At the end of this past April, Cantaloupe Music, the label launched by the creators of Bang on a Can, released a recording of Steel Hammer, a one-hour song cycle by Bang on a Can founder and director Julia Wolfe. The performance involves a chamber orchestra consisting of six of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Ashley Bathgate on cello, Robert Black on bass, Vicky Chow on keyboards, David Cossin on percussion, Mark Stewart on a variety of folk instruments, mostly plucked, and Evan Zipporyn, supplementing clarinet and harmonica work with whistling and humming. They are joined by the three treble vocalists, who perform as the Norwegian group Trio Mediaeval, Anna Maria Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth, and Torunn Østrem Ossum. Andrew Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, called the piece a “musical archaeology,” which may be one fair way to describe it.
More accurately, the score is the product of an intense analysis of the “John Henry” ballad. According to the booklet notes, Wolfe prepared her text from the over 200 documented versions of this ballad, often overlaying them with imaginative simultaneity underscored by the similar vocal ranges of the three Trio Mediaeval women. For many listeners this will trigger memories of the original form of the “motet” in early polyphony, in which the different voices would sing different texts at the same time. However, Wolfe’s use of instruments and sound effects, all of which strongly evoke Appalachian sonorities, makes any resemblance to medieval origins entirely coincidental.
Less likely to be coincidental are signs of resemblance to more recent composers. Those familiar with this repertoire are likely to detect signs of both Philip Glass and Meredith Monk, particularly in the vocal work, while some of the instrumental sonorities may recall Steve Reich. Nevertheless, Steel Hammer definitely has its own characteristic identity; and the work deserves to be recognized as an innovative approach to making music.
Still, there remains the question of where all of that innovation leads. It does not take long for the attentive listener to “get” how Wolfe is working with her source material. That will probably happen within the first ten minutes. The problem, however, is that the remaining 50 minutes tend to amount to “more of the same.” This will probably not disturb anyone used to sitting through the entirety of Glass’ Einstein on the Beach without taking any sort of intermission break. Others, particularly those who know the source ballad and are used to different singers performing it in different ways, may wonder why Wolfe is making so much fuss over a basic practice of folk music, as if the major innovation involved reworking that practice to suit the conventions (and possibly expectation) of contemporary chamber music performing and listening experiences.
The result is that, taken as a whole, this is a project that looks admirably impressive on paper; but the listening experience leaves much to be desired.