Close to the top of Julia Wolfe’s Steel Hammer (2009), we enter a headbanger’s paradise: explosive percussion and strings circulate into spectral choral overlays; angular rhythmic stabs align with a searing vocal trio, unfazed, belting “Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!” as if aflame onstage, backed up by Meshuggah of their prime. The phrase’s brake drums and polychords, scattered about like a lot shattered glass, sign a world through which concord is much less mandate than reminiscence, rhythm each match and fuse. It’s a minor heaven.
The phrase, a spotlight amongst many in Wolfe’s acclaimed oratorio, feels indexical of her deft style bending, indicative of her method to threat. A 2016 MacArthur Fellow, professor of music composition at New York College’s Steinhardt College, co-founder and co-artistic director of the celebrated Bang on a Can All-Stars ensemble, and longtime rock ’n’ people aficionado, Wolfe has for years glided between musical traditions, listening communities, and pop and classical registers. At instances bombastic, at others hypnotic, and at nonetheless others serene, Wolfe’s music blends post-minimalist compositional strategies with experimental ensemble setups and complex, affective preparations to render myths, histories, and fables newly audible.
Latest initiatives — together with Flower Energy (2020), a riffy, hallucinatory rendering of the “Make Love, Not Warfare” ideas of the lengthy ’60s, and Anthracite Fields (2014), a wide-ranging work targeted on Pennsylvania’s coal-mining histories (for which she received the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music) — have concerned Wolfe and her collaborators finding out American countercultural, industrial, and labor histories and exploring the probabilities of music as narrative, or narrative as music — or, extra straight: information, emotions, and the methods we body them. And the place her Metal Hammer was, in 2010, a Pulitzer finalist, quickly it is going to be launched as a feature-length movie.
On May 6, 2021, Cal Performances will debut the new film adaptation of Wolfe’s Metal Hammer, her long-form composition based mostly on a whole bunch of variants of the John Henry ballads, through its Cal Performances at Dwelling digital collection. The movie venture options performances by Bang on a Can All-Stars and a brand new vocal trio (Molly Netter, Rebecca Hargrove, and Sonya Headlam), in addition to the artistic contributions of filmmaker Jeremy Robins, conductor and music director David Bloom, and percussionist-producer David Cossin.
Just lately, Wolfe spoke with SFCV about how she and her workforce created the movie amid the COVID-19 pandemic. She additionally mirrored on how she’s considered music, language, narrative, collaboration, and renewed connection over the past 12 months.
(Our dialog has been evenly edited and condensed right here for readability.)
How did this movie adaptation of Metal Hammer occur amid the COVID-19 pandemic?
Earlier than the thought for a movie got here up, and earlier than the pandemic began, we really had an in-person gig scheduled in Berkeley with Cal Performances. And when all the pieces shut down, we figured, “Effectively, that’s that.” However earlier than lengthy, Cal Performances known as us and requested, “Are you able to guys do a efficiency? We’ll movie it and current it.” We puzzled: Would that even be attainable? Our group [the All Stars] unfold out all over — Ken Thompson was in Berlin, and Arlen Hlusko, the cellist, was in Canada. And we weren’t about to journey to be in the identical room collectively, so we actually didn’t assume it’d be attainable. However the extra we considered it, thought-about it, the extra excited we grew to become about determining how one can make it occur and reimagine the piece. And what we ended up doing was recording new audio in several areas, creating a visible dimension, after which bringing all of it collectively.
How did that work?
Musically, Ken [clarinets] recorded in Berlin; Mark Stewart [electric guitar] laid down some tracks in his barn in northwestern Massachusetts. Plus, we nonetheless had the stems, or the person audio tracks from the unique Metal Hammer recording classes, and we have been in a position to make use of a few of these and re-mix the entire piece, including within the new gamers who weren’t current on the unique recording, together with this new, unimaginable vocal trio: Molly Netter, Rebecca Hargrove, and Sonya Headlam.
As soon as we had all the brand new components recorded, we began assembling. Ultimately, we put a click on observe to what we created, after which we went into the studio — in all probability one of many first instances I used to be actually with musicians once more. It was very current, just a few weeks in the past. We went into the studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. All of us wore masks, many people have been totally vaccinated, and all of us took COVID assessments earlier than assembly. The three singers went into their very own separate little cubicles. And we might all nonetheless see one another, in addition to conductor and music director David Bloom, because of some clear partitions.
