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Laurie Niles interview with Hilary Hahn: Ives Sonatas

October 11, 2011 at 6:38 PM

Once again violinist Hilary Hahn has dived headlong into a set of worthy compositions that many of us have overlooked, and presented us with a fully realized argument for their consideration.

Today Hilary releases Ives: Four Sonatas, recorded with pianist Valentina Lisitsa. The duo toured for several years with these sonatas, and the CD package includes performance notes written by Hilary Hahn herself, as well as program notes by Robert Kirzinger.

Hilary Hahn

Though Charles Ives (1874-1952) is perhaps best-known for his compositions such as "Three Places in New England," Symphony No. 3 (for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1947) and "Variations on America," the composer's four sonatas for violin and piano, written in the 1910s, reflect much of what the composer was all about: American music, experimentation, and beauty of melody. While the first Sonata is in fairly traditional form, movements from the sonatas carry the titles, "Autumn," "In the Barn," and "The Revival." The fourth sonata is subtitled, "Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting," and contains a good many quotes from church hymns.

Ives was the son of a band leader who liked conducting experiments such as having two bands play different tunes at once from different sides of the town square. Ives became a church organist at the age of 14, and after studying composition at Yale University, he went on to make his living as an insurance agent. His music seems to synthesize much about that time in history, spanning both the late Romantic period and early 20th century, with harmony, dissonance, melody and the dissolution thereof. Much to ponder here.

I spoke over the phone with Hilary a few weeks ago when she was in Birmingham, Alabama to play the Edgar Meyer Violin Concerto with the Alabama Symphony. On Thursday she will be in Cincinnati for a recital with Valentina Lisitsa, in which they will premiere 13 new works she commissioned for her project In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores.

Laurie: How've you been? I see you've been interviewing fish lately!

Hilary: (laughs) It's interesting how people are reading into that interview -- different interpretations my friends have. It's been as entertaining as actually doing the interview.

Laurie: I liked it. I do all these interviews all the time, and I thought, 'That sounds exactly like me!' (laughs)

Hilary: In fact, it was not my intention, I was not trying to criticize any journalist. It's just kind of funny, what the responses have been!

Laurie: I think it's kind of one of those, 'What do you see in this ink blot?' You can put whatever you want there.

Hilary: Yes…

Laurie: Anyway, let's dive into Ives, here. Something that you mentioned in the liner notes really struck me: that you and Valentina never lost enthusiasm for the sonatas, even under the intense circumstances of recording them. I wondered if you had any thoughts about what makes these pieces continue to be interesting for you.

Hilary: I thought about this a lot since we recorded them. When learning the Ives, I think you have to put it together, logically, in order to internalize the music. But once you internalize it, it has its own life. With these particular pieces, we go out on stage and we kind of know what we want to do -- but that's just what we want to do, it's not want the music wants to do. It's very strange, this repertoire has such determination: some nights there's this rhythmic impulse in a certain part, then other nights there's a need to linger… you just have to follow that.

I think his notation is just a way to get the music to the player, and then the player initiates a lot of things about the interpretation based on what the piece wants to be doing on that given evening. Because they are kind of complex at any given moment, you can focus on one thing, or you can focus on another.

For example, I'm working on the first sonata from the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin again right now. One reason they are so intriguing is there's so little written in the music. There's the notes, but there are very few markings, as far as phrasing and other things are concerned. Ives actually writes a fair amount in the music, but it's only the basics, as it turns out. There's a lot that he doesn't even reference that you can do with it. It's very creative music to start with, and there's a lot of room (for more interpretation.) He takes traditional melodies and he makes it his own, he re-sets it.

Laurie: I found it was really interesting, the way a melody would come up, but he'd never stay on it long enough to really hang your hat on it. He'd always turn in a different direction…

Hilary: It's kind of like a melody passing through your head, you follow it until it runs itself out, and then it becomes something else.

Laurie: I thought the harmony was kind of the same way, too. Something would start to sound really harmonious, and as soon as I would start groovin' on it, it runs in another direction.

Hilary: The music does turn on a dime, but as a player, you can follow that or not. It just kind of depends on how it's all falling together in that particular concert.

Laurie: You know, I did not realize how rhythmically complex these pieces were until I decided to go out and get some of the music -- I was looking at the second sonata. Even when I was looking at the music the first time, I thought, this is in 3/4, in the key of C, doesn't look too complicated. But then, looking at it closely, it's pretty rhythmically complex!

Hilary: It is. It's not easy to put together. I thought that I knew what the piece was, when I learned the violin part. Then I got into the room with the pianist, and it was a whole different piece. I had to re-learn it, with the piano.

Laurie: Listening to what you did, and looking at the music, I thought, this has to come a long way before this music on the page becomes that interpretation. I wondered what your strategy was for taking something that is rhythmically and harmonically complex and drilling down to the music.

Hilary: I just try to get it into my system. Somehow these patterns -- that I didn't create -- have to make sense to me. The same thing goes for phrasing; I have to find where the phrases are and they have to make sense to me so that I can carry that on into an interpretation. Sometimes it happens more quickly than others. Sometimes I really struggle, and other times it feels like I've been playing the music already for years, even if I've never heard it before.

