Julia Wolfe at Miller Theater

Originally posted on February 3, 2011

Two of Julia Wolfe’s orchestral strings works were performed at Miller Theater on Thursday, by the young and dynamic string players from Signal.

Cruel Sister opens with a pulsating low drone that repeatedly builds upwards and then falls back, each peak intensifying the drama as the tension builds between the two sisters over a shared lover.  As the music falls back once more, a sustained, stratospheric melody begins to call out amidst the pulsations, as if the sister preferred by the lover is pleading with her “cruel sister” for understanding, maybe forgiveness.  To no avail, though, as the intensity builds again, before abruptly dropping out completely, leaving the high, chilling melody floating alone, like, as Wolfe explained, the drowned body of the murdered sister.  This eerie death song, which lasts nearly four minutes, is more emotionally harrowing than the loudest peak of Cruel Sister.  The melody is joined by the rest of the ensemble to create a sound like the bellows of Death’s accordion being slowly filled with air.  Gradually this sound is replaced with plucking as the dead sister’s breastbone is fashioned into a harp whose purpose it is to torture the cruel sister at her wedding reception.  Plucking is joined by strumming as the violinists hold their instruments like ukuleles, until the entire ensemble plucks in a seemingly arhythmic unison (an impressive feat for such a large ensemble), and a single violin plays fragments of a melody, this time lower in range.  The piece ends with a slow crescendo, as if the horror of the cruel sister’s action is swelling within.

Wolfe exploits the full, visceral potential of the string in Cruel Sister: the threads of the bow being dragged against the strings of the instruments, the latter being plucked by the fingers of several players in unison.  Signal rose to the challenge with such virtuosity and abandon that less than 10 minutes into the performance bows were already fraying.

Fuel, the second work on the program, also tells a story, albeit the more abstract one of oil drills and loading docks.  Written in conjunction with the creation of a film by Bill Morrison, both audio and visual elements of the performance were seamlessly knitted together and depicted, as Wolfe puts it, “the whir of incessant mechanisms…the sweat of human energy, and the power source of the sun.”  Accordingly, this athletic piece was spun out in front of time-lapse shots of industrial landscapes that sometimes featured the NYC skyline in the background.  Fast-paced rhythmic patterns and scratch tones created a sort of cold beauty that highlighted the graceful movements and bright colors depicted in the film.

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