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Allen Gimbel
American Record Guide, July 2011

Julia Wolfe’s Cruel Sister (2004) is a tone poem about two sisters, one “cold and dark”, the other “bright as the sun”. The dark one pushes the bright one into the sea to lay claim to the handsome young man who comes a-courting. A couple of minstrels find the washed up body, carve off the breast bone, and turn it into a harp, stringing it with the fair sister’s beautiful blonde hair. When the minstrels play at the fated wedding, the cruel sister begins to cry.

It’s a gaudy tale worthy of Dvoƙák. Ms Wolfe fashions it into an impressive 30-minute tone poem for string orchestra in roughly three parts (but there are four tracks) that abstracts the story into its most basic elements: “an argument that builds, a body floating on the sea, the mad harp” (the composer’s notes). I can’t say I grasp the details (I wish more detailed notes were supplied), but the effect is striking. The argument begins building through pulsating and trembling music reminding one of Ms Wolfe’s minimalist roots. More distended music is overlaid over the pulsation. The body floats initially in forbidding emptiness and then on a static body of vast harmony (track 3). The harp is built slowly with pizzicatos until it is inevitably itself engulfed. The piece is brilliantly scored and thoroughly absorbing. It’s an excellent addition to the string orchestra repertoire, and should live a long life as such.

It’s paired with Fuel (2007), a breathless 21-minute etude for string orchestra from a collaboration with filmmaker Bill Morrison on mechanical motion (I haven’t seen the film yet). The ensemble asked Ms Wolfe to write them “something rip roaring and virtuosic, push[ing] the group to the limit”. And that she did. This angular moto perpetuo is probably now the ultimate challenge for the string orchestra medium, and this phenomenal German group is more than up to the task. This is all together a very impressive program…

Greg Cahill
Strings Magazine, July 2011

...death and the ocean have a lot to do with the inspiration behind the title track on this disc of furious string music that goads and taunts and pushes and pulls the listener out of whatever comfort zone he may have left as sanctuary.

Haunting and disturbing, yes, but decidedly captivating. In the hands of the Hamburg-based Ensemble Resonanz...this richly textured 30-minute piece is taken to the edge of madness and carried on a sonic wave of seemingly endless glissandi, plucky pizzicato, and machine-gun repetitions.

It’s exhilarating.

Jay Batzner, May 2011

The big question I had when putting in this disc for the first time was “Will a string orchestra be able to recreate the visceral power and energy that I find vital in Julia Wolfe’s string quartets?” My fear was that the harder and sharper attacks I enjoy will be too diluted with more players in the ensemble. It was a silly skepticism to hold and any trepidations I had quickly melted away once I started listening. Also, Ensemble Resonanz is the same group that recorded Weather and a disc of Xenakis. I was pretty sure I was going to have a good time with this CD.

Ensemble Resonanz and Julia Wolfe make an excellent team. Not only did Wolfe obviously compose music better suited for an orchestra than a quartet (it was foolish of me to doubt that she would) but Resonanz also threw serious energy behind both pieces. Cruel Sister, inspired by a dark Old English ballad, is expressive and emotive balancing the programmatic elements with a clean dramatic line that makes sense in the abstract. The hollow open intervals which throb away at the beginning enmesh with more angry and spiky punctuations. The four attacca movements are woven together in a solid and disrupted narrative. Ensemble Resonanz brings power and control to the whole range of the sonic spectrum and Wolfe adeptly showcases register and texture. I am especially fond of the transition between the second and third movements which is (to my ear) simultaneously abrupt yet smooth.

Fuel is a far more abstract work driven by the problems the world faces regarding the necessity of fuel. Ensemble Resonanz masterfully blends in a variety of coloristic techniques, making sounds like scratch tones a part of the woven tapestry of sound. The CD notes go so far as to state that electronics were not used at all and that all the sounds in the piece are acoustic. I think that disclaimer is a bit  much. There is certainly a wider variety of string techniques and timbres in Fuel than in Cruel Sister but I never had a “What the heck was that?” reaction. Scratch tones, harmonics, tremolo, and filtering the sound via bow placement are all active parameters in the sound world. Again, Resonanz brings a whole lot of power throughout the registers and forms a massive hyper-instrument blend  the likes of which make string quartets secretly jealous.

Wolfe’s music is also doing what she does best: frenetic power created through post-minimalist techniques that transcend mere repetition. The music materials are sharp, taut, basic, and the economy of material is expertly managed. Wolfe knows how to make a lot out of a little AND pull the listener along for the ride. Both works have programmatic elements but not knowing the program does not interfere with the listening experiences. These works sound fresh and contemporary and I’m confident that audiences in the future will continue to relate and connect with the ideas therein.

Peter Bates
Audiophile Audition, April 2011

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.

WQXR (New York), April 2011

Teeming with jealousy, rage, passion, murder and a ghost, Julia Wolfe’s Cruel Sister has all the makings of an opera. However the 2004 piece (commissioned by the Münchener Kammerorchester), written for string orchestra, contains no words. No matter. In 30 minutes, Cruel Sister has all the makings of a five-hour French grand opera. Two sisters, one “bright as the sun,” the other “cold and dark” are courted by the same man. The latter drowns the former in order to marry the suitor, but her wedding takes a haunting turn when two minstrels show up, playing a harp made out of the dead sister’s breastbone.

