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Julia Wolfe

Publisher: G. Schirmer

Steel Hammer (2009)
Work Notes
Performances of Steel Hammer must be performed by the Bang On A Can All Stars.
Booking and technical information bangonacan.org
Publisher
Red Poppy
Category
Large Ensemble (7 or more players)
Year Composed
2009
Duration
1 Hour 30 Minutes
Language
English
Solo Instrument(s)
3 sopranos
Availability
Unavailable Explain this...
Programme Note
Julia Wolfe Steel Hammer (2009)
Podcast:



November 21 2009
Trio Mediaeval
Bang On A Can
Zankel Hall
New York City

Steel Hammer is inspired by composer Julia Wolfe’s love for the legends and music of Appalachia. Culling from both the music and oral traditions of the region, the piece focuses on the legend of John Henry, immortalized for his race against 'the machine'. With over 200 versions and myriad of differing details, the tale has been embraced by a wide variety of American communities in the cause and glorification of the Worker.

Employing the rich instrumental colors of Appalachia, the Bang on a Can All-Stars add a chorus of instruments including mountain dulcimers, wooden bones, banjo, steel hammers, and more. Trio Mediæval, with their pure and direct sound, will tell the timeless tale. The result is a fusion of musical worlds that meld to create a new genre of art balladry.

Libretto:

Culled from over 200 versions of the John Henry ballad

Composer's Note:

Steel Hammer is inspired by my love for the legends and music of Appalachia. The text is culled from the over 200 versions of the John Henry ballad. The various versions—based on hearsay, recollection, and tall tales—explore the subject of human-verses-machine in this quintessential American legend. Many of the facts are unclear; some say John Henry is from West Virginia, others say he’s from South Carolina, still others say he’s from New Jersey. But these ambiguities aside, Henry, wielding a steel hammer, faces the onslaught of the Industrial Age as his superhuman strength is challenged in a contest to out-dig an engine. I drew upon the extreme variations of the story, fragmenting and weaving the contradictory versions of the ballad that have circulated since the late 1800s into a new whole—at times meditating on single words or phrases—to tell the story of the story, and to embody the simultaneous diverse paths it traveled.

The sounds of Appalachia have long been a part of my musical consciousness. (My first public music performance was on the mountain dulcimer.) I have referenced the folk influence in many of my other works, such as Four Marys (for string quartet) and Cruel Sister (for string orchestra), which are inspired by folktales, and LAD (for nine bagpipes) and Accordion Love (an accordion concerto), which explore and experiment with folk performance traditions. In Steel Hammer, I call on the Bang on a Can All-Stars to expand their usual instrumentation to include the likes of dulcimers and bones, and access Trio Mediæval’s extensive work in their native vocal traditions.

Movements:

I. Some Say
II. The States
III. Destiny
IV. Mountain
V. Characteristics
VI. Polly Ann
VII. The Race
VIII. Winner
IX. Lord Lord




Synopsis:
John Henry, wielding a steel hammer, faces the onslaught of the industrial age as his super human strength is challenged in a contest to out dig an engine. Wolfe drew upon the extreme variations of the story, fragmenting and weaving the contradictory versions of the ballad that have circulated since the late 1800s in to a new whole — at times meditating on single words or phrases — in order to tell the story of the story — to embody the simultaneous diverse paths it traveled. The text is culled from the over 200 versions of the Appalachian John Henry ballad.

  • Ensemble
    Bang on a Can All-Stars and Trio Mediaeval
    Cantaloupe Music:
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