Julia Wolfe’s Cruel Sister – Best Album of 2011?

by delarue

If there’s any album from this year that deserves your attention – or that will keep your attention from its first tense, staccato notes through its casually brutal ending – it’s Julia Wolfe’s Cruel Sister. A four-part suite for string orchestra performed with chilling precision by Ensemble Resonanz, conducted by Brad Lubman and released by Cantaloupe Music (the Bang on a Can folks), it’s arguably the most impactful album of 2011 in any style of music. It’s as noir, and as haunting, and as intense as anything Mingus, or Messiaen, or Bernard Herrmann ever wrote. Julia Wolfe has been an important and singular voice for a long time, but this may be her finest 29 minutes and 55 seconds.

The suite is a reinterpretation of the storyline from a grim medieval English folk ballad. Cruel Sister is jealous of Good Sister and her suitor, so she pushes Good Sister into the ocean. Two minstrels find what’s left of Good Sister and make a harp out of her hair and her breastbone. When Cruel Sister ends up marrying Good Sister’s guy, the minstrels play the wedding, using their brand-new homemade harp. The final line of the ballad is “And surely now her tears will flow.” While Wolfe follows the trajectory of the narrative, she does not employ any of the ballad’s musical motifs (Wolfe first came across the tale via the recording by 1970s folk-rockers the Pentangle).

The melody itself doesn’t move around much, save for a couple of instances where the ensemble goes up the scale for a literally murderous crescendo in the first movement. Aside from most of the watery, hypnotically polyrhythmic final movement, an ominous low note, whether a staccato pulse or a drone, anchors the music as an inescapable reminder of raw evil. The first movement begins almost imperceptibly, foreshadowing the murder with a series of creepy cadenzas and layers of tritones. The second movement is similarly cinematic, its vivid center point being where the minstrels find the corpse, the music’s stormy swells and ebbs contrasting with that ever-present low pulse that never quite disappears, and a crescendo that aches to find a resolution but never does. Funereal bell-like tones, accordionesque swells and suspenseful, false endings pair off against airily macabre variations on the opening theme as the work winds its way out, ending cold without any direct acknowledgement of whether Cruel Sister learned her lesson or not. Cruel as the music is, maybe that’s just her style: maybe the force of evil is truly immutable.

The second work, Fuel, opens with a similarly uneasy, suspensefully minimalist theme with apprehensively crescendoing, sometimes steady, sometimes jarring binary phrases, although it has a more anthemic feel – and an allusion to the Exorcist theme, maybe? Tense and occasionally frantic, it never lets up, nebulously blustery tritones interchanged with a morbid little fugue, creaking mechanical accents, a rush of what sounds like jet engine exhaust, a bracing little circular dance and an even creepier overture – or postlude. Is it meant to illustrate the psychic effect of living in the peak oil and post-peak oil era? Either way, all this packs a wallop.