Ensemble Resonanz, Wolfe: Cruel Sister

John Schaefer

By John Schaefer

on 02.19.11 in Reviews

Julia Wolfe is one of three composers (along with Michael Gordon and Pulitzer Prize winner David Lang) who founded the ever-expanding contemporary music empire known as Bang On A Can. Her own music occupies a fertile territory that acknowledges both rock music and the twitchy, modernist pole of classical music (so both "downtown" and "uptown" schools), and she has displayed an affinity for scores with multiples of the same instrument. Her works for potentially dubious forces, like nine bagpipes or four drum sets, benefit from her keen ear for texture and gesture — these pieces can be both hypnotic and startling. The two on this recording are also restricted in instrumentation, though it's a restriction that has a long tradition behind it: These are works for string ensemble.

Bang On A Can founder pens a half-hour instrumental suite

In recent years, Wolfe has begun to mine her early interest in American and British folk ballads. She was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for her "Steel Hammer," a piece inspired by the song "John Henry." The first part of this release, "Cruel Sister," is a close relative of that work. Based on the old British song known as "The Two Sisters" (among many alternate titles), "Cruel Sister" closely follows the tragic tale of a love triangle that ends (surprise!) very badly indeed. Without quoting from the actual folk tune and without resorting to words, Wolfe's music has a strong narrative arc. The strings rush inexorably toward the conclusion of their tale of the murder of one sister by her scorned sibling. A gently rippling meditation follows, as the body of the victim floats on the water; and a dramatic conclusion follows as the dead girl's bones are recovered — and made into a harp to be played at the cruel sister's wedding. The Ensemble Resonanz plays the piece with bite and perhaps ghoulish glee. Don't even think of getting one track without getting all four.

Ditto for "Fuel," the companion piece. A churning perpetual motion machine for strings, this piece was written for a silent film by Bill Morrison which focuses on the familiar-yet-alien landscapes of oil refineries and the like.