Hauschka & Hilary Hahn: Silfra

[3 June 2012]

By Max Feldman

You know what’s dead serious? German classical music label Deutsche Grammophon, that’s what. It was founded in 1898, meaning that it’s one of the oldest record labels still in existence, and it has spent the last century-and-a-bit pushing, yes, super-serious classical music. In fact, it’s totally ingrained in the production and the reception of classical music. It’s so ingrained that internal advertisements on the BBC’s dedicated classical music zone, Radio 3, go so far as to proudly announce that they play Deutsche Grammophon records on the station. It’s so very ingrained that the banner at the top of the label’s website reads “Deutsche Grammophon is classical music”.

Silfra is Hauschka’s first outing for Deutsche Grammophon. And it’s the second time he’s worked with Grammy-winning classical violinist Hilary Hahn, who appeared on “Girls” from 2011’s Salon Des Amateurs. This prompts us to ask some vital questions: does Silfra represent a key moment in the trajectory of Hauschka’s career? Is it a turning point that marks his moving from making “post-classical” music with avant-garde winks and electronic nudges to making conventional (i.e. “proper”) classical music? The very fact of Silfra‘s release on Deutsche Grammophon would seem to suggest so, and it all seems to be trying very hard to convince us of its own aesthetic authenticity.

Silfra is a series of totally and utterly improvised tracks that the duo recorded together in the well-famous Greenhouse Studios in Reykjavík in Iceland. They completely ignored all the stuff they had been preparing together since 2009, and set about recording an entirely new set of pieces – and, yes, these are definitely pieces rather than mere songs. But that pervasive notion of aesthetic authenticity presents us with two related problems that are quite difficult to solve.

The first problem is that Silfra lives in the past. This doesn’t mean that it’s a conservative record per se. It does, however, mean that it soundtracks a world that can never be anything but imaginary, and its conviction of its own aesthetic authenticity is purely notional – it can only ever be an idea. This deep self-seriousness makes Silfra rather frustrating. After all, there are tracks here with titles like “Adash” (a word from Old Testament Hebrew meaning “to tread” or “to trample on”) and “Godot” (which, yes, culture vultures, is clearly a Beckett reference), which goes on for an entire 12 minutes. Ultimately, Silfra is conflicted by the constant threat that the dead weight of intellectualist classical music tradition will topple any real sense of emotional resonance it might have.

The second problem is that Silfra is naïve. There’s something quite pretty about this sort of nostalgia, but nostalgia seems to be so inscribed into the music that nobody (not Hauschka, not Hahn, and certainly not the listener) is able to claw their way out of it. Here, nostalgia comes not in spite of the real world, but at its expense. Indeed, Silfra is the soundtrack to a world completely unaffected by the clattering hysteria of our contemporary cultural crises, of mass communication and mass consumption.

As we know, the buzzing, whirring imperfections of the prepared piano always conflict with classical sensibilities, but Silfra doesn’t ever challenge those sensibilities enough. This is particularly evident on the forlorn “North Atlantic” and the quiet, lilting “Krakow”. But they’re just symptomatic of where Silfra doesn’t ever get it quite right – it’s not broad, bold, or bustling enough to authentically capture what it tries so hard to get at.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/159009-hauschka-hilary-hahn-silfra/