Shocking Story, Significant Sound: Julia Wolfe’s Cruel Sister, featuring Ensemble Resonanz

by Daniel Garrett

Julia Wolfe, Cruel Sister
featuring Ensemble Resonanz
Conductor: Brad Lubman
Executive Producers: Michael Gordon, David Lang, 
Kenny Savelson and Julia Wolfe
Recorded and edited by Eberhard Schnellen and Udo Potratz
Cantaloupe Music, 2011

The obvious difficulty of classical music, old and new, is frequently language: how do those of us who are not musicians or music scholars enter the music, appreciate it, and describe it? To the novice, it requires a quality of attention that can seem academic or religious, and far from the desired entertainment. Yet, it is entertaining, but the pleasure occurs in one’s depths. Listening to the album Cruel Sister, consisting of two of Julia Wolfe’s compositions, “Cruel Sister” and “Fuel,” has its rewards, as performed by Ensemble Resonanz, a group playing violins, violas, cellos and bass. Its details are markers along a road rarely traveled, with treasure at the end. In “Cruel Sister,” a pulsating line of sound within ominous silence, a string rhythm, whistling, fluttering, the great dramatic tension of focused energy, a shimmering rise of volume, the suspense of a repeated beat, a sharp plucking sound, and fast jagged rhythm are interesting on their own, without knowing the tragic story that inspired the composition. The same is true of “Fuel,” with its orchestral density, fast and full, in which the height and weight of the sound becomes lower and less and patterns recur, with a flickering rhythm threaded with what sounds like the squeaking of a machine, followed by long stripes of sound from the strings, a quickened tempo, and a glimpse of the future.

Julia Wolfe’s music is known for its diverse influences, classical, folk, and popular music, and for its force; and Wolfe, a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her “Steel Hammer,” is highly regarded for her string quartet compositions, such as “Dig Deep,” “Four Marys,” “Early That Summer,” and “My Beautiful Scream,” the last of which was conceived to correspond to a slow-motion scream, following the September 11 World Trade Center attack, and was written for the Kronos Quartet. (Julia Wolfe’s piece “Lick” took fire from funk music fragments, and “My Lips from Speaking” was sparked by Aretha Franklin’s song “Think.”) On Wolfe’s album Cruel Sister, the first composition, “Cruel Sister,” draws inspiration from an old English ballad recorded by Pentangle, a folk-rock group, about two sisters infatuated with the same man, until one sister drowns the other, with tragic fate deepening its presence when musicians find the dead sister’s body and turn her breastbone into a harp, stringing it with her hair, and play the harp at the living sister’s wedding. “While my piece references no words and quotes no music from the original tune, it does follow the dramatic arc of the ballad—the music reflecting an argument that builds, a body floating on the sea, the mad harp,” writes Julia Wolfe in the album’s notes. At the time “Cruel Sister” was performed by the Signal ensemble with conductor Brad Lubman in New York at the Miller Theater, the music critic Anthony Tommasini commended it for its structure, and said it was “brilliantly performed,” and went on to declare: “When the music erupts with frenzied chords, tremors and sirenlike screeching, you know that the sister’s jealousy has turned murderous. An extended passage of calm harmonies hovering over a drone bass depicts the body of her victim floating on the water” (The New York Times, February 4, 2011).

However, even aware of all that, I find it hard to think of the terms in which I would introduce Julia Wolfe’s music to a friend. Classical music no longer fits easily into cultural or social life, if it ever did. Its sensibility, its ideals and rhythms and tempos, are not typically those of ordinary life; and when most people think of community, culture, drama, philosophy, or pleasure, they are more likely to think of a visit to a local bar, a rock concert, a film, or, in more rare cases, a play or book talk. Unfortunately, that seems true even of many educated people, who, like their less lettered brothers and sisters, resent being asked to make an effort: an effort connotes a duty or obligation, whereas freedom connotes indulgence. I tend to think that it is an act of freedom to pursue something significant in a world that seems inclined to destroy meaning, but that appears to be an eccentric perspective. What is the purpose now of the kind of music that Julia Wolfe and her peers create? Celebration and commemoration? Rest or ritual? Contemplation or consolation? Entertainment and enlightenment? I suppose that it is enough that it exists—even apart from everything else, though it is not, thankfully, always apart from everything else.

In “Cruel Sister,” as recorded with the Ensemble Resonanz, a group featuring ten violins, four violas, three cellos, and one bass, the opening silence is broken by a focused but tentative sound that becomes more determined and intense, with suspense and alarm, with notes like rising steps (those eighth notes) that end in a short dance, followed by quiet and then a musical ground-shake, and a plucking sound akin to picking up the pieces after a disaster, concluding with something both delicate and hard. In the New York performance of the piece, it was accompanied, as on the Wolfe album, by “Fuel,” a score for a Bill Morrison film “that shows time-lapse images of cargo ships, trucks being loaded, drilling rigs and highways in New York and Hamburg,” with the music described as “all spiraling rock riffs and whirring clusters of notes” (Tommasini, Times, February 4, 2011). The Ensemble Resonanz, for which “Fuel” was written, had asked Wolfe to write a challenging piece; and the necessity of fuel, and its import around the world, is at the piece’s thematic core. Apart from the obvious busyness of the piece, its flutter of notes and axle-resembling whine, I find it remarkable that the sounds in it seem to come from different directions, creating a vivid scene. Some of the performance could be occurring in a faraway valley, but something bright—fast, melodious, optimistic—emerges; and there seems to be more rhythm than melody, with a crazy maze of patterns.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Garrett has said, “Being an artist is not a pursuit of success or an acceptance of failure; rather, it is an openness to life and its deepest possibilities, an openness to imagination, intellect, and spirit, and a correspondent commitment to craft experience and objects influenced by that openness.” Contact: dgarrett31@hotmail or