ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Julia Wolfe’s “Steel Hammer”

by Jill Kimball

Julia Wolfe's Steel Hammer

Almost everyone has heard some version of a song about the man called John Henry. Legend has it that John Henry was a steel driver–someone who drilled holes into rock so that explosives could blast entire mountainsides and make way for tunnels and railroads. One day, he tried to keep up with a machine and succeeded, only to die of stress-induced heart failure on the spot.

A statue of John Henry in Summers County, West Virginia.

A statue of John Henry in Summers County, West Virginia.

The character is fictional, but he represented the hordes of exploited laborers who built miles of American railroad in the late 19th century in harsh conditions for next to no pay. To this day, he is a symbol of unfair labor practices, of human strength, and of the skilled worker’s ongoing struggle to find work in an age of machines.

The folk song “John Henry” is well-known across so many genres. Everybody from Bruce Springsteen to Johnny Cash to Aaron Copland to They Might Be Giants has recorded, arranged or referenced it. Rather than being deterred by its ubiquity, though, the composer Julia Wolfe was inspired by it. Believe it or not, she waded through every version of “John Henry” she could find, noted all the lyric differences–since it’s an old folk tale, there are many–and wrote her own tribute in an album called Steel Hammer.

 

Musically, there’s a lot going on in this album. Norway’s vocal Trio Mediaeval provides strange, haunting and ethereal vocals throughout, accompanied by vastly different groups of instruments on each track. But the concept is simple: it’s an amalgamation of every John Henry story ever told, the details of which are often contradictory.

The album begins with mysterious, minimalistic vocals that reminded me a lot of fellow Bang on A Can composer David Lang. Then, a few effects are layered over the voices as they mimic the sound of a train whistle amid what sounds like a steel hammer driving into rock and the constant chug-a-chug of a steam engine.

According to legend, John Henry worked on a railroad in West Virginia. Or perhaps it was Kentucky. Or was it Columbus, Ohio? All of John Henry’s supposed locations are listed off in the folky, meandering second track, “The States,” which is pleasantly dissonant in all the right places. I especially like the introduction of driving percussion later in the track.

Two other tracks, “Characteristics” and “Polly Ann – The Race,” poke fun at the inconsistencies between John Henry stories. Some say he was tall; others say he was small. While some versions call his lover Polly Ann, others call her Mary Ann.

In “Destiny,” we learn that John Henry sealed his fate when he discovered his strength. “This hammer’s gonna be the death of me,” the vocal trio repeats as a piano and a cello play frenetic dissonant patterns and grow ever louder. The whole track ends loudly and abruptly, creating a frightening cliffhanger. We’re on the edge of our seats even though we all know the story’s tragic end.

“Mountain” paints a musical picture of the setting around which John Henry worked. At first it’s contemplative and tonal, but it grows increasingly dissonant as the steel driver’s death sinks in.

The two last movements, “Winner” and “Lord, Lord”, are like the modern answer to a Requiem mass, a seven-minute opportunity to come to grips with John Henry’s death, to grieve, and finally to hope that he is at peace now.

There’s a reason why this album was the runner-up for a Pulitzer Prize. It’s a triumph: beautiful but challenging, modern but accessible, at once relaxed and disquieting. I highly recommend you check it out! It’s available now on Cantaloupe Music‘s website.

CONCERT PREVIEW: Parnassus Project’s “Six Melodies”

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Seattle’s innovative chamber music collective Parnassus Project has been busy this summer performing on the Mostly Nordic Concert series, Occidental Park’s ArtSparks series, Kirkland Summer Fest, KING FM’s NW Focus Live and this Friday, August 15 at 8pm they’re performing a special program of American music on the Wayward Concert Series at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford.  The repertoire spans 66 years of the late 20th and early 21st centuries and highlights both American composition masters and up-and-coming composers Cole Bratcher, based here in Seattle, and George Gianopoulos, based in Los Angeles.

A handful of the performers stopped by the KING FM studios last Friday night to preview the concert.  Here are their recordings of some Elliott Carter (Haeyoon Shin, cello; Brooks Tran piano):

 

and Philip Glass (Luke Fitzpatrick, Sol Im, violins; Clifton Antoine, viola; Emily Hu, cello):

The full program for Friday includes:

John CAGE: Six Melodies for violin and keyboard (1950)
Elliott CARTER: Sonata for cello and piano (1948)
Cole BRATCHER: “Child of a Broken Home” for solo flute (2014)
George N. GIANOPOULOS: Three Conversations for violin & cello Op. 16b (2008-2009/2012) // 24 Chorale Preludes for string quartet Op. 6b [selections] (2011)
Philip GLASS: String Quartet No. 5 (1991)

…performed by some top-notch local musicians – all of the aforementioned as well as flutist Daria Binkowski.  Invite your friends and go check it out!

