March 6 and 7, David Lang curates the 2015 New Music Dublin festival What?…Wow: David Lang’s Festival of Music.
Lang’s festival spans six concerts over two days including the Irish premiere of his man made, performed by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra with New York-based quartet So Percussion; the Irish premiere of Julia Wolfe’s Appalachia-inspired Steel Hammer, performed by the Bang on a Can All-Stars with Norwegian vocal ensemble Trio Mediaeval; and the world premiere of Michael Gordon‘s new work for the Dublin Guitar Quartet.
Gordon’s newest installment in his formidable series of concert-length works for single instrument groups (Timber: six percussionists, Rushes: seven bassoonists) is scored for four electric guitars. This series of compositions as well as his other recent works, including the premiere in January by Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony of El Sol Caliente, explore Gordon’s unique perspective on timbre, rhythm, musical textures and structure. A microscopic focus on individual, intersecting lines of melody and rhythm produces an aural landscape that appears stark and repetitive, yet intensely stratified and varied. The texture of these latest works, at their macrolevel, creates kaleidescopic conglomerations of rhythm, pitches, harmonics and timbres.
Lang’s man made, premiered in May 2013 by the BBC Symphony with So Percussion and was given its US premiere by the LA Philharmonic this past October. Recently, the work has had premieres in Holland and Finland, and is performed two more times this season by the Cincinnati Symphony and the Colorado Symphony.
The work begins with the soloists on an invented instrument, the percussionists in the orchestra hear the solo music and translate it into something that can be approximated by more traditional orchestral percussion, the rest of the orchestra hears and understands the orchestral percussion, and they join in. The opening, for example begins with the soloists snapping twigs, which the orchestral percussionists translate into woodblocks, marimba and xylophone, which the orchestra takes up and embellishes, eventually overwhelming the soloists. This process of finding something intricate and unique, decoding it, regularizing it, and mass producing it reminded me of how a lot of ideas in our world get invented, built and overwhelmed.
Wolfe’s 90-minute Americana cantata, Steel Hammer, is inspired by the legend of John Henry, an American tall-tale that pits man against machine in a race to the death to drive steel railroad spikes. The work is part of Wolfe’s recent emphasis on weaving musical elements and subject matter from folk traditions into her music, including Cruel Sister — a tone-poem for string orchestra based on the English folktale of the same name, riSE and fLY — a body concerto for percussion and orchestra that integrates elements from urban street music and Appalachia, and her most recent work that was featured on the innagural 2014 New York Phil Biennial, Anthracite Fields — a powerful work for chorus and ensemble that celebrates the American worker, specifically the coal miners of central Pennsylvania.
Wolfe writes about the folk influence in Steel Hammer:
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.