New Classical Tracks: A Musical Puzzle 'In 27 Pieces'

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
February 12, 2014
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St. Paul, Minn. — In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores - (DG B0019103)

Making a cold call isn't easy. In fact, it can be downright uncomfortable. But that didn't stop violinist Hilary Hahn from making more than two dozen cold calls to solicit original compositions for her latest recording, In 27 Pieces.

In 27 Pieces is a collection of encore pieces Hilary Hahn commissioned from 27 different composers. "And then after I'd called everyone and knew who was going to participate, one goal that I'd always had was to have an open contest for one of the encores," she says. "And that last one was the 27th one by coincidence. So, I was born on the 27th of November, but other than that, there was no personal connection with that number in particular.

"And I just got to thinking, where are the new generations of encores? I love the older encores but I wanted to make sure that there would be pieces that, in the future, would also refer back to our era and the ideas that are here now. So I decided to do a project with commissioned encores. The concept seemed really easy. But what I didn't think about is the fact that each piece has its own sound world and I hadn't worked on music by a lot of these composers before, so I was also getting to know their musical language as I learned the pieces. So instead of a lot of short pieces, actually, it's a lot of musical experiences to live through. It has been a fantastic exploration for me."

Each composer was given just two guidelines: compose a piece for acoustic violin and piano, and make it five minutes in length or less. Hilary also interviewed all the composers to gain a better understanding of their intentions: "Some people said, 'Well, even if it's very difficult to play it that way, it's really necessary that it stay exactly the way I wrote it because it's a crucial aspect of the score at that moment.' Other people said, 'Eh, if the notes don't work for you, just change them and let me know.' One composer, Anton Garcia Abril wrote out something that makes sense on paper as a rhythmic thing. But then he said, 'I don't know how to write in the freedoms that I want, so here's how I hear these phrases.' Then he'd describe through demonstration how these rhythms are just a guideline. It was so interesting to see someone actually say that as a composer."

Nico Muhly had a very intentional musical conversation in mind when he wrote his piece titled Two Voices. "It's a musical dialog within the violin part," Hilary says. "The piano is a drone. [Muhly] was explaining to me in the course of one of our YouTube interviews that he's very interested in drones because it's a repetitive background noise that's always present. You notice it sometimes, and you don't notice it at other times, because these things are around us all the time. The refrigerator, the traffic — and those are very active parts of how we hear the world, so he wrote this into his piece."

Tina Davidson is another highly regarded American composer who agreed to write an encore for Hilary Hahn. Her piece is titled The Blue Curve of the Earth. "Well, she was in Wyoming, in an artist residency when she wrote it," Hahn recalls, "and the title refers to some photos she saw online from NASA of the Earth's edge. I think that's a very lyrical interpretation of this place that we are in the universe. It draws on a lot of different senses as well. I think her music ties into...line. Even though she writes fast-moving notes and different sound effects — it's all about the line and about the interweaving intricacies of how notes can illustrate an idea or an emotion. It's a beautiful piece."

As you explore these "27 pieces," you may be struck by the diversity of composers and the variety of traditions they represent. Hilary Hahn says that was her goal, and figuring out how to piece this musical puzzle together became a creative challenge. "I'm really happy with everyone who wrote pieces for this project," Hahn says. "I've learned so much from all of them. Also, playing their music has pushed me a lot. I had to learn how to play their pieces because most of the composers were new to me, so I didn't have a foundation in how to play their music. So I had to learn a lot about them and their styles before I could even approach their pieces and feel like I had an instinct for how to play them. So all of that has pushed me in different directions that were not always natural but now I'm so glad to be part of."

"In 27 Pieces: the Hilary Hahn Encores" album trailer


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