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Julia Wolfe's Steel Hammer

Steel Hammer

Julia Wolfe's Steel Hammer

18 December 2016 / William Anderson / Compositions, On the Beat

The Bang on a Can composers are now in the enviable position to compose and produce evening-length works. David Lang’s “love fail” & “Little Match Girl” were followed in 2014 by Julia Wolfe’s “Steel Hammer”.

Alex Ross discusses these works in his New Yorker article—>

“Bang Theory”

Allan Kozinn discusses “Steel Hammer” in the NY Times article—>

“The John Henry Who Might Have Been”

Elsewhere I’ll take on the subject of David Lang’s recent Neo-Pre-Raphaelitism. For the moment, a few points about Steel Hammer.

I was captivated by the first two movements. They bring up the subject of the minimalists’ & postminimalists’ penchant for *unwording*, a rich subject. I’ll come to that in a moment.

I suspect some listeners will agree with Kozinn’s point about the third movement, that it verges on cacophony. Often the cacophony was fun, reminiscent of the crazier textures from the trio of timeless Gentle Giants albums–Freehand, The Power and the Glory, & Interview. This example is from The Power and the Glory—>

“So Sincere”

In the same, third movement, the discontinuity of the cacophonous and the very pure, poignant folk/Renaissance vocal parts works like a collage. Compare this example of collage with works by George Crumb & Unsuk Chin. Crumb’s treatement of Amazing Grace in “Quest”, for example.

Unsuk Chin’s

Akrostichon-Wortspiel (Acrostic-Wordplay)

There are composers who prefer to avoid collage, who learn to bridge between highly contrasting elements. In vastly different ways, Harold Meltzer and Jonathan Dawe (among many others) are able to carry us seamlessly from something simple to something crazy, without leaving us with the sense that something is being superimposed on the another thing, in the manner of a collage. The musical fracturing-in-two(s) can be taken as of a performance of our fractured era, and this works more or less convincingly in the work of Crumb, Chin, Wolfe, and others. It’s a very odd situation; we *are* divided; music can pult us back together, or it can act out the division.


Steel Hammer, like other minimalist works, repeats words until they are noises, no longer words; yet the piece also plays with groupings of words to undo the semantic context.

The captain told John Henry
“gonna bring that steam drill ‘round”
John Henry told the captain
“a man ain’t nothing but a man”
nothin’, nothin’, nothin
but a man, but a man

And in the minimalist fabric of the music we are struck at one point with “a man ain’t nothing(.)”. In this way, Wolfe’s fascinating *taking at once all versions of John Henry* is amplified by this dicing of the text. (Virtually) all possible stresses, intended or not, and (virtually) all possible subgroupings of words appear in the treatment. Windham Lewis, in *Time and Western Man*, & Jean Gebser, in *Ever Present Origin*, both, talk about an aspect of Picasso’s work where an object is presented from multiple viewpoints at once, observing that this amounts to a “presentiation” of views that would otherwise be seen through time–a *diachronic* perspective. “Steel Hammer” certainly has this diachronic quality.

These minimalist devices also bring to mind the Occitan sestinas of Bertran de Born and Arnaud Daniel, and they also might make us think of Bob Dylan.

Here is a dual translation of Arnaud Daniel’s famous sestina–>

“Lo ferm voler qu’el cor m’intra”

The sestina is a Western phenominon that brings the West to something like the I Ching. The rhyme scheme is so difficult and so much a game in itself, that the meanings flip from pole to pole. Dialectics are short circuited and we get a sense of *everything at once*. “Steel Hammer” moves toward this I Ching-like quality.

There are hints of this in some American folk nonsense lyrics–Oh Susanna. This is a better example–>

le ziguezon zinzon

And Bob Dylan approaches this. In “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” it is striking how the meanings and intentions seem to flip. There may be better examples.

In *Melopoeia* the rhythm and musicality of the sounds of words overtake the meanings of the words. This is the most powerful form of *unwording*. Melopoeia, oddly, both tempts and resists musical treatments; they’re likely to fail. This is probably related in some way to the fact that melopoeia is nearly impossible to translate from one language to another. The minimalist approach is melopoeia inside-out, and it might be plausible to compare it with some of Gertrude Stein’s wordplay.

All notions of unwording can be considered through the research of our dear Oliver Sachs, no less–mushrooms & games like Fanney Dooley. See also this, so reminiscent of Bergon’s “Laughter”–>

Mots D’Heures: Gousses, Rames: The D’Antin Manuscript

Weapons against the tyranny of the verbal brain.

It was heartening to find no political agenda in this work. Like Dylan & Arnaud Daniel, it doesn’t cram itself into one reading or one message. The piece offers an entry point for contemporary identity politics when it touches on John Henry’s girl, who could step in and do the work of a man if John Henry is ill disposed. It’s there, but it is certainly not the point of the work.

We can put the cacophony aside by looking at the development of the vocal parts. They move slowly, incrementally through quite a variety of harmonies. Unisons give way to a 5th. Bare 5ths expands to two 5ths. Call these minimalist moves, but it’s very 21st. C. We’re reminded of the Ligeti piano etudes build on 1, 2, 3,…. notes. Somewhere after the midpoint there is a moment that falls into a striking, standout collection. I’d like to see the score. The work has a greater variety of colors than many atonal works; and no demerits for the general sweetness of the harmonies. It all works, but at times capriciously. The big moves are not always firmly determined.

I’ll give this another listen soon and come back with a few more details.

The 20th C. saw the emergence of many bad habits. One was the idea that a work should be unified by having, say for example, one tetrachord and its transpositions proliferate upon the surface of a work. The result was more often than not, a bland sameness of harmonic color, but with a sense of superiority because it was “harmonically advanced”. Fortunately, many 21st C. composers are avoiding those bad habits.

—William Anderson