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Time for Three (Self-Titled)

by Maggie Stapleton

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Time for Three (a.k.a. TF3) totally nails the concept of “Rethink Classical.”  The members of this genre-defying trio (Zachary (Zach) De Pue, violin; Nicolas (Nick) Kendall, violin; and Ranaan Meyer, double bass) were trained at the Curtis Institute of Music and undoubtedly have incredible classical chops.  Their fluency and natural ability to play arrangements of The Beatles, Kanye West, and Katy Perry equally as well as Bach and Brahms is what sets these guys apart and makes their self-proclaimed “classically-trained garage band” title totally accurate.

“How do we reach a younger audience?” is a hot topic among symphony orchestras around the globe right now.  The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra has teamed up with TF3 for their “Happy Hour Series,” where they perform on about four programs per year.  I had a chance to talk to TF3 a few weeks ago about this experience and they absolutely love it.  They’ve developed a fan base of young professionals (90% are ages 20-45) who keep coming back, concert after concert.  TF3 caters to the needs of that demographic by crafting performances in the concert hall that are similar in format to rock shows – lights, trajectory of a playlist that takes you on a journey, and music that is groove-oriented and familiar.  They’ll pair Beethoven alongside Coldplay… Brahms… Radiohead.  The audience may come for the Radiohead, but find unexpected connections with Brahms.

And speaking of performances and venues, the guys are currently on tour and stopping right here in Seattle on Wednesday, August 13 at the Columbia City Theater, where you can sit or stand, drink a beer, dance, and make merry in this fun, historic space.  The show starts at 8pm and tickets are still available!

Their recently released self-titled album is an emblem for the modern era of genre-crossover, containing an impressive collection of arrangements, originals, and guest performers (Joshua Radin! Alisa Weilerstein!  Jake Shimabukuro!  Branford Marsalis!  Lily & Madeleine!).  We had the pleasure of having Nick, Ranaan, and Zach in our studios for a special in-studio performance:

 

Our hats are off to you, TF3, for this amazing collection of originals, covers, and collaborations!  If you like what you hear, pop over to iTunes or Amazon and make it yours.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: THE WESTERLIES’ “WISH THE CHILDREN WOULD COME ON HOME”

by Maggie Stapleton

We’ve written about the Seattle-born/NYC-based brass quartet The Westerlies before in our first ever video premiere feature.  Now we have a spotlight on their May release of Wayne Horvitz’ music – Wish the Children Would Come On Home, for which their Official CD Release Party is Friday, August 8 at the Royal Room.

So, why Wayne Horvitz?  (Why NOT Wayne Horvitz is really a better question, but…) Andy, Willem, Zubin, and Riley are long acquainted with Wayne as a teacher, mentor, and friend from their growing up in Seattle, but Horvitz actually approached THEM about doing the album in early 2013.  He recognizes all of the musicians as “technically excellent, theoretically sophisticated, mature beyond their years, astute, perceptive, and self-aware.”

Jazzy sonorities and harmonies combined with a composed structure give this album that quality of “it has a little something for everyone” – the Westerlies chose a broad range of Horvitz’ music to arrange and record, including jazz tunes, film music, and classical chamber pieces.  Now, none of these pieces were originally composed for brass, so the Westerlies had the extra task of doing the arrangements.  Horvitz praises the fact that “they sound like a band, not a brass ensemble” despite “the way they have manufactured a kind of limitation, simply by creating a quartet with 2 trumpets and 2 trombones.  Within all the bounty of their collective backgrounds, they have created a band that is a real hassle!  No rhythm sections, no chordal instruments, and music that is sometimes fiendishly difficult.”  I couldn’t agree more.  The textures and sounds created sound like much more than the sum of its parts (which are all great!).

The music on this album ranges from sultry (Please Keep That Train Away From My Door), lulling (Waltz from Woman of Tokyo), bombastic (The Band With Muddy), nostalgic (Triads totally has a Renaissance quality to my ears), goofy/playful (The Barbershop), free and experimental (Interludes), and smoky (The Store, The Campfire).

Keep an ear out for Andy, Willem, Zubin, and Riley’s voices on the Second Inversion stream!  As we incorporate this disc into our programming, you’re likely to hear one of them introduce the tracks on this album.  In the meantime, mark your calendar for the show nearest you on their WA, OR, and CA tour.

You can purchase Wish The Children Would Come On Home at The Westerlies’ Store.