Laurie: I was also wondering, just listening to all four of these, if someone wanted to make these sonatas part of their repertoire, which would be the best one to start with? What are some techniques that a person might either need -- or learn -- by doing them?

Hilary: Of course it's easy to say that they should start with the fourth, because it's the shortest and seems like it would be the most accessible. But you can start anywhere you want. I think people should listen to all four and see what they hear in them. Which one gives you the most ideas for what you want to do with it when you play it? That's what I do when I'm trying to pick from a set -- I ask, which one do I feel compelled to play, for some reason?

We started with the third sonata, and I'm really glad we did -- it's really hard to put together! We couldn't just kind of skim by; it wasn't a little, bite-sized piece. It was actually diving into the deep end. In that sonata, a lot of the things we would identify with are kind of hidden, so I really had to re-inspect what I was doing with the music when I got it. I thought I knew what I wanted to do, but I had to un-do that first, in order to be able to build up my knowledge of the piece.

I think when something feels really short, easy, accessible, you're not forced to dig into the very core of the music. That's why I'm glad we started with the one we started with.

But you do have to have a great pianist for these pieces.

Laurie: It seemed to me that these pieces have a pretty substantial piano part. It's certainly not violin, accompanied by piano.

Hilary: But the violin doesn't accompany the piano, either. It's an interesting exchange that the violin and piano have. I think that both are equally important; I think that Ives was really pushing the piano to its limits, to get what he wanted out of it. The violin is challenged in other ways. I enjoy playing the violin parts, they're amiable, they're emotional, they're quirky, very melodic and also there's this underlying rhythmic drive that you can choose to emphasize or not. I would not say they're technically forbidding, but I would say it's a challenge for a duo. You have to have somebody who's going to put in the time to work on it with you, when you're doing the violin part with the piano part.

These pieces (by Ives) were a completely new language to me, when I learned them. And since then, I have actually used everything I learned in them in various contexts, whether it's a piece I've known for a while and I just applied something I learned in the course of the Ives Sonatas, or whether it's something written since the Ives Sonatas, something that draws on those techniques of composition that he used. There's a lot of music that derives from the things Ives innovated, whether consciously derived or not. If you can build up your knowledge of the repertoire so that you have played some Ives, a lot of other things will make more sense. I didn't realize how much Ives is related to other, more contemporary music.

So even if you don't intend to perform them, if you can find someone who wants to work on them with you, then you can both learn a lot. You learn a lot about playing with a duo partner, as well. You have to be independent performers, but you have to be acutely aware of what the other person is doing at any time, you have to know where you're supposed to play, so you have to know what to back off of interpretively and where you can initiate ideas.

Laurie: Was it that interaction, that informed you about other kind of repertoire?

Hilary: It was more the rhythmic structure of it, and the kinds of passages he writes. It was actually more how it's written for violin… I don't know how to describe it. The experience of playing the violin part in the duo -- that's what challenged me the most, and that's what I learned the most from.

Laurie: In what other pieces did you find those echoes of Ives?

Hilary: Well, I first learned the one Ives sonata, and then the next season we programmed the rest of the set -- we programed three more Ives sonatas. At that time, I was also getting ready for the premiere of the (Jennifer) Higdon Concerto. So what Jennifer had written was new to me, what Ives had written was new to me… I got to the point where I was trying to learn so much new stuff -- just new ways of writing that I had never experienced before. I thought my brain was going to explode. So I had to take a break from the Ives and go to the Higdon. And I realized that there was a lot that I'd already learned, in the work I'd done on the Ives, that I could apply to the Higdon concerto. Since then, I've noticed it in a lot of places. I can't really name them off the top of my head, but things are influential without even realizing that they are. I don't know if it's a zeitgeist thing, or if it's that one person hears it and that person becomes influential, or if the material itself is influential, but there is definitely a continuum.

Laurie: Since we are speaking of sonatas, here's a little controversy: Should a violinist have the sheet music out, when performing a sonata with a pianist? A number of influential teachers argue that this is an absolute must because a sonata is chamber music.

Hilary: Well, I think you have to be practical with these things. The reality for me is that I'm near-sighted, and I don't like playing with contacts or glasses when I want to look at the violin.

I have very good close-up vision when I'm playing; it doesn't bother me to look at the bow. But if I'm wearing glasses or contacts when I'm playing, then my eyes aren't comfortable looking at the contact point with the bow; the closest I can look is my left-hand fingers, and for some reason, since I was six years old, I've always felt compelled to look at the bow contact point when I was on stage. I don't watch it constantly, but I need to be able to look there, and it actually gets in the way to wear glasses or something that would help me see the music.

And if I'm not looking at the violin, I don't play as well. I've noticed in recording sessions where I wasn't required to memorize the music -- and everyone else noticed it, too -- there was a night and day difference between when I played from the music and when I left the music aside and played by memory.

