Eero Saarinen’s Kresge Auditorium at MIT reverberated with the sounds of three hours of contemporary classical music in their Boston premieres. Bang on a Can All-Stars and Trio Mediæval joined forces to perform Julia Wolfe’s Steel Hammer (2009), and after intermission Mantra Percussion presented Michael Gordon’s Timber (2010). The performances on Saturday, November 12, were engaging and dynamic, each captivating in different ways.
Steel Hammer represents Julia Wolfe’s engagement with the Appalachian ballads of John Henry and his race against “the machine”(a steam drill). From over 200 versions extant, Wolfe culled details and variants, turning these snippets into the text. The nine movements embrace a wide palette of sounds, ranging from solo voices to beat-box body percussion and clogging, to percussive strings and the variegated artistry of Evan Ziporyn on clarinet.
The work opens with the richly resonant voices of Trio Mediæval beautifully blending with one another in the extended a capella section of “Some Say.” The three sopranos sang as though they were one, effortlessly inhabiting the same musical impulse, yet somehow the sound is greater than that of three voices. The text is “Some say he’s from,” but the words are repeated, some endlessly. This opening announces a tension between the polyphonic voices in harmonies that are both common practice and modern, the deconstructed text becoming vocables and un-signifying phonemes. The instrumentalists join in, rhythmically scraping sheets of sandpaper together: perhaps this marks the roughness of transmission of these ballads? This opening section ends with Trio Mediæval on the repeated syllable “he,” being the only constant in the John Henry tales. Metal percussion reminds us that this is music about a steel-driving man.
The second section, “The States,” again deconstructs and repeats the names of the various states where John Henry lived and worked; voices became the sound of an electronic feedback loop, with oscillating dynamics and repetition. In “Destiny,” the third movement, Mark Stewart on banjo (and, later, mouth-harp) reminded us of the Appalachian roots of the source material, and the tension builds to the line “This hammer’s gonna be the death of me.” The fourth movement, “Mountain,” featured the vocal mastery of Trio Mediæval, singing in harmony and dissonance, at times sustaining dissonant suspensions with verve and precision. In “Characteristics,”the fifth movement, Stewart embarked on a remarkable feat of human body percussion and seated clogging during a lively and witty instrumental interlude that included Vicky Chow, pianist, simultaneously playing the keyboard and strumming the instrument’s strings. “Polly Ann,” the sixth movement, explores the variants of John Henry’s wife’s name, the text and music reconstituting a simpler texture to bring prominence to the line, “Polly drove steel just like a man.” The polyphonic vocals of that movement lead, attaca, to “The Race,” with its subito rhythmic instrumental music emphasizing the off-beats, and lots of metallic percussion and building in intensity to the line “I’ll hammer my fool self to death.” (Death is ominously omnipresent in these ballads as Wolfe’s work reminds us.) “Winner” starts a capella, the instrumentalists quietly joining in, and that meditative nature carries over into the finale, “Lord Lord.”
Running ninety minutes in performance, Steel Hammer is a test of stamina for the musicians. Bang on a Can All-Stars and Trio Mediæval rose to the challenge with grace and glee; the musicians’ exuberant pleasure was noticeable throughout the performance. This work combines complex textures and catchy rhythms with tunes in the simpler style of folksong, a tension that the musicians navigated well, altering tone, timbre, and vibrato to match the music.
Following a lengthy intermission (to recoup and also to re-set the stage), Mantra Percussion offered Michael Gordon’s seventy-five-minute composition, Timber. The six members of Mantra Percussion were arranged in a circle facing inward and reading the score off laptop computers manipulated by foot pedals. Underneath the instruments were lights, flashing and pulsing in sync with the music and the players and adding to the visual aspect of the performance. The work is scored for six “simantras.” These were first used in classical music by Iannis Xenakis, who invented them. Modeled after wooden bells used in the Greek Orthodox church since Byzantine times, the simantras basically are wooden 2×4 blocks, graduated so that there are differences of timbre and tone, and, although the simantras are not tuned, there are different pitches. The performers alternate who has the prominent line, at times playing one hand loudly and the other softly, at others passing the lead back, forth, and around. Initially each performer is limited to one simantra; over the course of the piece they move from two to four mallets each, then begin playing on two simantras simultaneously. This is not static music: it is a captivating rhythmic conversation, as cyclical waves of percussion ebb and flow over musicians and audience alike. The complex polyrhythms create a dynamic tension throughout Timber, as do the ever-changing subdivisions of the beat and the tremolo effects used throughout. The instrumental timber is resonant with a host of overtones that enrich and enliven the music. By paring down the instrumentation and exploring fully the rhythmic axis of music, Michael Gordon has made of minimalism an elaborate and dappled sonic landscape. Within the constraints the composer set himself, he found a remarkable wealth of expression.
From an opening unison, the work metamorphoses into a riotous profusion of rhythms, before returning at the end to a moment of final unison, of stasis. The sound of the percussion is organic, being mostly mallets on wood; in one instance, there is the striking of a metal leg supporting the simantra, but this is the exception and not the norm in Timber. The superb acoustics in Kresge Auditorium meant that the amplification in Mantra Percussion’s performance was overly present, adding almost a seventh line to the music. This is not present on the Slagwerk Den Haag recording (which comes encased in the highly-collectible one-pound wooden box!). I wondered if the length of the work might be governed by the working through of all the rhythmic permutations Gordon set up, but further research revealed that the CD contains only fifty-five minutes of the whole composition — twenty minutes less — so I must remain, for now, agnostic about the structuring principle of Timber. The work is long; Gordon wrote that he envisaged a trip into the desert. That comparison captures the length and the spartan instrumentation of Timber; aficionados of deserts can recognize the more subtle proliferation of variations both contain. Still, it is an odd comparison for a work performed on instruments derived from forests. The length and the minimalism were not to everyone’s taste, and unfortunately some of the audience grew restless during the performance. This is music that demands one give oneself over to it; in Gordon’s word, the entire piece is “ritualistic.” Not everyone commits to rituals, even those of a musical sort. I did, and found the piece, and the performance, to be utterly mesmerizing.