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Julia Wolfe

Publisher: G. Schirmer

Steel Hammer (2009)
Red Poppy
Large Ensemble (7 or more players)
Year Composed
1 Hours 30 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
3 sopranos
Unavailable Explain this...
Programme Note
Julia Wolfe Steel Hammer (2009)

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.

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.


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

  • Ensemble
    Bang on a Can All-Stars and Trio Mediaeval
    Cantaloupe Music:
  • 16 JUN 2016
    Arts and Ideas Festival
    New Haven, CT
    Bang on a Can All-Stars
    SITI Company

    Other Dates:
    18 June - New Haven, CT
  • 20 APR 2016
    Rotterdam, The Netherlands
    Bang on a Can All-Stars & Trio Mediaeval

    Other Dates:
    21 April - Amsterdam, The Netherlands
  • 02 DEC 2015
    Brooklyn Academy of Music
    Brooklyn, NY
    Bang on a Can All-Stars, SITI Company

    Other Dates:
    3-6 December - Brooklyn, NY
  • 20 NOV 2015
    OZ Arts
    Nashville, TN
    Bang on a Can All-Stars, SITI Company

    Other Dates:
    21 November - Nashville, TN
  • 17 NOV 2015
    Ellen Fife Theatre, Virginia Tech
    Blacksburg, VA
    Bang on a Can All-Stars, SITI Company
  • 23 OCT 2015
    Royce Hall, UCLA
    Los Angeles, CA
    Bang on a Can All-Stars, SITI Company

    Other Dates:
    24 October - Los Angeles, CA
  • 26 SEP 2015
    Krannert Center
    Champaign, IL
    Bang on a Can All-Stars, SITI Company
  • 06 MAR 2015
    Steel Hammer Country Premiere
    New Music Dublin
    Dublin, Ireland
    Bang on a Can All-Stars
    Trio Mediaeval
  • 14 OCT 2014
    WNYC 'New Sounds Live'
    Wintergarden, New York, NY
    Bang On a Can All Stars
    Katie Geissinger, Emily Eagen, Molly Quinn
  • 19 MAR 2014
    Humana Festivbal of New American Plays
    Louisville, KY
    SITI Company

    Other Dates:
    6 April - Louisville, KY
  • 27 JUL 2013
    MASS MoCA - North Adams, MA
    Bang on a Can Festival
  • 13 MAY 2013
    Steel Hammer Country Premiere
    Uppsala Konsert & Kongress, Uppsala, Sweden
    Bang on a Can All-Stars
    Trio Mediaeval
  • 11 MAY 2013
    A Scream and an Outrage
    Barbican, London, UK
    Bang on a Can All-Stars
  • 21 NOV 2009
    Steel Hammer World Premiere
    Zankel Hall, New York, NY
    Bang on a Can
    Trio Mediaeval

"At the heart of Ms. Wolfe’s score is the venerable John Henry, a song recorded by hundreds of singers, including Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen... Ms. Wolfe’s piece is not a conventional setting. You barely hear the traditional melody, though fragments waft past occasionally. Instead Ms. Wolfe has undertaken an obsessive study of the song’s many versions and has made an expansive, eclectic setting of the results... ...Ms. Wolfe’s opening movement, Some Say, breaks down the phrase “Some say he’s from,” in ways that recall Steve Reich’s early tape pieces It’s Gonna Rain and Come Out... But Ms. Wolfe’s musical language reaches well beyond Minimalism. The third movement, Destiny, is couched in dark dissonances that veer on cacophony. Characteristics is underpinned by what might have been a flamenco rhythm..."
Allan Kozinn, The New York Times,11/22/2009
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