Mr. Brodsky said that I should have the sheet music because it looks funny if the violinist doesn't have it and the pianist has it. So I had it up there for a long time, but then it looked even weirder because I wasn't even looking at it, I was standing five feet away from it, because where I stand on the stage, I stand so that I can see the pianist's hands, I don't stand in the bend of the piano. So if I had it in actually the right place to look at, it would block the pianist. So I have to have it so far away, that there's no way I'm going to see it. In order to turn the page I have to walk all the way across the pianist -- walk in front of the pianist and turn the page. So I was turning the pages between movements, just for show, and I thought, that's even sillier. So for me, I play better without it, it's less of an awkward set-up, and I can't use it anyway because I can't see it. So I think you have to take practicality into consideration. If you're using the music, fine. If you're not using it, you can decide what you want to do.

Laurie: That adds a good dimension to this conversation; I don't think anyone's mentioned vision concerns.

Hilary: I notice this with discussions about shoulder rests, bow grip, vibrato, this kind of thing… people are always concerned about what the "right way" is, and honestly, half of the reason I hold my bow a certain way is because of how my hand is built. People are comfortable vibrating with different coordinations. Everyone has a slightly different combination of features and coordinations, and you just have to work it out for yourself, to make sure things are really working for you, not just seeming to work. They shouldn't look like they work and feel weird. You have to feel like it's working. That's what you build up over years of performing: that knowledge of yourself and the knowledge of what is right for you. In order to do that, you have to go out with conviction and do what you think is right in the moment.

I think it's a big struggle after people graduate from school and they don't have a teacher any more. What is right for me? I know what's right for other people, I know what other people think is right for me, but what is really right for me? It's good to know what your options are and what the expectations and impressions are, related to each option, but there is no one answer, for a lot of these things.

Laurie: I wanted to see how your Encore project is going and if you are ready to tell us about the mysterious way that you're going to select the 27th person…

Hilary: We're still putting off the announcement until next month but we promise details by the end of October. It will be clear, and no, I'm not the composer! I've seen a lot of speculation that maybe I'm composing it, but no. I'll leave it up to someone who is interested and is good at it. That's not the surprise.

I think there are a lot of pieces in this project that will appeal to people of different musical preferences, of different playing levels, different techniques. Because of the length they are, they'll be accessible to students, as well as very polished professionals. There are some that are really hard to play -- I like that challenge. But there are others that are gorgeous and they fit in the hand so well. They're all different from each other, and people have done really nice work for this. I'm really enjoying learning these pieces.

Laurie: Will they eventually be available as sheet music?

Hilary: They will. Not immediately, because I'm going to be playing them myself for a few years, just to get them out there and to get as much focus on them as possible. But then at a certain point they'll all be available. Each composer has their own arrangement with their own publisher, so it would be very difficult to do a compilation, all-in-one printed version. But each one will be available for getting, learning and performing.

Laurie: Do you plan to record them?

Hilary: I do, I'm going to record the first set this season, after I've finished performing them, and I'm going to record the second set, the rest of the premieres, next season, then it will be out the season after. So it will be out in 2013-14.

From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on October 11, 2011 at 8:34 PM

Thanks again for a great interview, Laurie.

Interesting that you invited her to talk about vision issues some more and she launched into a more general discussion that included shoulder rests.  (I noticed one on her own violin.)  And she said people shouldn't be saying what's good for others!   I wonder if that will have any influence on shoulder rest wars.  But actually, I would have welcomed more on vision issues.  I too am very near-sighted and it just became a problem for me last night when I started working on a new piece.

From Erik O'Malley
Posted on October 11, 2011 at 8:42 PM

I am excited to here the encore pieces composed by these contemporary composers.  I dont listen to much contemporary music but the short length of these makes it seem like it might be a good oportunity to explore the music of modern day composers.

From Christopher McGovern
Posted on October 11, 2011 at 9:36 PM


Thanks so much for posting this, and asking Hilary about the fish video (It was a joke--That I knew, but there was a huge pause before I could laugh at it) and about the 27 composer. UGH! Another theory shot down! lol! I was hoping she would say "Yeah, you got me! I'm the 27th!". Perhaps it's either John Zorn or Philip Glass.

Didn't know she was near-sighted, I feel sad about that, even though I know she's been using glasses for sight-reading for years.

I was at the Ives CD release at The Stone last night, and that was a pretty quirky event. Hilary played sonatas 1 and 4, but she also played some hymns that were used for the sonatas and we were all told to stand and sing them from these hymnals that were printed-up! And there was a discussion with author/composer Jan Swafford and John Zorn about Ives, his effect on the progression of composition music and the influence on his own music. It was a blast!

Great interview, Laurie!

From Richard Johnson
Posted on October 12, 2011 at 6:13 AM

Thanks for this interview.  I couldn't help notice the comment...

"For example, I'm working on the first sonata from the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin again right now"..... 

 Hilary must know these pieces inside out and backwards and continues to work on them... I would assume this is not a simple refresh either...certainly makes my occasional dabble on a piece here and there seem pretty unfocused !

From Christopher McGovern
Posted on October 13, 2011 at 2:18 AM

Maybe the fish is the composer? ;-)

I can't believe there were composers that turned her down. Who would say no to Hilary Hahn?

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