There is no violinist in the world today quite like Hilary Hahn. She is widely regarded as one of the most essential, daring, and intense artists of our time. Her Bach has been hailed as thrilling, incendiary, and one of the wonders of the Western world. A restlessly curious musician, she champions contemporary composers and opens herself up to other genres of music, pushing the boundaries of performing, and challenging her own classical identity.
She started playing the violin when she was almost four. She went from “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” to Bach in a few months. By the age of five, she was studying with the eminent pedagogue, Klara Berkovich, at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Hahn’s hometown. She learned as many pieces in one year as a music student would normally accomplish in five. At the ripe old age of ten, she auditioned for the famous violin teacher, Jascha Brodsky, at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He said this of her audition: “She performed with perfect intonation, and so musically I was flabbergasted. It was the only time in my life I said, ‘I want that girl!’”
At eleven, she gave her first concert as a soloist with a major symphony orchestra. At seventeen, she recorded three of Bach’s six sonatas and partitas, the touchstone of the violinist’s repertoire and the measure by which soloists and composers alike measure themselves. The recording was prodigious and established the teenager as an international star and a musical genius of the highest order. In 2018, some twenty years later, and in the midst of one of the most exciting of all classical careers, Hahn recorded the remaining three sonatas and partitas by Bach to complete the set. Hilary Hahn Plays Bach (Sonatas 1 & 2, Partita 1) is, yes, older and wiser, displaying a more spacious, introspective, and emotionally fearless artist. The long-awaited CD was met with massive audience and critical acclaim. It shot to #1 on the classical music charts.
I held one of the coveted tickets to Hilary Hahn’s solo Bach recital at Lincoln Center in the fall of 2018. The stage door opened and the star appeared—graceful, elegant, centered as a ballerina. As she began to play her gorgeous instrument, an 1865 Vuillaume, she sent out a voluminous sound that washed over the rapt audience with immense power, dynamic control, dazzling beauty, and purity. It was the kind of music you only hear in your dreams. I could hardly believe my ears. The audience agreed. The standing ovation she received was explosive and thunderous. Hahn applauded us back, placed her hand to her heart, mouthed thank you, bowed, and briskly left the stage. It was one of the greatest performances I have ever seen.
Hahn has so far released eighteen CDs and won three Grammy awards, most recently for In 27 Pieces: the Hilary Hahn Encores, her groundbreaking work with twenty-seven contemporary composers. She has personally arranged to have the score of every encore published in physical and digital formats. The two-volume edition of the encores from Boosey & Hawkes comes with her markings, bowings, fingering, in-depth notes, and composers’ commentary.
She has performed all over the world with the greatest orchestras and conductors and given 1,594 performances—and counting. She has reached beyond the classical world, playing with an alt-rock band, a folk singer-guitarist, and a mandolin musician. She has recorded an entire album of improvised music, Silfra, with Hauschka on prepared piano. Says composer Jennifer Higdon, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning violin concerto was written for and dedicated to Hahn, “She is all strengths.”
In my joyful encounter with Hahn for this interview, I found the great violinist to be warm, courteous, and so good-natured—a thoughtful person with a sweet laugh and deep intellectual and linguistic reserves. She talked about why Bach is a master of disguise, encores can feel like sculptures, and modern music doesn’t need all the explanations we try to give to it.
—Emily Fragos for Guernica
Guernica: You have said, “Bach always seems to change the room…You don’t have to go to the music, the music comes to you—but then it takes you somewhere else with it. It’s a beautiful thing. When I’m performing, I can feel that happening…You spin into a whole connected world with everyone who is in the same room.” What is it that we are hearing in Bach that is so transporting, so transcendent? Is this “connected world” a metaphor for the sublime?
Hilary Hahn: Well, that’s a great question. There is some mystery as to how Bach did what he did, because you can pick the music apart, you can analyze it, you can say he was brilliant because he did this, he did that; but when you are actually experiencing the music, there is something to be accomplished that is beyond the analytical.
One thing I really like about how people experience Bach is that some people hear the music as math, while other people hear it as the sublime, as you mentioned. It is remarkable that one composer can accomplish that range. He impresses the people who are looking at the facts about his music. He impresses the people who are looking at the effects of his music. That’s really rare.
I’m not a musicologist, I’m not a philosopher. I couldn’t say what is happening, but I do notice that every time I play Bach, it just changes a room. It can be a group of parents and their babies, a memorial service, a wedding, a beach wedding—not even a room. The music somehow brings people together and allows them to be in the moment and then it returns them to the world, having shared this experience and [having] had a very personal experience as well.
