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Julia Wolfe’s Rage Against the Machine

John Schaefer was onto something when he picked a Carnegie Hall performance of Julia Wolfe’s Steel Hammer by the Bang on a Can All-Stars as his favorite concert of the year a few years back. Then again, that wasn’t such a difficult choice for the WNYC host. To say that it doesn’t get performed enough simply means that we need more stagings of this eclectic and intense choral/instrumental suite by the Bang on a Can avant garde institution’s house band. It was a rare treat to see the group play it last night at the World Financial Center. If you missed it, you’ll be able to hear the concert in the weeks to come on Q2 and then on Schaefer’s Soundcheck program on WNYC, along with the show tomorrow night, Oct 16 at 7:30 PM here, a new arrangement of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (better known as the Exorcist Theme) played by guitarist Grey McMurray with the Wordless Music Orchestra.

Wolfe’s music can be harrowing, but it can also be playful and fun: this piece is both, but more the former than the latter. As usual with her work, context and subtext are everything. This one mashes up the lyrics from a grand total of over 200 versions of the folk song John Henry, the tale of the man with the hammer in his hand who went up against the steam drill. Droll Americana riffs were sprinkled throughout the sometimes austere, sometimes lush, insistently and sometimes cruelly rhythmic work. Singers Molly Quinn, Emily Eagen and Katie Geissinger opened it, developing a hypnotically rapturous theme with the anxiously enveloping quality of a renaissance motet. Then percussionist David Cossin introduced the anvil beat which would serve as antagonist to the resilience and persistence of the echo-fueled vocals and shifting, Louis Andriessen-ish, percussive melodies of the rest of the piece.

Wolfe grew up steeped in Americana, and as she explained before the show, her first stringed instrument was the dulcimer. Guitarist Mark Stewart played some of that, and also the banjo, hammered on his body along with clarinetist Ken Thomson and ended up supplying percussion for a long interlude by stomping out a clog dance rhythm with his boots. Much as that was comic relief, it also viscerally voiced the angst of the man-versus-machine theme. A hauntingly murky, resonant segment about midway through built by bassist Robert Black and cellist Ashley Bathgate drove home the point that John Henry did not survive the duel. Take that forward into the present, then do the math.

Pianist Vicky Chow supplied dulcimer-like plucking inside the piano when she wasn’t hammering out an endless anvil choir on the keys, while Cossin switched between drumkit (heavy on the toms), vibraphone and boomy low timpani. Quinn’s crystalline soprano soared over the meticulous rhythms of the other two singers’ mantralike volleys of lyrics, phrases and syllables, which they repeated ad infinitum, sometimes comedically, sometimes to raise the menace level. Anyone wondering what this was all about needed only to watch how Bathgate was reacting: when things got funny, she couldn’t resist a big grin, but when things got intense, she’d be all business. The original folk song theme finally appeared as a stark coda right before the swirling atmospherics of the conclusion, which turned out to be part gospel, part Arvo Part. Bookmark the Q2 homepage if you want to experience all this for yourself at a yet-to-be-determined date.

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

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.