The Middle Ages Go Electronic

By Dan Ouellette / July / August 2005
April 28th, 2007

Cole Porter wrote "Don't Fence Me In" as a cowboy song, but the sentiment fits the no-boundaries music composed by David Hahn. The forty-nine-year-old guitarist/mandolinist/lutist is as much at home writing lyrical early music-inspired chamber pieces for guitar and strings as he is concocting disjointed postmodern electronic collages, manipulating sounds and words with MIDI instrumentation and ProTools. His works encompass somber eulogies, cartoonlike aural animations, and political protests. They can be commissioned pieces or found-art improvisations. And the mood ranges from disparagingly dark to whimsically upbeat.

"I am eclectic," Hahn says. "I like a lot of different things, and that helps me to connect to different people. When I write concertos for guitars and strings, it feels like I'm a lot more conservative than I expect of myself. Yet I like hearing the guitar playing sweet music. But then I also get so angry at the desperate state of our country that I work on some loud electronic piece that I probably shouldn't discuss for fear of the Patriot Act."

Last year Hahn composed "Passionate Isolation," a three-movement work for mandolin and guitar that requires the guitarist to weave paper into the strings for percussive effect. Based on Buckminster Fuller's book No More Secondhand God, the piece won the Classical Society of America's 2004 Competition Contest. At the start of World War II, Hahn notes, "Fuller was writing in his apartment about his Ôpassionate isolation' while people were dying. That seemed appropriate for what is happening today."

Similarly, "Apocalypse Cow," a short electronic sound collage, comprises a pair of contradictory speeches by President Bush and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and the sounds of planes, bombs, cows, and people having sex. They "signify both the lust for war and the pornographic greed and arrogance [that] characterize the present regime," Hahn says. "Hopefully some laughter and art can be gleaned from the tragic state of our republic."

More directly comical is the catchy "Ooka Fookoo," Hahn's tale of a dinosaur attack and subsequent caveman revenge, which features his daughter's scream, as well as "cavemen singing a pop tune in authentic cavemen language as they go out to hunt down the dinosaur."

A high school rock and roller who came to embrace both early music and the experimental electronics of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Steve Reich while at Brown, Hahn concentrated in comparative literature and classics, which still figure in his music. He took music theory classes with the late William Ermey and guitar classes with Tom Greene, who introduced him to the lute and to Renaissance music. Hahn did postgraduate work at the New England Conservatory (where he later taught), the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and Stanford (where he received a 1993 doctorate in historical musicology). Today he cobbles together a musical life with grants, teaching in the Seattle schools, and writing commissioned works. His "Concerto Alla Barroco" for guitar quartet and strings, written for the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet, premiered in 2003 with the Owensboro Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Palmer.

Hahn sees no conflict between his interest in electronics and his classical background. "They're actually quite related," he says. "In the Middle Ages, people used music for worship and in celebration of the magical." Today, he says, music has "lost much of its magical quality, but people still turn to music to cope with the world and to try to explain the unexplainable."

While Hahn doesn't consider himself a recording artist (he does not have a catalog of albums), his wide-ranging array of works can be accessed through his Web site,

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July / August 2005