When I play the solo repertoire, the way Bach writes is pretty progressive. I believe he would be considered somewhat experimental even by today’s standards. He was a tonal composer as opposed to atonal or twelve-tone and he used acoustic instruments because he had nothing else; but when I listen to the progressive aspect of his music, I feel like he’s a master of disguise. You are going with him in one direction—you get there, but you realize you are not where you thought you were. You look around and notice a door, but when you get to the door, it’s a wall. You look around and notice that the floor you’re standing on is a trap door. You go down the trap door to what you think is the basement, but it’s the attic. Bach feels a lot like that—a really interesting fun house. The dimensions are different from a distance than when you get up close.
He does these great things with very complicated structures like fugues. Every detail seems to be completely in place. There’s a small picture and a big picture and the small picture fits into the big picture that unspools however the interpreter chooses to unspool it; but at the same time, it’s recognizably the same piece no matter who plays it.
Guernica: This lovely personification, “the music knows how it wants to be played,” is revelatory for me, because it allows me to see the notes on the page as human voices. How do you know you are allowing the beautiful, weaving voices of the violin to sound the way they want and need to sound? And, may I add, no one can make those voices speak, sing, or lament like Hilary Hahn.
Hahn: Oh, thank you very much. I was referring to the recording of any piece of music on any given day, when I said that. I think that when you’re a student, the teacher instructs you in a certain direction and you have the impression that the music is supposed to be played a certain way. You try to do everything you’re told, but how you form an interpretation after you’ve graduated and don’t have anyone’s input anymore is quite different. At that point, you go through a time when you’re trying to remember what everyone told you to do and you’re trying to work through what you see. After a while, it becomes more innate. You find certain patterns that feel more natural. You get to the place where you go with the flow or you decide what the flow is going to be. I think that’s a personality thing, a consistency thing. People work differently; they’re inspired by different things.
As for myself, I come at it from both directions. I try to make a plan and stick to it, which is a lot more work for me than having to prepare for many possibilities and adjust to what feels natural for that day. This is especially noticeable when I’m recording. I can play it and listen, play it and listen. I can hear it’s not working, if it’s not working, but I can’t mimic that unless I’m in the recording situation. If I hear it’s not working, I can’t force it to go with me. I may have to quickly decide: do I stick to the plan or do something I can do well today. I’ll need to get out of my head and listen as an outside listener, instead of trying to accomplish what I had in mind. If it doesn’t sound quite right, I’ll adjust and go with the music instead of trying to force the music to go with me. I love that feeling.
Also, for encores, I go that way. I have a certain number of pieces in my head, because they’re not listed in the program. I can warm up before a concert, touch on those pieces, see what feels most natural, good for that day. Sometimes when I’m going to play the encore, I change my mind when I’m literally a millimeter from the string, because something else wants to be played. I play that one.
It’s like a sculptor with a stone he is working with. He looks at the lines, the strengths, the weaknesses, the color variations. The stone is telling him the certain thing it wants to be. The sculptor looks at what the stone is telling him. That’s what he tries to do.
Guernica: I think of Bach’s “Chaconne” as the King Lear of music. In my opinion, it’s the most sprawling, majestic, profound, and demanding eighteen minutes of human forsakenness ever composed. What is it like to stand by yourself in the middle of a huge stage and play this music? As you are immersed in the music, are you aware of your power over the audience? When I saw you perform at Lincoln Center, I saw people wiping tears from their eyes.
Hahn: I hadn’t played a [Bach] solo recital until last fall. One thing I had to quickly grasp was that any self-doubt was pointless during a solo recital. I could not second-guess myself, even if I wasn’t sure whether something was working or not. I had to just pick a route and take it! [laughs]
Being decisive helped me be in the moment, because it’s hard to keep yourself in the moment when you’re alone onstage. You can drift, you can doubt yourself, you can be passively listening to yourself, you can be picky about being onstage by yourself for a long time. That can be pretty daunting.
The first time I gave a recital, it was a home concert. I was thinking to myself, Wow, I’m going to be doing this for the next hour-and-a-half for these twenty people. I don’t know what this is going to be like. I didn’t like that feeling, doubting if I was actually in the moment, doubting if the interpretation was working. I knew I was going to do it, I was committed to do it, but it was kind of like running your first marathon or sitting down to write a novel. Can I? By the second half, I was saying to myself, Oh, I’m halfway done! Then, Oh, I’m two-thirds done! Maybe I’m learning to do this!
There are good mechanisms when you work with other people. You can keep track of the pacing, check to see whether the interpretation is on a mutual track, be aware of everything around you, but those mechanisms are not helpful in a solo recital. There is no one to check against—except myself, so it felt undermining, rather than inspiring, to be asking myself all those questions, if I was going to be able to do a powerful performance.