Additionally, David Cossin, one of many percussionists within the ensemble, can be a producer, and he took on the position of manufacturing these recordings. It’s wonderful that this was attainable, that we might come collectively on this means.
Wonderful, too, that due to the circumstances, you all had these moments of native musical intimacy, recording in these cubicles, whereas additionally mixing with these cross-continental, trans-oceanic recording classes.
It was unimaginable, yeah. After I hear Ken’s clarinet combined in, it simply sounds so pure. It’s simply received this loopy uncooked sound that solely Ken has. It is so good he was a part of the recording despite the fact that we weren’t bodily close to each other. That is the studio magic that David and the engineers introduced.
Recording amid the pandemic, revisiting the piece so intensely for this new movie venture — did that change your relationship to Metal Hammer? In that case, how?
It did. Metal Hammer has had this attention-grabbing life over time and revisiting it in every occasion has been so attention-grabbing. The unique model was really written for Trio Mediaeval, great singers typically singing medieval music whereas additionally concerned in their very own people traditions in Norway. Then we did a theatrical model of Metal Hammer with director Anne Bogart [and the SITI Theater Company, for Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 2015 Next Wave Festival], which featured actors and textual content layered in between actions. And with this new movie model, we now have a unique group of singers and a extra “American” sound, which led us to surprise: “What’s the efficiency apply of singing this piece?” Revisiting and revising the work for these completely different events has been so attention-grabbing, and I really feel with this most up-to-date model, I reacquainted myself with the piece in a means that nearly made me overlook that I wrote it.
That’s great. And that have of changing into reintroduced to your individual piece — that appears unexpectedly resonant with the resensitization many have felt through the pandemic. Staying close to house, noticing new particulars, paying extra intense consideration, changing into newly acquainted with native nuances.
Yeah, I like that. I believe some folks have felt that about nature particularly. As an illustration, I’ve by no means watched spring the way in which I watched spring this previous 12 months — the gradual blossoming of timber, all these chook sightings in Central Park — that one snowy owl showing. It’s true, this concept of paying nearer consideration to your environment, whether or not inside or exterior. There’s one thing there.
One of many many issues that strikes me about Metal Hammer is its narrative spine. As a composer, how have you considered balancing sound and story?
Effectively, storytelling has at all times been there for me. My early background was in music, theater, and inventive writing, and dealing with phrases really got here first. Then, once I began with music, I used to be amazed it was attainable to do that expressive factor with sounds and not phrases — to attempt to categorical one thing nearly inexpressible. I’ve at all times discovered that so fascinating, that sound will help us say issues we are able to’t but articulate with language.
As soon as I discovered this, I prevented phrases for a very long time. I additionally prevented narrative, in a means, despite the fact that it’s been there in my work regardless. However once I received to my piece Merciless Sister (2004), which was for string orchestra and adopted the arc of a ballad, issues modified, and I began taking steps towards pondering straight about music and narrative collectively.
And once I began Metal Hammer, I felt I wanted to return to textual content, to discover a means of relaying historical past by means of music. All of it started with textual content and early sound sketches, after which I did a number of analysis and gathering — evaluating variations of the John Henry ballad, sifting by means of conflicting information. Textual content drives the music for probably the most half, however the end result is just not actually narrative in the identical means that theater and opera productions may be, with conventional characters and other people singing to at least one one other, and so forth. Metal Hammer is extra summary than that, and likewise extra literal: as an illustration, when the singers sing about John Henry’s hammer, a percussionist hits a brake drum actually onerous proper after the phrase “hammer.” Embracing these apparent, literal connections was a lot enjoyable.
That is fascinating. And exploring that literality additionally looks as if a means of continuous to discover what you talked about earlier than — that concept of music sitting on the fringe of linguistic expression, or what the literary scholar Brent Hayes Edwards has known as the “limits of articulacy.” These literal connections between “hammer” and the sound of the brake drum encourage somebody to sit down with the relationships between phrases and sounds.
Listening to a motion from Metal Hammer like “The States,” I’m captivated by the way in which your explorations of sounds and phrases performs out by means of that “post-minimalist” gesture of repeating U.S. state names. What I hear in there, personally, is a meditation on the fragments and particulars you’re sitting with.
