created. Ranging from the exotic to the serene and from the atmospheric to the playful, Silfra is phenomenally intriguing and spans a breadth of emotions and styles.
Hahn and Hauschka’s ambitious and innovative musical partnership began in early 2009. Their paths crossed on a suggestion from a mutual friend, folk musician and Hauschka labelmate Tom Brosseau. “Tom had mentioned Hauschka more than once as someone I must meet,” recalls Hahn, who appeared on Brosseau’s 2007 Grand Forks album and performed on his subsequent tour. “And Tom doesn’t casually toss around ideas like that, so I paid attention,” she adds.
After a backstage introduction in Hauschka’s current home-town Düsseldorf and a brief guest appearance onstage in San Francisco, Hahn and Hauschka began to trade music and meet for free-form improvisation sessions. When they eventually arrived at Greenhouse Studios, they did so without set artistic intentions or musical sketches. In fact, they weren’t even committed to the idea of releasing the resulting music commercially. Their goal was to challenge themselves to find their musical voice as a duo, integrating the prevailing mood and their spontaneous impressions into their recordings. Hahn offers, “You’re hearing exactly what evolved at the moment it came to life, in every second of this album. It was such a rewarding experience making the record that I get a little nostalgic when I hear it.”
Hauschka, the musical alias of Düsseldorf, Germany-based Volker Bertelmann, is predominantly known throughout both the classical and experimental music worlds for his seven albums since 2004 that explore the possibilities of the prepared piano. By modifying the piano’s innards with an assortment of odds and ends such as gaffer tape, aluminum foil, bottle tops, bells and ping pong balls he transforms the pure tuned instrument into mini rhythm sections.
Inspired by prepared piano forefathers from Eric Satie and John Cage to contemporary performers like Max Richter and Yann Tiersen, Bertelmann is a prolific musician whose work has continually developed from his early solo improvisations to include electronic elements. Rather than striving for any purist academic perfection, Volker’s playing is as much informed by modern electronica or Indonesian gamelan as it is by any classical canon.
No stranger to collaboration, Volker is a member of Music A.M. along-side Stefan Schneider (To Rococco Rot). He’s also worked with novelist and former Long Fin Killie frontman, Luke Sutherland, San Francisco’s Magik*Magik Orchestra and has recorded with members of acclaimed bands Calexico and múm, both of whom contributed to his last solo release, Salon Des Amateurs, his homage to electronic dance music.
In addition to his records, Bertelmann scored the feature film Glueck, produced by Constantin Film and directed by Doris Doerrie. His videos have been twice nominated for the UK Music Video Award and in 2010 he composed music for two major theater pieces at the Frankfurt and Düsseldorf Schauspielhaus. His evocative compositions have also been used in the world of dance: ‘Red Pencil’ was used by Ballet Austin in 2011 and Stephen Shropshire used his music in his piece ‘Dance Work Orange’.
The piano is prepared when “preparations” (consisting of nearly any conceivably applicable object or material) are inserted between the strings or onto the hammers of the instrument; a wider application of the term takes in all manner of additional modifications that expand the sonic and operative possibilities of the piano.
Hauschka has successfully combined the chamber music aspect of prepared piano much like composers Henry Cowell, John Cage, Christian Wolff, Max Richter, Maurice Delage, and Arvo Pärt with pop, rock, and electronic sensibilities.
Hauschka has collaborated with Torsten Mauss as the club/electronic duo Tonetraeger. Bertelmann often releases more than one Hauschka album a year, such as 2005’s Substantial and Hauschka: The Prepared Piano and 2007’s Versions of the Prepared Piano and Room to Expand. With 2008’s Ferndorf, which featured a string duo, Bertelmann reached a new level of prominence; the Snowflakes and Carwrecks EP followed in 2009. Hauschka collaborated with San Francisco’s Magik*Magik Orchestra on the following year’s full-length Foreign Landscapes, and 2011’s Salon des Amateurs featured members of Calexico and mum.