Exclusive Interview: Hilary Hahn on Her New Album, The Magic of Classical Music, and the Mindy Project

by Katie Fustich

Universally-renowned violinist Hilary Hahn, at only 33 years old, is on top of the classical music world. With the release of her latest album, out today, marks a classical music first: an album entirely composed of original encores. Hilary recently spoke with BUST about her new record, “In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores” and beyond. Check out our chat to find out about her process, her current Netflix-obsession, and why she just doesn’t have time for sexism!

Your new record is unprecedented in a lot of ways: both in terms of your work and the work of other musicians. What were the challenges of working with new music and a new concept?

Well, it was a new thing for me to put together a big project like this. I thought I had done things like this before; I had done tours, records, commissioned work, and new work, so I felt like “Okay, this is a slightly bigger version of what I have done before.” But it was entirely different!

I thought that the two concertos I had done by Edgar Meyer and Jennifer Higdon would be good reference points for starting on the new encores. But I hadn’t thought about the fact that those are each written be one person. If you haven’t played a composer’s work before, you want to get to know their musical language before you feel comfortable with your interpretation of that particular piece. And since I hadn’t worked on so many composers who are new to me at the same time, I hadn’t thought about how much it would be to wrap my head around.

Something that surprised me that was not a challenge was how interesting all of [the composers] are and how individual they all are. When playing the violin, you have the [instrument] and you have different body types that fit it. Some people have long arms or short arms and that affects their technique. Some people have flexible hands, or wider fingers, and all of those things go into how you play the instrument. But you can kind of guess how these categories are going to handle the instrument. With composing, it’s all in the brain. It’s all in the experience people have had; the things they like, influences they’ve had, their working method…and those are all infinitely variable.

The fact was that none of the composers had the same approach to writing and none had the same motivations or goals musically. So it was really fascinating to see how all these different people create. How they express and what they want to express took some time to really understand. It was a big learning experience. From their writing [I learned] new ways to play the instrument and new ways to look at phrasing. It was a matter of getting to know the reason behind the music and making something that I also felt reflected my ideas as a piece. That was all so much bigger than I expected.

Of course, there were the logistics of all of that: communicating, and planning the tours, and recording, and gathering comments…But it’s all been a really positive experience.

It comes through in the recording! The record covers such a wide range musically and emotionally. One can’t even begin to imagine how it’s all the same person playing all of this.

With a lot of different pieces, you can play them all the same way or you can look for the character in each one and try to make it stand apart. That latter effort was really important to me. I felt like all the composers could have chosen to just dash something off in between other things. But even if they wrote quickly, they put a lot of thought into it. I felt that each piece was such a world unto itself, and I really wanted to be able to convey that whole world as being unique to each work.

You mentioned in your album trailer that when you approached these composers to collaborate with you, you did so through a series of “cold calls.” What was the response of the composers like? When you talked about the “cold calls” I imagined some of the composers thinking it was a prank!

One of them did, actually!

Christos Hatzis, a composer who teaches in Toronto, thought the voicemail was a prank call—to the point that he actually went and looked up the area code! I never thought that would be the case. I thought it might be a bit of a surprise, but I don’t think of myself as being the person who’d be impersonated in a prank call. It’s just me!

If anything, I felt kind of nervous calling people because I [didn’t know if they would] want to participate. A lot of composers—maybe not these particular composers—will end up getting a fair amount of requests for a 10-minute overture. I’ve heard a lot of people being frustrated with that because they appreciate the collaboration and the opportunity, but they can’t necessarily write everything they want to write in a 10-minute piece. So I thought there was a good chance that when I asked [the composers] to write a short-form piece, they would not be interested in the form. It’s so short—it’s not even five minutes. I also wasn’t sure if they would feel okay being in a project with lots of other composers.

But I got so much positive reaction! It was really fantastic. When an idea is new, you just don’t know what it’s going to be to anyone. So I hoped that people knew where I was coming from and would be on board…and they were!

In terms of social media, you’re definitely a front-runner in the field. With your Twitter account—

Violin Case’s Twitter account! [laughs]

Your Instagram and YouTube channel, you have a very direct interaction with your fans. A younger generation, who is also involved in social media might not even regard classical music as something worth listening to. So I’m interested to know what the reaction is on those platforms. When you bring a traditional concept (classical music) onto a modern platform, I imagine it could sometimes be frustrating or sometimes be really awesome.

Well, I think that classical music is often misperceived and I think the title lends itself to that misperception because, it’s classical in the sense that there are old parts to it–there are classics–but those are all creating a wonderful history in music that can be drawn on at any time. You can play the pieces, but [classical music] is always updating itself. It’s always very current because there’s always new music being written so that in future years, those pieces can be played and appreciated and be history themselves.

It’s all part of a cycle that never closes. It keeps going, wave upon wave upon wave, and I think the fact that it spans such a long time makes it hard to grasp what all it covers. It’s easier to think of classical music as certain composers and certain time periods, but it’s more like a musical outline of what’s happening in the world. You need to draw on something to be inspired. Something needs to make you tick. And those things are inevitably based somewhat in the world around you. And every person experiences these things differently, and every person that can write music leaves that record behind of what they related to. Even if it’s something that seems opposite to what’s happening—even if it’s an escape from the world instead of a mirror. It’s still related in some way.

