Where does a classical violinist go when Schoenberg and Stravinsky aren't edgy enough? In May of last year, Hilary Hahn went to Iceland, where she teamed with German composer/pianist Volker Bertelmann, a.k.a. Hauschka, to record "Silfra." The album takes its title from the rift near Reykjavík that marks the divide between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. And that rift describes what Hahn and Hauschka brought to the Institute of Contemporary Art Thursday evening: two plates — her violin, his prepared piano — confronting, caressing, cajoling, trying to find ways to fit together.
"Silfra" is basically a set of improvisations; on the CD's liner notes, the pair state, "We showed up with virtually no pre-planned material." The ICA concert, the last stop on a tour that had taken them through Europe, Japan, and the US, would be totally improvised, Hahn announced at the outset. Over the course of 70 minutes, they performed 11 duets. Hauschka's piano, its interior laden with rubber balls, ping-pong balls, marbles, bottle caps, aluminum foil, duct tape, and other odds and ends, can sound like a machine gun, a swarm of insects, a clip-clopping pony, or an entire percussion section. At the ICA, as on the album, he and Hahn wove in and out of each other's playing while exploring the full resources of their instruments.
The beauty of the result was largely in the ear of the listener. The 12 pieces on "Silfra" range from two to 13 minutes, and the longer ones, like "Rift" and "Godot," have a distinct shape. And if the titles — "Stillness," "Ashes," "Draw a Map" -— can seem arbitrary, they at least represent a starting point. On Thursday, there were no titles, and the pieces were all in the five-to-seven-minute range. Hauschka spent most of the evening playing short, loud, ostinato-like phrases; the predictability of his comping made improvisation easier but not more interesting. Hahn, when she was audible (a problem throughout the evening), showed off a formidable technique but not much melodic invention. Both performers were amplified; at one point, Hahn, with a wry smile, explained that the monitor on her boot was buzzing, and she kept fussing with her pedal. On "Silfra," she conjures seagulls and foghorns and Spanish Gypsies; none of that materialized at the ICA, even with seagulls swooping about outside.
Their conversation, what there was of it, was as unpretentious as their improvisation, and a lot funnier. As Hahn started in on the final piece, Hauschka took the various items out of his piano one by one and tossed them on the floor. Then, for the encore, he quickly attached half a dozen strips of gaffer tape to the strings, tearing the pieces from the roll with his teeth. It was a memorable moment in an evening of unmemorable musicmaking.