Drew Artist-in-Residence Julia Wolfe Describes the Making of Steel Hammer
Pulitzer Prize Winner and MacArthur Fellow at The Concert Hall.
April 2017 – At Drew University, composer and Artist-in-Residence Julia Wolfe spoke extemporaneously and modestly about “Steel Hammer,” her critically acclaimed piece about the legend of John Henry.
In contrast, a musician who performs the piece extolled the care that Wolfe took to craft parts for him. Mark Stewart, who plays banjo, dulcimer and guitar in the Bang on a Can All-Stars—an ensemble that Wolfe co-founded—said Wolfe approached him during the writing of “Steel Hammer” and simply asked, “What do you do on the banjo?” The conversation resulted in a score that leveraged his strengths.
“Julia not only writes for these instruments, but she writes for these people,” explained Stewart. “She wants to take full advantage of who we are.”
Wolfe’s creative generosity also shined during her talk, as she introduced each band member and regularly ceded the floor to them, at times so they could show how they play. The result was a genial back and forth that enlightened, entertained and sparked thoughtful questions from professors and students alike.
The behind the music session was part of a three-day residency by Bang on a Can, which also included an open rehearsal (see photos below) and a performance of “Steel Hammer.” The activities marked the culmination of a busy semester for Wolfe, who also co-taught a class on documentary expression with Associate Professor Rebecca Soderholm and mentored students in Drew’s new Semester on Social Entrepreneurship in New York City.
Wolfe is a world-class composer who earned the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2015 and a MacArthur Fellowship last year. She’s also down-to-earth: she wore jeans to the talk and sat on the edge of the Concert Hall stage as she shared what inspired each movement of “Steel Hammer.”
One movement, for example, centers on the nine states that historians assert Henry came from, including Georgia, Tennessee, Ohio and New Jersey. Another movement is about Polly Ann, the main woman in Henry’s life.
As the story of Henry—the American railroad worker who competes with a steam engine and wins—is a folktale, the music contains elements of folk, including a mountain dulcimer and lots of percussion. And some of the percussion—as several All-Stars demonstrated—doesn’t even require an instrument.
Using his feet, Stewart tapped a heel-to-toe rhythm on the stage, directing the audience to follow along. Similarly, Stewart, percussionist Mike McCurdy and clarinetist Ken Thomson broke into a hambone that utilized their hands, chest, thighs and feet. Suddenly, The Concert Hall was the site of a hootenanny.
At one point, Wolfe shifted to the first row to hear the musicians describe how they first became interested in music. They were answering a simple question from a student but each took the time to provide context and feelings. Wolfe seemed enthralled, noting afterward that she discovered new things about her old friends. It was a sweet end to an intimate evening.
Here’s a look at the open rehearsal: