Julia Wolfe: Steel Hammer — 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.
Julia Wolfe: Steel Hammer
Bang on a Can All-Stars; Trio Mediaeval