Silfra (CD review)

Hilary Hahn, violin;
Volker Bertelmann (Hauschka), prepared piano. DG B0016798-02.

I know what you’re asking: What the heck does “Silfra”
mean?  And what exactly is a “prepared
piano”? First things first. According to Wikipedia,
Silfra refers to an area “located in the Þingvallavatn Lake in the Þingvellir
National Park in Iceland.” It’s “a rift that is part of the divergent tectonic
boundary between the North American and Eurasian plates. By virtue of its
location in the Þingvallavatn, Silfra contains clear, cold water that attracts
scuba divers drawn to its high visibility and geological importance; divers are
literally swimming between continents. The rift claims a shallow depth nearest
to the bank, but deepens and widens further out.” The disc’s booklet note says
that the place “is preternaturally still, colored in shades of blue and green
not found anywhere else. To snorkel there in a snowstorm is to be suspended in
an ancient space, feeling tiny and surrounded in all directions by an unending
otherworldly landscape.”

Violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist/composer Volker
Bertelmann (who sometimes goes by the alias Hauschka when performing on the
prepared piano) took their inspiration from the “otherworldliness” of the
Silfra region to compose and improvise the twelve selections on the disc. So,
what we’ve got here is an experimental album of music recorded the first time
the performers played it. The participants tell us “there were no retakes.
These are the moments that brought these ideas to life.”  While it may not be high art, it is mostly

Oh, and what is a prepared piano? According to my Random House Unabridged Dictionary, it’s
“a grand piano that has been altered for some modern compositions by having
various objects attached to its strings to change the sound and pitch, and
performance on which typically involves playing the keys, plucking the strings,
slapping the body of the instrument, and slamming the keyboard lid.” Sounds
kind of wild, no? In this case, not quite. The twelve pieces of music Ms. Hahn
and Mr. Bertelmann perform sound sometimes hauntingly beautiful, sometimes
frustratingly common, yet continuously fascinating.

The first piece on the program they call “Stillness.” One
can understand why. It feels as though it’s simply floating out there in the
aether. Unfortunately, it’s very brief, under two minutes, and could have gone
on longer.

The second piece is just the opposite of the first.
“Bounce Bounce” sounds like an Ozark bluegrass hoedown. The artists tell us
they intended the music to represent unrest, a rubber ball bouncing back and
forth. I found it rather noisy.

“Clock Winder” was by far more to my taste, a series of
sounds like the innards of a clock in motion. It has a strangely disquieting
yet vibrantly humorous quality that is quite fetching.

And so it goes. Other tracks include “Adash,” with its
weird, occasionally eerie stretches of rhythms and vibrations. “Godot” is, as
the name implies, all about waiting, with Bertelmann’s prepared piano playing
any number of parts in a quiet conversation with Ms. Hahn’s violin. At a little
over twelve minutes, it’s the longest work on the disc.

“Krakow” is the most conventional piece on the program, a
lovely melody the performers made in advance of the other music. It is the
least gimmicky and sweetest music of the bunch in its lightly melancholy way.

I think you get the idea. Most of the music is serenely
forgettable, to be sure, yet its misty, atmospheric, impressionistic visions
and its varying harmonies and sensations beg one to listen again. Despite its
not being great, classic, or enduring music, it might just be something you
find yourself returning to a few times more than you initially anticipated. Of course,
it helps to have two world-class artists to bring it all off. Otherwise, it
would merely be a couple of people appearing to make it up as they go along.

Recorded and mixed at Greenhouse Studio, Iceland, in 2011,
the sound is fine for what it is, with Bertelmann’s piano contraption spread
widely across the soundstage and Ms. Hahn’s violin a bit more precisely
located. Depending on the tune, the sounds of the instruments can be slightly
vague or almost startlingly lifelike. But I don’t suppose the performers
intended any of their music to be particularly realistic in any traditional
sense, so the oddity of the sonics probably contributes to its overall
eccentric, experimental feel.


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