JULIA WOLFE: Cruel Sister – Ensemble Resonanz – Cantaloupe Records CA21069 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
At first, I didn’t know how to deal with the annoyance factor in the second piece on this disc, entitled simply Fuel. An ostinato of the assembled strings of Ensemble Resonanz plays on and on, while one violin squeaks like a loose metal protrusion on an overhanging bridge. One note over and over, for several minutes, tottering at a very high pitch, buffeted by a flurry of assembled strings. Then something very clever happens: the staccato note turns into one long-held note, bars long, still sounding at the same pitch, but eventually, just blending into the fabric of the piece. It effectively disappears, as if someone had just oiled it. After the fourth listening, I decided I liked it.
This is second-generation minimalism, more complex than the previous style forged by Philip Glass, John Adams, and Steve Reich decades ago. It actually takes you somewhere – where, you’re not exactly sure, but it’s fun getting there. There is clanging life in Fuel, the sound of harbors and transport and nasty onrushing vehicles, all done without a whit of percussion. Halfway through the piece the squeaking returns, but with more urgency, as if it’s a mini-chorus supplying backup for the rushing metropolis. It is an obliquely witty work that commands attention and offers no adagio respite from urgency. Listen to that final note – it will drive you bonkers.
The first piece on the CD is Cruel Sister, programmatically based on the old folk song about jealousy and murder, covered 17 years ago by Lorena McKennitt (disguised as The Bonny Swans on The Mask in the Mirror). This is another arch work, of similar intensity and invention as Wolfe’s series of string quartets released several years back. Don’t wear yourself out trying to locate which part is the murder or the rushing water. It would be like spotting the clamshells in Debussy’s La Mer. This is a more sophisticated piece than Fuel, and quite a bit more scary. The descending glissandos in II, the disquieting quiet sequences in III, the prickly pizzicatos in IV, with faint tributes to Bartok’s String Quartet No. 4. Composer Wolfe is pretty plucky herself. For about a minute, the ensemble strums a single cranky note and nothing more. This is the harp of the legend playing with the sister’s ghost trapped inside, so it’s not exactly mellifluous. The strings gradually intrude with a spooky melody, then suddenly, Morton Feldman-like, the note changes pitch and continues to assert itself, backed by an doleful drone that snatches control and turns massive like guilt, ending the piece.
Nice drama. Just don’t play it over dinner.
— Peter Bates