Julia Wolfe’s “Steel Hammer,” which received its DMV premiere at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on Friday night, collects, refracts, and interprets the varying versions of the traditional ballad of John Henry into 75 minutes of occasionally annoying, mostly compelling music.
Even if you did not previously know the music of Julia Wolfe, you may have just concluded that the piece involves some repetition, since most performances of “John Henry” take way less time than that. Indeed, Wolfe wrote “Steel Hammer” in the pop-minimalist style that her home band, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, was founded to make awesome, plus the Scandinavian soprano Trio Mediaeval.
Pop and minimalism connect over their desire to get into your skull through the medulla oblongata rather than the cerebral cortex, and Wolfe’s program bio avers that her music “is muscular and kinetic and experienced through the body.” That said, not much else connects “John Henry” to “Steel Hammer.” Sure, Wolfe calls for dulcimer and bone in addition to the usual BoaC percussion-guitar-piano-cello-bass-clarinet combo, but those instruments provide vernacular color exclusively; otherwise, we’re in the minimalist labyrinth of rhythms that both structure and evolve the music, with ambiguously consonant harmonies rarely distinguishable from your average pop-minimal work (if we grant that such a thing exists).
And, as noted, we get a few things repeated in various guises a lot of times. The work opens with Trio Mediaeval singing the words “Some say he’s from” a cappella, breaking the phrase down and shuffling it until it functions as vowel sounds. This worked in large part because of the performers. In their recordings, the ladies of Trio Mediaeval sing with an almost eerie precision and purity, like some kind of divine rebuke to the use of AutoTune. Live performance proved that they are indeed humans, as some entrances appeared to be unintentionally staggered, and some lines wobbled a bit. Yet they retained that vocal purity, which gave their music the high lonesome sound we associated with Appalachia, and the kept their lyrics crystal-clear, so you never even thought about wanting a text to consult. These virtues did, however, keep them miles away from any kind of twang; at times, I really wanted them to just slur a word or two, to get us into America.
We got to hear a lot of America in the second section of the work, where Wolfe showed that her strategy to deal with the various versions of the John Henry story was to toss in all the details from all of them. Where do they say he’s from? Tennessee! Georgia! Columbus, Ohio! Kentucky! Alabama! The trio had to actually sing the names of these and other states over and over again, as the can-bangers got active with a glacially accelerating locomotive rhythm that turned into cheerful country-crossing music. This section epitomized the things people who like other classical music don’t like about some minimalist music: the repetitions quickly become nonsensical, and after the music’s point is made, it keeps going for unknown reasons. A bunch of people left the Dekelboum during this section, ne’er to return.
They should have stayed, because Wolfe’s music became much more focused as she got into the story. When concentrating on one phrase, like “this hammer’s gonna be the death of me,” her meditations on words and phrases piled up to create swells of feeling that crested with the band dropping out and the Mediaevalists once again a cappelling in haunting harmonies.
In addition, the remaining pools of discordant details made more compelling material for juxtaposition; reciting John Henry’s professions (cotton-picker, steel-driver, etc.) emphasized his nature as the essential working man, and the various names of his lover, murmured and then sung passionately in repetition, made her into just as much an Everywoman, as tough as her man yet trembling with fear for him as well. The section where Wolfe kept increasing the weight of the hammer John Henry used (“Nine-pound hammer…sixteen-pound hammer…twenty-pound hammer”), the trio’s voices rippling with tension and punctuated with big outbursts from the band, was just really cool.
The subject of a contest between machinery and man obviously offers great opportunities for the minimalist composer; to Wolfe’s credit, she didn’t go to a regular mechanical rhythm every time she needed to crank up the tension, instead testing BoaC with irregular rhythms that, etched as precisely as they were on Thursday, achieved a rough-hewn power that remained surprising even on repeat. The band also knows how to carefully ratchet up volume over time, so slowly that you don’t notice how claustrophobic the atmosphere is becoming until your heart is pounding. Wolfe threw in lighter interludes, one of which found Mark Stewart, normally an electric guitarist, instead doing “Quebec-style seated clogging,” as he informed us in the post-concert Talk Back; another had clarinetist Evan Ziporyn drumming out rhythms all over his body.
But after the John Henry travelogue, the whole score seemed (in retrospect) focused on its end: another magnetic solo from the TM, reporting the results of John Henry’s contest with the machine, with only the last line repeated, in deference to ballad form, followed by an instrumental apotheosis and a coda with the ladies singing “Lord, Lord” so quietly and with such resignation that it did almost sound like a Mayfieldian “Lawd, Lawd.” Only after the sound stopped and BoaC and TM took their well-deserved bows did I (a) remember to breathe and (b) realize how much the work had gotten under my skin and into my brain since the Hall of States section. Wolfe took a big swing with “Steel Hammer,” and although the piece follows a longer arc than one might initially think necessary, in the end she hit her target square-on.
TOO MANY VOWELS
Trio Mediaeval needs to pick two of the three vowels in the middle of its name and stick with those. I recommend not picking “Trio Mediaval,” but seriously, trying to type that over and over again is the kind of thing that makes an amateur classical critic turn to T-Pain for solace.