David Lang: Love Fail
Cantaloupe Music

Julia Wolfe: Steel Hammer
Cantaloupe Music

David Lang and Julia Wolfe devote a considerable amount of time and energy to Bang on a Can, the contemporary classical music organization they co-founded with fellow American composer Michael Gordon in 1987, though thankfully not so much that it prevents the company's artistic co-directors from composing and recording magnificent works such as Love Fail and Steel Hammer. Though it does provide a helpful point of orientation, even describing Bang on a Can as a contemporary classical music organization proves somewhat problematic, as the music it releases, performs, and produces consistently challenges genre definitions and boundaries, something very true of these latest recordings.

It's tempting to see Love Fail, which premiered in 2012, as something of a follow-up to The Little Match Girl Passion, for which Lang won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008; after all, both works are scored for four singers and hand bells, characterized by minimalistic purity and stillness, and sensitive not only to the emotional power of the human voice but of silence, too. There are fundamental differences between them, however: whereas the earlier work is based on the Hans Christian Andersen story (as well as sections from Bach's St. Matthew Passion), Love Fail uses for its text versions of the Tristan and Isolde story as told by Sir Thomas Malory, Richard Wagner, Gottfried von Strassburg, and others, juxtaposed with stories by the contemporary writer Lydia Davis. The texts' focus on love, desire, honour, and respect enables them to resonate no matter the temporal and cultural differences between them.

Lang wrote the oft-plaintive, fifty-minute song cycle for the vocal group Anonymous 4 (Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek), and as such listening to the recording proves to be a slightly bittersweet experience considering that it's one of the group's final studio recordings. Regardless, the singers prove to be a perfect match for Lang's writing, especially when he's provided them with sumptuous vocal lines that overlap so wondrously. In the opening setting “He Was and She Was,” a remarkable effect is achieved by having the lead singer accompanied by repeated utterances of “he was,” resulting in a rhythmic lilt that can only be described as hypnotic. A change in delivery occurs, however, during the “she was” sections where the pristine voices converge in a way that brings out the music's mournful and hymnal qualities. As musically stunning is “Right and Wrong,” where the text's lines are voiced by two singers, one uttering the first word at a lower register and the second spiritedly finishing the line at a higher pitch.

In contrast to the haunting polyphony of the opening setting, “I Live In Pain,” and “The Wood and the Vine,” others, such as “Break #1 (Three Years)” and “A Different Man,” focus on a single voice. Some texts are Haiku-like in their simplicity: the sparing word count of “Break #1 (Three Years),” for example, complements the blunt finality of its content: “Three years / Three years after it started / It ended.” The texts by Marie de France and Gottfried von Strassburg, on the other hand, include florid declarations such as “I cannot live without you / You cannot live without me” and “As love grows stronger / Love holds us closer,” respectively.

Uncluttered by instrumentation, the vocal work possesses a purity and simplicity that connects Love Fail to music from centuries past (as well as to contemporary figures like John Tavener and Arvo Part), yet Lang's nuanced writing is infused with an imaginative sensibility that marks it as distinctly modern. The performances by Anonymous 4 are, in a word, mesmerizing, and Lang was wise to recognize just how much his music would be enriched by their artistry.

Speaking of the Pulitzer Prize, Julia Wolfe's Steel Hammer was a 2010 runner-up in that department. Like Love Fail, Steel Hammer possesses historical roots of a specific kind, namely the John Henry ballad, and like Lang, Wolfe didn't base her work on one version of the tall tale only but in fact 200. Drawing for inspiration from a lifelong love of Appalachian music and legends, Wolfe built her musical conception around the story of a man who, armed with a steel hammer, challenges the advances of the industrial age by participating in a contest to out-dig an engine, much as races between horse riders and car drivers were enacted in the early automotive era in similar bids for superiority. In keeping with the late-1800s period associated with the story, Wolfe's sixty-nine-minute score incorporates sounds associated with Appalachian folk, such as mountain dulcimer and jaw harp, and requires that the Bang on a Can All-Stars expands on its already versatile sound in its performance. Like Love Fail, Steel Hammer includes a vocal dimension, with the Norwegian vocal ensemble Trio Mediaeval (Anna Maria Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth, Torunn Østrem Ossum) taking part, but in contrast to Lang's, Wolfe's work exemplifies a shared emphasis on vocal and instrumental resources.

Steel Hammer fascinates for the way it collapses time, specifically the way it presents an audacious contemporary rendering of a story long an indelible part of the American historical fabric. The writing style is very much emblematic of Wolfe's in its bold reimagining of post-minimalism, yet harkens back to the nineteenth century in certain sonic details. Just as a legend comes together from multiple sources, so too does Wolfe's work draw upon numerous stylistic traditions, among them folk, bluegrass, rock, and classical. The hammer's anvil-like strike, whose intermittent clang helps connect the eight parts, is a sound with an extensive musical ancestry of its own: Verdi's Il Trovatore includes the infamous “Anvil Chorus”; eighteen anvils appear within Wagner's Das Rheingold; and more recently the first part of Louis Andriessen's De Materie features an extended solo for two anvils (more prosaically, there's also The Beatles' “Maxwell's Silver Hammer”).

Lyrically, the text references the mystery surrounding Henry's origins with “Some Say” (“Some say he's from…”) leading into “The States,” a shopping list offering eleven possible locations. Perpetuating the theme, “Characteristics” lists conflicting details about the man, with various accounts depicting him as black or white, short or tall, a worker or convict, before the contest itself is recounted and Henry identified as the victor (“John Henry sunk the steel fourteen feet / While the steam drill only made nine”).

The playing of the Bang on a Can All-Stars—cellist Ashley Bathgate, bassist Robert Black, pianist Vicky Chow, percussionist David Cossin, guitarist Mark Stewart (also banjo, mountain dulcimer, jaw harp, harmonica, clogging, humming), and clarinetest Evan Ziporyn (harmonica, whistling, humming)—is stellar, though it's important to emphasize that Steel Hammer is not a Bang on a Can All-Stars recording but one by Wolfe, no matter how integral their playing is to the work's realization: put simply, both the musicians and vocalists recognize that their performances are executed in service to Wolfe's vision. That being said, there are moments on the recording where the Bang on a Can house band asserts itself with grand conviction: “Destiny,” for example, provides a nice showcase for Ziporyn's clarinet playing, and during “The Race,” the band digs into the music's stop-start stutterfunk in a way that recalls Wolfe's well-known Lick.

Some hint of a Steve Reich influence surfaces in the repetitive vocal swirl of “The States,” though Wolfe's writing extends far beyond by-the-numbers repetition. The momentum generated by the vocalizing is complemented by a similarly insistent instrumental attack that sees banjo, percussion, and handclaps pushing the music forward. “Mountain” likewise advances with a furious resolve, its upward movement powered by mountain dulcimer, cello, clarinet, and piano. Here and in “Characteristics,” Wolfe's music lunges forth as if eager to not only reach the resolution of the tale but leap into the modern age. With an ample pause following each utterance, the vocal-heavy “Some Say” emphasizes how much Wolfe shares with Lang an appreciation for the value of silence, while the haunting folk melodies given to the singers in “Polly Ann” are reminiscent of Meredith Monk's lyrical vocal writing in Atlas. Steel Hammer is a marvelous accomplishment, exceptionally rich in imagination and a wondrous fusion of form and content, and the constantly inspiring ways Wolfe renders the Henry story into compositional form is something truly incredible to witness.

July 2014