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 vs. machine in this quintessential American legend. Many of the facts are unclear – some say he’s from West Virginia – some say he’s from South Carolina – some say he’s from New Jersey... But regardless of the details, John Henry, wielding a steel hammer, faces the onslaught of the industrial age as his super human 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 in to a new whole - at times meditating on single words or phrases – in order to tell the story of the story - 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 mountain dulcimer). I have referenced the folk music influence in many of my other works - Four Marys (for string quartet) and Cruel Sister (for string orchestra) take folk tales as the inspiration for the music. LAD (for 9 bagpipes), and Accordion Love (accordion concerto) explore and experiment with folk performance traditions. In Steel Hammer, I’m calling on the Bang on a Can All-Stars to expand out from their usual instrumentation to include the likes of dulcimers and bones, and accessing Trio Mediæval’s extensive work in their native vocal traditions.
In Eight Parts: Water (Michael Gordon, David Lang, Julia Wolfe) 1. My Soul (David Lang) 2. Water Instrumental (Heavy Water) (Michael Gordon) 3. He Saw a Skull (Michael Gordon) 4. Before Roll, Ocean (David Lang) 5. Give Me (David Lang) 6. Thirst (Julia Wolfe) 7. Roll, Ocean (David Lang) 8. Tephillat Geshem (Prayer for Rain) (Michael Gordon)
Composers' Note: Water is a lover's tears, an unquenchable thirst, a fight for survival, a prayer for rain. Our piece Water is a meditation on the poetry of water: what it means to have it, how we misuse it, and how we struggle for it. Rain falls. Tears flow. A skull is found in a river. A man thirsts.
Water is an exploration through music, staging and projection of how dependent we are upon water in our world, and how uneasy our dependence really is. Much of our dependence is of course physical; at the same time, the hope for water, or the lack of it, can be a spiritual construct as well. Our piece explores the water we have and the water we need, the water we control and the water that controls us.
We have always lived with water in a kind of fragile equilibrium. We have too much. We have none. A rich man calls for ice in his water, next to a poor man who thirsts. It is a precarious balance, between blessing and curse, between life and death, between plenty and scarcity.
In classical music, it is quite unusual for composers to collaborate, but it wasn't like that among Flemish Renaissance painters –– if the painter in the studio next door did better angels and you painted better flowers, it wasn't unusual for a collaboration to ensue. In my case, however, the requests for collaboration has often come from others, and Julia Wolfe, David Lang and I found ourselves embarking on our third collaborative piece in 2004, courtesy of the Cologne-based musikFabrik ensemble and the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival.
The two other Gordon/Lang/Wolfe collaborative works ––Lost Objects and The Carbon Copy Building–– are made up of numerous short musical movements. With Shelter we wanted to stretch out a bit, and we conceived of the piece in seven longer movements. Once again we reunited with Deborah Artman, who had written the libretto for Lost Objects. Like Lost Objects, Shelter is a staged oratorio, but with smaller forces: three sopranos and a large mixed ensemble. And we reunited also with Ridge Theater and their principal artists, director Bob McGrath, visual artist Laurie Olinder and filmmaker Bill Morrison, our collaborators on The Carbon Copy Building,
Lost Objects is a musical exploration of the meaning of memory. With the spine of a baroque oratorio layered with the muscle of modern times, it is a powerful monument to the loss of people, things, rituals, ideas.
In their second major collaborative performance project, genre-defying composers Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe team up with polyphonic writer Deborah Artman to work a strange and beautiful alchemy of text and sound. The baroque virtuosity of the legendary Concerto Köln is challenged and stretched by the hard-edged electric Bang on a Can Lost Objects Ensemble and the avant-turntables of DJ Spooky. In the same way that oratorios such as Handel's Messiah were intended to be staged, the 3 vocal soloists and 30 voice chorus of LOST OBJECTS inhabit a mythic and beautiful stage world, under the direction of the acclaimed, award-winning director François Girard (''32 Short Films About Glenn Gould,'' ''The Red Violin'').
The result is LOST OBJECTS, a haunting, hallucinatory and humane musictheater piece for baroque orchestra, rock ensemble (electric guitar, electric bass, keyboard and drums), live DJ remix, solo voices and choir. The unique weave of sounds combines the resonance of animal gut and wood with the ethereal blend of soprano and countertenor voices mixed with the edgy force of amplified rock instruments and drums. ''LOST OBJECTS is a prayer hall, a hymn but also an invention,'' writes Ms. Artman. ''There is a narrative, somewhat sacred, but it is a fractured meditation. In the tenuous and hurried climate of the times we live in now, LOST OBJECTS asks us to pause and consider the grace bestowed upon each thing, person, animal and idea, the ordinary and the not-so-ordinary lost objects of our shared and vanishing culture.''
The Carbon Copy Building is a dynamic and visually stunning trip through the gritty underside of urban life. Words and drawings by celebrated New Yorker comic-strip artist and recent MacArthur Grant recipient Ben Katchor (best known for the dark, witty humor of his cult-classic comic Julius Kniple, Real Estate Photographer) are vividly brought to musical life in a completely collaborative effort from Bang on a Can Co-Artistic Directors Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe. The revolutionary show won the Village Voice 2000 OBIE Award for Best New American Work. After several years, the work is finally out on CD - accompanied by Katchor's beautifully illustrated libretto - in a limited edition hard-bound Book and CD case.
This revolutionary new production embraces the dark, witty humor of Katchor, known for his cult classic underground comic, Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, to look at a pair of buildings constructed from the same architectural plan. One stands on a wide, wealthy avenue and the other on the forgotten alley of a fringe neighborhood. Architecturally, the buildings and their plans are identical, but their uses and the people and businesses that inhabit them could not differ more. Combining the striking projections of Katchor's comics with powerful virtuoso performances by a cast of four singers and four musicians (winds, keys, guitar, and drums), the production inventories the contents of the buildings, explores the parallel yet opposite lives of their inhabitants, and uncovers the strange and hilarious places in which the two worlds overlap - finally bringing together the odd lives of each building over a single piece of cherry cheesecake.
Katchor's stark line drawing reverberates with the jagged angularity of Gordon, Lang, and Wolfe's explosive new music to depict a strange and powerful American urban experience.