I believe meditation is a extremely nice phrase for that, really. Listening to the musicality of state names — “Georgia, Georgia, Georgia”; “Alabama, Alabama, Alabama.” All of them have these syllables and rhythms and associations. There’s a lot to work with. If you dwell on a phrase and begin to sing it repeatedly, the meanings can intensify, or generally even get misplaced. Repetition blurs these boundaries.
Completely. Going again to narrative for a second — Metal Hammer, as you talked about, additionally entails these essential ethnographic and political dimensions. Are you able to inform me a bit about what received you interested by researching these broader themes the piece engages, particularly labor historical past?
You already know, I’ve at all times been focused on political and social points. Energy, protest, capitalism, staff, labor — these threads have been a part of my life since I used to be fairly younger. And so once I started Metal Hammer, I didn’t say to myself, “I’m going to sit down and write a political piece.” It was extra that I wished to discover pursuits I’d had for a really very long time, a few of which had come by means of within the titles of older works — Arsenal of Democracy, Window of Vulnerability, phrases utilized in navy battle. Desirous about issues like anonymized labor and the relationships between people and teams has been essential to me since I used to be in faculty, and studying from composers like Martin Bresnick, Louis Andriessen, and others who have been very extremely political helped me prolong that by means of sounds and ensembles.
Talking of sounds — sonically, a lot of your work appears fully unafraid of experimentation. How do you method compositional threat?
I’m at all times searching for some unknown territory. I by no means wish to sit nonetheless. Generally, a chunk actually is a leap in a brand new path; different instances, it’s extra a refining of the place you have been. Each are legitimate and essential; I don’t assume the “new” in itself is essentially “the factor.” What’s extra essential is having a way that you just’re at all times reaching for one thing.
This performs out in Metal Hammer particularly with Bang on a Can All-Stars, as a result of the piece is written for who they’re particularly, for his or her distinctive musicianship. Mark Stewart, for instance, is a clogger who performs the banjo, and his particular musicianship performed an essential half in what I might entry for this piece. The loopy sounds Robert Black makes from the bass, too — a lot of the piece’s sound is impressed by the group; the qualities of the particular sounds that they’ll make. So by way of taking dangers, I believe I simply at all times attempt to discover one thing new or go some locations I have never been earlier than, and once I get to jot down for these guys, as a result of they’re so gifted and so sport, I really feel notably liberated.
As you talked about earlier, Metal Hammer has had a number of lives throughout media and codecs — the musical piece, the theatrical manufacturing, and now the movie adaptation. What has it been like for you working throughout media as a composer?
That’s a superb query. This movie is so completely different from what I’ve finished earlier than. For this venture, I’ve been working with the workforce on constructing the sound, however by way of the visible layer, filmmaker Jeremy Robins has been fairly unbiased. We’ve had a really open back-and-forth dialogue because the starting in regards to the sensibility of the piece, however in a means, he’s actually on his personal.
One of many issues we’ve talked about so much is how he’s filming the performers. He really traveled to all of their areas — all besides Germany, as he had a good friend there who helped him with some filming — and he launched this visible idea the place the gamers can be in black in opposition to a black background, so that you’d see their arms in reduction and deal with the mechanics of them enjoying their devices. It’s very a lot his aesthetic, his tackle how one can combine these performers and their completely different areas. What he’s finished with the singers can be actually wonderful — they filmed on this large, cavernous outdated manufacturing facility in New Jersey, with large steel doorways and a wall fabricated from rock. It’s intense.
Jeremy’s additionally interspersing archival footage, which is basically lovely, as that’s type of what the piece is about — piecing collectively these little bits of historical past. At some factors, he has the singers on display screen, then he cuts to coach tracks, then he cuts to bits of archival footage he’s obtained permission to make use of. There’s additionally some nice animation.
Yeah, it truly is. The entire venture is now to date past a filmed efficiency. I’ve actually appreciated collaborating with so many artists for it — artists who’re all specialists of their fields. I’ve a lot of opinions in regards to the total creative path, however I like it when collaborators carry their imaginative and prescient. And everybody concerned with this movie has put a lot into it. We’re excited to share the work.