Sometimes,  there’s pressure to be a certain way, but I think this happens in any field. I see a lot of people saying “Oh you like to listen to so-and-so? That’s not very cool of you!” and it’s like, “What do you mean? Who are you to tell me I can’t listen to this person just because that’s  mainstream or not indie enough?” I’m still a valid person I still have opinions and I like this stuff and I like other stuff that’s maybe not mainstream so go listen to your own music! [laughs]

I think that determines people’s impressions of classical music. But what we need to be doing in any creative field is what we are really interested in. We should listen to the music that we like to listen to. We should have the freedom to like certain composers and not like others. It’s very, very personal. This also goes for things we do in our non-stage time. Some people are really good at working with kids and doing educational outreach, so they form programs that go into schools. Other people are good at communicating, so they become journalists. Some people write books, some do collaborations, some go and play in unusual venues or give lectures about the piece they’re about to play. All of that is important to gather together. If someone has an interest in something or is good at something and is willing to contribute that to the genre, I think there shouldn’t be judgment about what that thing is. It just enhances everyone’s experience of the content that’s being presented.

With stuff like social media, it’s not for everyone. Violin Case does his twitter, but I like having creative outlets. I love to write and I write in any different way that I can. I used to write a lot for my website, but then this project kind of took over my life and it was really hard to get the headspace to sit down and write whole journal entries. So it’s been nice to have the opportunity to interview people for the YouTube channel, which helps me to understand my colleagues a bit better. And so with the writing and the interviewing, that’s stuff that I’m really comfortable and interested in doing, and it’s helpful for me as an artist to do.

So, that’s just a very long answer to the question. I guess what I’m trying to say is that not everyone should do one thing or another. It’s really just most important that people do what they believe is helpful and what they’re interested in. And through that you’ll have a very diverse genre and a lot of different voices speaking up.

Obviously you have been a part of the classical music scene for the majority of your life. What is the experience of a professional female artist like? Both in terms of how you’ve seen things develop over your career, as well as the current state of affairs.

It’s really interesting—in classical music I think there are sort of odd conflicting trends as far as gender. Now, there are a lot of female soloists who are well-respected, but it seems to go in waves. It’s almost like in a certain generation you’ll have more women and then in another generation more men. And I don’t think that one is more valued than the other; I think it may have to do with girls going to concerts and seeing adult women perform, so then the girls go and do it. Then in the next generation, the boys see the men and do [the same thing]. It may be evening out now and not taking such an obvious alternating set of ways, but that has been the case in more recent decades.

[As for] the conductors I’ve worked with, I can probably count on one hand the number of female conductors I’ve worked with, and that’s over 20 years of performing with orchestras. Each orchestra was for less than four days, and at most one week. So that’s a lot of opportunities to work with women where there just aren’t women being booked for those particular jobs. It doesn’t mean there aren’t women conducting.

I don’t think that the men who are conducting are, for the most part, against women conductors. I just think that there’s a whole set of boundaries in place that maybe hasn’t lent itself to women being given the same opportunities or inspiration early on. I couldn’t really say why, but it’s something I’ve noticed and I look forward to the day when it’s more evenly balanced.

As a soloist I feel like it’s really how you play. If you don’t do a good concert, it doesn’t matter who you are, or where you’re from, or what you look like or anything like that. The career can only last if you can really deliver the work.

I have a lot of great colleagues who are men who are very much about the music. It doesn’t matter that I’m female and they’re male. We’re just people working together, and I love that. I don’t like having gender be playing a part, there’s just so much else going on. I don’t have time for all that!

What surprised me actually was working on this project with the composers, before I even called any of the composers, I spent months listening to hours of music every night. My whole goal was to listen to as much as possible and just see what struck me. It was such interesting research!  But, what I realized was a lot of the lists [of composers] were mainly men. I had to go specifically looking for women composers and that just made me mad [because] there are a lot of women writing music! Women have such important things to say such equal emotional impact.

[The problem] is not the people who are doing the work, it’s the people who are noticing the work and aren’t giving the women the credit. I think really the thing in classical music is that we have to remember that if you look at history there are so many more men highlighted than women, and that doesn’t mean that’s an adequate proportion now. We just have to reset and really think about it for a little bit so that we get into new habits and patterns with what we notice. It’s when you actually can take things at face value, when everything is presented to you, it’s the stuff with artistic merit that comes through. That’s an ideal situation, so hopefully we get to that point. I think that classical music is doing really well with that and I’m really happy it’s a field where the work counts the most in the end.

It’s also fortunate, as a woman, to be in a creative field that values age. There’s that whole pressure for people who are actors where they don’t get offered roles because of age. They can’t be creative and can’t express themselves the way they want because they just don’t have the work that would be great for them. There’s none of that in classical music. The older you get, the more respect you get, and that’s really, really nice. I’m always happy about a birthday

What’s coming up next for you? Now that the album is out, do you have a particular concert you’re excited to perform or are your plans mostly Netflix-related?

I was just watching The Mindy Project his afternoon! [laughs]

In a funny way, I feel like it’s only now that this project is starting. I have to say, somewhat selfishly, I love this project because now I have all these pieces I feel so connected to. I just feel so fortunate—I really love these pieces and look forward to playing them.

Now, people are actually able to hear [the pieces] anytime they want because of the record. The music will be available soon in sheet music and digital form, so people will be able to learn them and live with them. So, I don’t want to just leave it all behind. Now I get to see what people take from it and do with it from here on out.

If someone wants to play [a piece], they can also contact the composer. It’s not like I’m the only authority. The great thing about living composers is that if you have a question about something, you can just ask them what their priorities are. You don’t have to guess! You can just call ‘em up or write them an e-mail…and get an answer! I’m curious what pieces different people get attached to. It’s nice to see different things speaking to different people.

Thanks so much to Hilary Hahn for chatting with BUST! “In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores” is out today. Check it out and make sure you tweet your favorite tracks @violincase (he’s dying to know!). 


Image via NPR

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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