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ClassicsOnline Home » WOLFE, J.: Steel Hammer (Bang on a Can All-Stars, Mediaeval Trio)
John Henry Redux
The legend of John Henry has grown and changed over the years. Was John Henry real or fictional, black or white, short or tall? Virtually every detail of the story has multiple answers -- and that's the point of Julia Wolfe's work, "Steel Hammer." Wolfe ingeniously presents the multiplicity of the story with layers of sound that simultaneously obscure the text and make transparent its interpretations.
This is high-energy, complex material, and as with many of Wolfe's compositions, the music demands your attention in an insistent and aggressive manner. But it's only when you give "Steel Hammer" your full attention that the music can convey its meaning.
Trio Mediaeval sing with pure, unwavering tones, providing an unemotional narrative to the work. Wolfe incorporates a number of folk instruments and sounds into her ensemble to provide color and context. Hearing the banjo, dulcimer, or the sound of clogging deep in the mix give the listener a hint of Appalachia without being overtly folk-like.
As always, the Bang on a Can All-Stars hold nothing back in their performances. This is difficult, demanding music, but these musicians don't just play the material -- they own it.more....
Some very odd listening that kind of grows on you
Julia Wolfe is a really interesting composer whose music often relies on traditional and folk sources. For example, Wolfe's "Cruel Sister" for string orchestra, was inspired by a traditional English ballad of a love rivalry between sisters. Her frenetic "My Lips from Speaking" for six pianos was inspired by the opening riff of the Aretha Franklin tune Think. Wolfe's music is never dull. Sometimes placid and moody, sometimes overtly confrontational and "in your face".
In this case, "Steel Hammer" uses the legends and sounds of folk Appalachia as a starting off point. There is the fairly clearly "train" inspired "The States" that intones names of states against a very locomotive, minimalist vamp that conjures up some Philip Glass. The more folk-driven "Polly Ann" and "the Race" uses the John Henry legend and his mighty hammer to drive home some of the elements of the well-known folk song. I really liked the pounding "Destiny" that tells the John Henry story a bit more theatrically and the musical vocabulary has some bizarre but effective jazz-like moments to it.
I also was taken by the closing "Lord, Lord" using the last bits of the John Henry anonymous and indigenous poem (as in "But he hammered his poor heart to death, Lord, Lord .... There lies my steel-driving man, Lord, Lord") to create an odd dirge-like vamp with some really ghostly electric guitar picking. Part of why I think this work succeeds is the combined brilliance of the vocal Trio Mediaeval and the Bang on a Can All-Stars; with whom Julia Wolfe has worked before.
The overall effect of this series of vocal works (not "songs" really) in the context of the whole is eery, disconnected and a little disturbing. I found it odd to be sure but quite effective. I am not sure everyone will find this an easy listen or their form of "enjoyment" If you approach this fascinating work with an open mind and be prepared for the unusual, you might like it. I know I am motivated to hear more of Julia Wolfe's music.more....
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WOLFE, J.: Steel Hammer (Bang on a Can All-Stars, ...