Review: Bang on a Can All-Stars and Trio Mediaeval Perform 'Steel Hammer'

Monday, November 23, 2009

There's a line somewhere that separates music from noise. What the far-from-conventional ensemble the Bang on a Can All-Stars and their musical collaborators, Trio Mediaeval, brought to the Smith Center's Dekelboum Concert Hall on Friday was an astonishingly compelling amalgam of the two, in a performance of Julia Wolfe's "Steel Hammer" -- 75 minutes of crashing and lyricism, hissing and clanging, roaring and delicate cello and clarinet solos that chronicled the many legends surrounding the life of John Henry, the "steel-driving man" who pitted himself against a machine.

Trio Mediaeval is a group of three Scandinavian women whose singing is hauntingly straight and unerringly in tune. Their assignment was to tell the story in a sort of detached John Adams-like minimalist idiom in which text is deconstructed and patterns that are almost repetitive, but not quite, go on for long periods of time. That they managed this with such poise and aplomb is testimony to stunning powers of concentration.

Meanwhile, the All-Stars (clarinet, cello, bass, mountain dulcimer, banjo, percussion and piano) provided the landscape. Power, agony, call it what you will, theirs was the emotional component of the undertaking. It was also physical. Bang on a Can's instruments don't stop with what they hold in their hands. In the amplified context of their performance, hands themselves, rubbing together, spoke eloquently. Deep-throated hums, the sound of the banjo face being stroked and the infectious rhythms of Quebec-style seated clogging augmented the available sound spectrum. The six musicians carried it all off with an apparently relaxed insouciance that masked virtuosity, commitment and serious artistry.

-- Joan Reinthaler

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