An audience can sense reticence or doubt or the fact that you’re not completely present if you convey those things, which is not necessarily a bad thing, because sometimes it’s good to convey those experiences that everyone can relate to.
I can’t say what it feels like for everyone, but I found a way to be nowhere else but in every note, in that moment, in that place, with those people—and that feels truly amazing. It’s a very focused and bonded experience for me, even though I’m all alone onstage for the entire length of the performance. I also feel very free, in that I don’t have to be aware of whether it makes sense to other people, which I enjoy when I’m playing with other musicians, but this is a novel thing. I can take all the time I want, I can speed up all of a sudden, I can just follow a train of thought and zone out of everything else. I’m in the right place in every moment, because there’s no other place to be—by default.
I take it as an interesting challenge if I sense that the audience is distracted. At the beginning of a concert, for the first ten or fifteen minutes, sometimes people bring everything with them; they haven’t processed their day yet, they’re finding their place in the program, and everyone is figuring out how to be together. Every recital is different. It’s a great experience.
Guernica: I love how you use your body as an expressive instrument, a dancer’s body, to go along with the violin. You lift and dip and sway to the music.
Hahn: I took ballet lessons as a kid. I was never good at it. I could never remember the sequence of steps. The physicality of certain pieces adds to the experience of listening to them and seeing them. I’ve been thinking of this lately, because I’ve been playing a lot of Prokofiev 1 [“Prokofiev Violin Concerto no. 1”]. It demands certain motions to make certain sounds happen. A composer who thinks about the visual side will write stuff to make the performer move in a certain way. There are different sets of motions to different parts of the writing. I’ve never asked a composer about this—I don’t know if they do it intentionally—but there have got to be some composers who are thinking of this, because it’s so obvious.
The way you physically play a piece affects how the audience takes in the music. People are visual when they attend a performance. They take in the picture and the sound, although there is a different proportion for each person as to what they pay attention to.
I don’t think you should act, unless you want to exaggerate what you’re feeling to bring it across to the audience. You can do a performance in many different ways, but you should always be true to yourself. The physicality of playing shouldn’t be tamped down. It’s something that enhances.
Guernica: I’d like to ask you about your Grammy award-winning CD, In 27 Pieces: the Hilary Hahn Encores. You commissioned twenty-six encores by twenty-six contemporary composers. You had a contest to choose the twenty-seventh. What was the process for learning twenty-seven brand new musical languages of dizzying variety and complexity, making each encore entirely your own, and finding the strange beauty in each piece? I feel overwhelmed just asking the question.
Hahn: I kind of miscalculated the project in a sense. I hadn’t worked with that many contemporary composers I’d never played before. I was using my experience and adding up the number of minutes it takes me for this arc of time—thirty minutes, say—to get into a violin concerto. I figured that’s about what it would take to get into six or seven encores. I wasn’t thinking that the highest bar to clear is the initial familiarity with a composer’s writing; I thought it was incremental by time. It was interesting to run up against that many different styles. I kept each composer and each piece in a different compartment of my mind and I’d move on to the next. I gave myself whiplash!
Guernica: You spoke of learning each composer’s grammar, syntax, line flow, and patterns so you could begin to appreciate the beauty of the language. It sounded like you were unpacking a poem.
Hahn: It kind of is. That’s what phrasing is. Phrasing is what an actor does when he gets a script that offers no information about the role, or studying an intricate poem you’re going to read for the first time. There are so many options.
Really, a score is sort of a relative indicator of what the composer wants. This note is approximately that much higher than that note, this note is approximately that much longer than that note. This is the approximate tempo. It’s almost impossible to replicate the same tempo from day to day, because you have a different heart rate. All of these things are goals, relative indicators.
Words can mean so many different things. Put an ellipsis at the end of a line and it can change the whole line’s meaning. In instrumental music, there are no words, just the notes. How does this emotion work with this type of accent. There is a lot of decision-making and a lot of intuition that add up to make an interpretation. Also, there’s stylistic stuff that doesn’t fall into the interpretative category that might be specific to each composer.
For example, one composer on the project would write rubato and he meant to start slowly and catch up, while another composer meant the opposite. I had to have conversations with those composers to find that out. You would think a word would mean the same thing. I had to play each piece for each composer to be corrected. What you see on the page, what does the composer intend; with contemporary composers, you have the luxury to ask.
Another composer wrote extremely technically challenging music. There were indicators on every note: tonal, dynamic, fingering, bowing. Almost every note was marked up and he wanted every note to be played as marked. Yet another composer gave no indications in the music. He said, “Tell me what feels right for you to play. Tell me what notes to change. Actually,” he said, “I like how you’re doing it. I’m going to change that little descriptive indicator at the beginning and put your notes in the final score. It works better that way.”
Aside from your own interpretation, you have to have an individual understanding of who the composer is, what they’re thinking. Composers don’t always exactly remember what they were thinking five years after. They’ll pull out the score, get back in the zone, and try to remember. Half of the time, they’ll say, “This is what I meant” or “this is what I probably meant.” If they’re not concrete on any level, the conversation can still lead you to an answer.
Guernica: When a lot of people hear the words “classical music,” they think of Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven. You’re a champion of contemporary composers. Can you talk now about the continuum of classical music?
Hahn: There’s a continuum in playing; there’s a generational passing of knowledge. A famous, established composer like Mozart or Beethoven occupies a certain time frame. We have a birth date, a death date. Fifty years later, this other famous composer wrote this piece; but in all the intervening years, every single day, people were writing music. When a composer lives may not be the time when their work is most popular; it may not be the time of their influence. Nowadays, tomorrow, next day, something is being written and we don’t know what will stick around. Something may be revised in 100 years. We can’t plan for that. We’re connected to the music being written today, because it reflects the relevancy of our time, our ideas.
People search for music history in biographies and in composers’ letters to friends or partners or anyone. They try to understand where the composers of the past were coming from, but it’s hard to understand someone else’s life, hard to put yourself in their time. We don’t know what it was like to live without electricity, without medicine. We can only imagine—and I’m speaking from a privileged perspective. There are still places in the world that don’t have those things.
With contemporary composers, we don’t need to do that search. There may be other questions to ask, but we don’t need to know what it means to live in this time. A lot of effort goes into explaining contemporary music, but it doesn’t need the explanations we try to give to it. We don’t need to be told what we’re supposed to hear and what it’s about. It’s coming from our world. We take for granted the political, social, musical context—these experiences we’ve heard of, if not shared.
I was at a concert and the lady sitting next to me asked me if I liked the contemporary piece we had just heard. To her, I was just a concertgoer. I hadn’t performed or anything. I thought that was a funny question to ask. I didn’t feel compelled to like it. I don’t listen to something to see if I like it or not. It’s fine and even good to not like a modern piece of music. An uncomfortable piece is also a provocative experience. I think she was looking for validation for her experience. I suppose she wanted to hear what it was about, but it can be whatever you want it to be. It’s a shared experience. Perhaps she didn’t like it and felt she needed to like it. That’s an interesting effort, but it’s a bit binary. You don’t need to like something. That shouldn’t be the starting point for contemporary music. If it means something to you, it stays. If it doesn’t, it moves away from you. You find something else. There are so many ways to experience music. There are so many layers of continuity—performers, audiences, composers.
Guernica: The opera star Montserrat Caballé once said, “When I am not singing, I have the feeling that I do not exist.” Is that too dramatic or too lofty a statement for a thoroughly modern virtuoso? Can you relate to it?
Hahn: How do you read her meaning?
Guernica: That she felt most alive, essential, and expressive when she was singing. That when she was not singing, she did not feel all there.
Hahn: That’s something I’ve actually heard many artists say. I’m not surprised to hear it. I don’t find it lofty or not lofty. It was her reality and I can believe it. She said that about herself, so, sure, it probably was true for her.
I can get grumpy if I don’t practice. I can tell that I get a little antsy. It’s weird, because I don’t love or hate to practice. I don’t have to play the violin to have a good day. [laughs] I’ve been doing it for so long, for so many days of my life. I travel a lot, I’m in a lot of different places every week. The violin is something I always have, a constant, when everything else changes. Of course, it changes for me day by day, but it’s like people who go to the gym or practice yoga every day. If they’re not doing that, they’re still themselves, but they have a funny energy that hasn’t been focused or been shed.
Playing the violin has been that thing that grounds me, and that’s not something I ever expected would be the case. Usually, if I don’t have a concert, I’m not working on anything in particular. I find that having to prepare for a concert is inspiring for practice, because I have that deadline; but, coincidentally, on days when I’m practicing, I know what I accomplish. It’s a familiar, long-term thing and there’s satisfaction in having a good or bad practice day. There’s satisfaction in working on one little thing. Even if I don’t accomplish anything, I know what’s what.
Guernica: You have described the concert experience—the audience out front, the orchestra onstage, and you in the middle of it all—as a beautiful, big arc. That’s such a pretty picture. I see the concert event with a fresh spirit of communality, tenderness even.
Hahn: There’s nothing like performing. It’s a very special experience. I have a lot of specific knowledge of what I’m doing when I perform. There’s not much else I have done that much since the age of four or five. Everyone is in the same place. There’s a high level of adrenaline, combined with an intense focal point and the energy of everyone in the room. It’s hard to find that anywhere else. Music plays a role in my life and it’s really unique. When I’m not doing it, that experience isn’t replaced by something else.