Monday, March 07, 2005

Arsenal of Democracy

Julia Wolfe: Arsenal of Democracy. Posted by Hello

Women's History Month continues at HurdAudio. Tonight the celebration turns toward a longtime favorite composer of mine: Julia Wolfe and her CD Arsenal of Democracy released in 1996. It is a collection of five chamber works.

"Tell Me Everything" - performed by the SPIT Orchestra opens this listening experience with an aggressive, pulsating large ensemble with lots of detailed parts sliding in between the crevices of an overriding rhythmic push. The orchestration builds, decays and shifts a consistent body of materials through different parts to great effect. This work maintains a great physical quality while keeping the mind engaged with the formal and harmonic construction.

"Early That Summer" - performed by the Lark String Quartet. This string quartet shimmers through abrupt changes in volume while sustaining a rapid pulse. These four instruments seem to melt into a single entity with short and spare independence extended to any single part. The result is a large sound as if these four instruments were some kind of large bowed guitar. On the occasions when an instrument part does briefly break away from the group it sounds like a hot spark cast away from the heat of the ensemble that quickly burns out. The coda cuts off the pulse and draws out a long harmonic release. It's really an extraordinary sound and a beautifully crafted composition.

"Arsenal of Democracy" - performed by the Orkest de Volharding ensemble. This group is a political street band from Amsterdam. Here Wolfe paints her aggressive, pounding sound with lots of color and variation. These ideas are particularly well suited for brass, piano and electric bass (though I love how the flute holds its own in this texture). Plenty of exquisite dissonance in this music. All the parts of this ensemble mold into a singular whole without any focal instrumental part or melodic line.

"Four Marys" - performed by the Cassatt String Quartet. Here the Wolfe sound takes on a different shade and tempo. This string quartet features sustained tones that drift in pitch with surging dynamic centers that fill out a harmonic landscape. The level of variation found in the details of this piece keep it animated and engaging.

"Steam" - performed by Newband. Newband performs and commissions new works for the instruments created and built by Harry Partch. It's fascinating to hear what composers do when confronted with Partch's 43-notes-per-octave just intonation system. "Steam" sounds nothing at all like Partch. It sounds like Wolfe's characteristic sonic texture with the timbre of Partch's instruments woven in. As such it sounds less fluent than "Tell Me Everything" or "Arsenal of Democracy" to my ears. As engaging as this work is compositionally I'm not completely convinced that it does justice to the peculiarities of these particular instruments.

This is a nice sampling of Julia Wolfe's style. Her textures are incredibly attractive and I appreciate the balance of consonance/dissonance, loud/soft and ugly/beauty contrasts that she works with. The aesthetic of molding ensembles into singular sonic entities by eschewing foreground/melodic and accompaniment roles is enormously appealing.

No comments: