Bang on a Can video revives evocative ‘John Henry’ oratorio

United StatesUnited States Julia Wolfe, Steel Hammer: Bang on a Can All-Stars / David Bloom (music director), soundtrack recorded at the Bunker Studio, Brooklyn, and David’s Studio, New York, for video made exclusively for Cal Performances, Berkeley. Streamed first on 6.5.2021, and available on demand through 4.8.2021. (HS)

Singers Molly Netter, Rebecca Hargrove and Sonya Headlam

Bang on a Can All-Stars:
Robert Black (bass)
David Cossin (percussion)
Vicky Chow (piano, melodica)
Arlen Hlusko (cello)
Mark Stewart (electric guitar, banjo, mountain dulcimer, harmonica)
Ken Thomson (clarinets, harmonica)
Rebecca Hargrove, Sonya Headlam, Molly Netter (voices),

A soft scraping sound punctuates darkness. Whooshing gradually develops a pulse as closeups show musicians creating this sound with sandpaper blocks and hands scraping a banjo, a cello, a bass. The voices of three women emerge. As black-and-white archival images of tracks, bridges and tunnels flash, the voices eventually coalesce into sounds reminiscent of train whistles.

Thus begins the innovative contemporary music group Bang on a Can’s visually arresting video of composer Julia Wolfe’s Steel Hammer, the impressionistic eight-part, 70-minute oratorio that debuted in 2009. Wolfe compiled her own libretto from snippets of more than 200 versions of the iconic American folk ballad of John Henry, the ‘steel-drivin’ man’ who defeated the machine intended to replace him, and died in the effort.

A co-founder of Bang on a Can, Wolfe has written several large-scale scores for the group since its origin in 1987. She considers Steel Hammer the first of a trilogy that focuses on American workers. Anthracite Fields (2015), for chorus and orchestra, delves into miners in Appalachia, and won her a Pulitzer Prize. The most recent, Fire in My Mouth (2019), for girls’ and women’s chorus and orchestra, is a meditation on a 1911 blaze that killed 146 immigrant garment workers in New York.

Mallet on brake drum makes the sound of steel on rail.

Instead of laying out the story as a narrative, Steel Hammer grabs a few words at a time from the ballads and spins them into a kaleidoscope of rhythmic and harmonic fragments. There’s very little melody in this music, but the sounds conjure up a range of hypnotic images. In that opening segment, the libretto consists entirely of the words ‘Some say he’s from…’. The next section, ‘The States,’ uses a list of locations from Georgia to Ohio as fodder for musical gestures that layer and intertwine contrapuntally.

That cues us that Wolfe cares more about how the details of the ballad over the years morphed into different names, places and even descriptions of the title character than about telling the story straight-out. If you’re expecting an actual ballad, you might want them to get on with it. But if you settle back and watch the images assembled by Brooklyn-based video director Jeremy Robins, the whole piece comes together as a freewheeling rumination, both musical and visual.

In a behind-the-scenes interview with Cal Performances director Jeremy Geffen, Wolfe identified several common elements of the John Henry story from the various versions: ‘John Henry was a strong man, he worked digging a [railroad] tunnel, the captain brings around a steam engine that is to replace him, they have a race and John Henry wins. But he dies.’ She sees relevance today with machine learning replacing human workers.

Various iterations of the ballad call the hero’s woman Polly Ann, Liza Ann, even Mary Magdalena, among others. In a common version, Polly Ann takes over for an ill Henry and drives the steel herself ‘like a man’. How could a woman composer resist that? To her credit Wolfe does not belabor it, just drops it in as a single line.

Although Cal Performances contracted with Bang on a Can to perform this as a touchstone for its 2020-2021 season, the pandemic made a live performance impossible. Individual musicians recorded their parts for the score in far-flung locations, from studios in Brooklyn and New York City to Connecticut, Massachusetts and Berlin. The result is astonishingly seamless and unified musically.

Videos of the musicians were also shot during the recordings, and closeup images stand among the highlights. We do not see the instrumentalists’ faces, only guitarist Mark Stewart’s hands on a banjo in the opening, his feet dancing a clog in a later sequence, Robert Black’s fingers low on his bass’s fingerboard, Ken Thomson keying his clarinet, percussionist David Cossin’s mallet clanging a brake drum or bow on a cymbal to create metallic sounds. Wolfe can be disarmingly literal.

The three singers, however, make a stunning impression individually and together, shown against a remnant of an old mine’s rock wall inside a New Jersey factory. Clad in light brown cotton frocks that a nineteenth-century worker’s wife might have worn to church on Sundays, Rebecca Hargrove, Sonya Headlam and Molly Netter inject a huge dose of energy and personality with their facial expressions. Their voices intertwine beautifully whether clashing in dissonance, sliding between notes or landing phrases in perfect unison or harmony.

Wolfe’s music trades in the gestures of American folk music, blues, rock and classical tropes. Her individual style is unmistakable, and her fascination with overtones – both of the words and the musical sounds she spins from them – is palpable. If the later large-scale works of her trilogy show more focus, this piece marked a turning point in her music. The high level of the performance and the creative use of video make returning to this one well worth the revival.

Harvey Steiman

The video is available on demand at Cal Performances: click here.

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