Interview: Why Violinist Hilary Hahn Will Never Just Stick to the Classical Repertoire

Violinist Hilary Hahn made her debut with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra when she was just 12-years-old. She was signed to a recording contract at age 16. Since then, Hahn has not just established herself as an accomplished and innovative performer of classical music, focusing on composers from Bach to Ives, but she has also proved willing to take on out-of-the-box projects, such as her recent album Silfra (2012), a collection of improvised compositions made in collaboration with avant-garde pianist Hauschka (Volker Bertelmann). Ahead of her performance with the Dallas Symphony this week, we chatted with Hahn about performing and how following her interests keeps the music fresh.

FrontRow: You perform so many concerts like the one coming up this week with the Dallas Symphony, in which you fly in to a new place, meet a conductor and an orchestra, and quickly put together a performance of a piece. What is the routine like, and how do you go about approaching the interpretation of the work, in this case the Korngold violin concerto?

Hilary Hahn: Well, this week for travel it has been a little different because I wanted to avoid the storm. I was supposed to come in yesterday [Monday] afternoon from Ohio, and I just didn’t know how much the storm would hit Ohio. So I flew in early [Monday] morning. Now I’m practicing and doing the administrative side of this career. Everything takes a certain amount of balancing. For the Korngold itself, I really love this piece, and I love working, of course, with [Dallas Symphony Musical Director] Jaap [van Zweden]. I’ve just been trying to be as thorough as I can. Actually, earlier this week, I played this with an orchestra in Ohio that consists of professionals, students, and amateurs, and it was really fun because a lot of them had never played the Korngold before and they were discovering it. So it was fantastic to see the reactions from different performers. I find that the rehearsal process with different groups also shapes how I practice. Like some orchestras work on certain details, and some orchestras work on concepts, and some conductors work on aspects – and all of those things give me new ideas about how I can approach the piece.

FR: Have you started talking to Jaap about the piece?

FR: Well I’ve worked with him in a few different places, and it has been very challenging repertoire. I kind of know what he can do, and I don’t think he has limits, so just knowing that going into it is helpful for me – just knowing how he works and what the process is likely to be. We haven’t spoken about the Korngold interpretation yet; we’ll do that before first rehearsal. But I do feel like I know how it can go. I know the direction it can go in. and also working with him, I feel like I am very free to try things that occur to me. So I practice – that’s one of the things I practice for. So I practice for lots of different options in the moment on stage. I practice it in different ways. Or if it is an orchestra that has a certain way of playing it, I really try to get to where they are playing it and try to make it work as a whole in that way. There is a different kind of adaptation with every group, and those adaptations are not compromises, they’re advantages because they push me in different directions.

FR: The Silfra project was quite a different project for you because it was a completely improvised album. Did you pursue the project because you wanted to challenge yourself in that way, to make an album in which you weren’t interpreting a score that had already been written?

HH: It was a combination of things. There were a few gaps in my musical experience that I hoped at some point to fill. Also it was mostly about the collaboration. I really wanted to work with Hauschka on something, and we figured out how through meeting for about two years and working on music from different perspectives. We knew that we wanted to create something new – new for us – and not something that was adopted from something else. I have worked with singer-songwriters, which has been a great experience for me, but they have written their songs already. There is a structure, but I improvise within it. So it is kind of open, but kind of defined already. I knew how that works, but I didn’t know how people got there. I didn’t know how people got from nothing to something.

I played classical music for a long time where everything is already done when you get the score, but then you have to interpret it, and the interpretation is as improvisatory as improvising from silence is. It is just a different way of looking at it. When you improvise form interpretation you have certain dramatic ideas, you have a certain structure. But you know that everything that is in that is relative and flexible. Even pitch can be a matter of interpretation. Rhythm is relative. As long as one note is kind of shorter than the other, then you are doing what’s written. And the amount that you stretch it around that structure is pretty much okay. It is the same for dynamic levels and the overall pacing of the performance: that changes the whole impression of the performances. So if I look at it that way I had done improvising, I had improvised notes, I just haven’t come up with something from nothing before.

I had been working with composers a lot lately and I was really fascinated with their creative process and hearing them talk about it. But the whole thing is getting notes out, which was mysterious for me. I feel I’m not a composer, but I have a better idea of how you create music from doing this project.  And the reason we settled on improvising from scratch pretty much each time we play was that when we tried doing other things it wasn’t as satisfying — it didn’t feel as true to the collaboration. And now when we are touring, we have little things that we quote sometimes and we do have ideas of where we are going to go with something, but they are more conceptual. It is not like we have a piece written out that we improvise on. We know where we are going but we don’t know how we are going to get there.

FR: You recorded Silfra in Iceland, and it feels at times that the evocative nature of the place seeps into the record. Was that part of it the reason of going to that place to make this album?

HH: It was. I’m not sure if it was as significant as people might imagine. One thing to keep in mind about Iceland is that it is incredibly supportive of the arts, and the musicians and the artists that live there have a lot of freedom. At the same time it is a small place. They are all in touch with each other; they are aware of what is going on in that scene; and they participate in each other’s work. So you are connected with all these other people who have these ideas, so I think that creates a bit of an Icelandic scene. It is incredibly nice to step into. Also working on something artistic in Iceland, I think because there is not the pressure of a gigantic city around you – Reykjavik is big, but it is big for Iceland – you don’t have the hustle and bustle, but you have space. When you are in Iceland you have this feeling that there is a lot of space around you. And there’s room to think. Also, we were recording at a time of year when there was a lot of daylight. So the days were long, and we weren’t shut in by the passage of time. So it could be 3 o’clock, or it could be 11 p.m. and we wouldn’t necessarily be sure which one it was. So we would just work and work while we had the ideas, and we were done we would move on. Of course it is a beautiful place, so you can’t deny that. You know that that is out there if you hit a roadblock one day. Knowing that you have that option is liberating.

FR: Throughout your career you seem to take on projects that force yourself out of yourself, out of the rut or routine of being a full-time touring classical performer. I suppose there is a risk in that, that you make yourself vulnerable taking on these kinds of projects. Is that what you are looking for?

HH: I think you can look at it a couple of different ways. You can look at it from the perspective of what people expect, and what they will be excited about and disappointed by. But that is not necessarily what you need as an artist. Then there’s looking at it like, “What do I really want to do, and what will help me continue to be creative, and what will lead me towards being the artist that I want to be in the end.” And you can also think about it like, “Well, at the end of my career, what is it that I want to have accomplished.” And I’m kind of at the point where I’m doing the second of those things and surprised by what I have done. And it is not necessarily a big master plan, but I look at the number of recordings I’ve made and I’m kind of shocked sometimes.

I think with a project like this — it was just following my curiosity. I always get inspired by working with people who have a slightly different creative process from me. And they don’t have to be musicians either. They can be photographers or filmmakers, or people like composers — or colleagues like Hauschka who work in a slightly different field, but also are musicians and performers. So this project for me was just, “Well, I want to work with Hauschka,” and mutual friends had introduced us and we would be at each other’s shows, because we just happened to be in the same cities three times in a row in the course of three months.

If you think too much about what others may want of you, it is then that you end up forcing yourself into something. I don’t think of this of forcing myself out of any particular category or path, it is more just following my interests. But if I were to not follow my interests, I would be forcing myself into a certain path or a certain category. So I think that I need to keep doing these things that interest me because that is what keeps me thinking about the music that I do. I am primarily a classical musician. In my mind I identify myself as a classical musician. So I’m not challenging that in any way, but enhancing it.