While inspired by an old English folk ballad of the same name (and its ensuing cover by British folk-rockers Pentagle from 1970), Wolfe takes the story into her own expert hands. She weaves in the imagery of the jarring and gruesome murder, the dead sister’s body floating in the sea and the climactic return of her specter during the wedding with a touch of synesthesia through pizzicato riffs and churning bass lines. Wolfe’s meticulous post-minimalist prowess is given a touch of murky, Gothic horror and the work grips you with its ice-cold hand long after the final chords.

Under conductor Brad Lubman, Ensemble Resonanz elevates Cruel Sister to an incandescent plane, delving into the psyche of the titular murderous sibling the way Judi Dench once mined the character traits of Lady Macbeth.

Grego Applegate Edwards
Gapplegate Music Review, March 2011

For all my exposure to the marvelous Downtown New York institution Bang-on-a Can, I have not had the pleasure of hearing much of the music of co-founder-composer Julia Wolfe. There is no good reason for this. It simply is an omission on my part. The situation has been rectified by listening to her new release of compositions for the string orchestra Ensemble Resonanz, Cruel Sister (Cantaloupe 21069).

The album contains two longish works: “Cruel Sister” (2004), based on the story line of an Old English ballad, and “Fuel” (2007), which expresses the very pressing concerns of energy procurement and consumption in our world today.

Ensemble Resonanz performs these works with a beautiful sonority, great animation and spirit.

Both works reflect a kind of post-minimalism, where there is repetition at times but it serves more as a structural element among other structural elements, just as some kinds of passage-work, ostinatos, and sonata form involved repetitions in traditional classical music. In Ms Wolfe’s music the repetition elements are sometimes more forgrounded than in, say, an 18th century work, and the sonority is more pronouncedly constitutive as well. The sound of the music is in no way neo-anything. It is the modernity of the present that Wolfe’s compositions express.

Beyond that this is music of movement and repose, of personal expression and extra-personal sound sculpture. It does not particularly resemble anything either Bang-on-a-Can would typically do or the work of other composers that follow a post-before path. It manages to synthesize high-modernism with post-modernism, and so creates a sound (thanks to Ms Wolfe’s own singular inventiveness) that stands apart.

Multiple-listens are a must, as is always the case with very new music.

I now know that Julia Wolfe has something major to say in the new music arena. I recommend you listen too!

Anthony Tommasini
The New York Times, February 2011

You might think that writing program music automatically provides a composer with a structure for a long piece. The way this genre has typically been practiced, the music is supposed to illustrate a story. As long as the story has structure, the music should too.

But a piece of program music must have a convincing musical structure of its own, as Julia Wolfe’s restless “Cruel Sister” does. This 30-minute work for strings had its New York premiere on Thursday night at the Miller Theater, brilliantly performed by 18 players from the ensemble Signal, conducted by Brad Lubman. The concert was part of the theater’s Composer Portraits series. Ms Wolfe was on hand to discuss her music with John Schaefer, the host of WNYC’s “Soundcheck.”

Reiterating what she had explained in a recent interview, Ms Wolfe said that she had never been much interested in program music. “Cruel Sister” was inspired by an old English ballad she first heard on an album of the same name by the British folk-rock group Pentangle. Though Ms Wolfe never directly quotes this mournful song, she painstakingly depicts the story. And what a story!

Two sisters—one bright and fair, one cool and dark—are courted by the same young man. Consumed with jealousy, the dark sister pushes the fair one into the sea. Two minstrels discover the sister’s body on the shore and shape her breast bone into a harp. They take the harp to the wedding of the dark sister. Music flowing from the instrument reaches the stunned bride’s ears as the song ends: “And surely now her tears will flow.”

“Cruel Sister,” steeped in the post-Minimalist style, begins with the lower strings laying down a hypnotic pattern of insistent eighth-notes. Other strings enter with sustained tones that build into elemental chords, pierced by eerie, high lines on the violins.

When the music erupts with frenzied chords, tremors and siren-like 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 harp music at the wedding is suggested at first by the violas playing staggered staccato notes. Soon the entire ensemble breaks into aggressive pizzicatos: a horrific din of plucking, the “harp gone mad,” as Ms Wolfe put it. The piece ends with just a hint of a sad song, as if coming from some far-off place.

“Cruel Sister” was written for the Munich Chamber Orchestra in 2004. That commission led to another string piece three years later, “Fuel,” introduced by the Ensemble Resonanz in Hamburg, Germany. This score was presented here as originally conceived, with a film by Bill Morrison that shows time-lapse images of cargo ships, trucks being loaded, drilling rigs and highways in New York and Hamburg. Ms Wolfe’s hyperdriven music is all spiraling rock riffs and whirring clusters of notes. You could sense greenhouse gases spewing from the stage.

The concert was also a prerelease party for a new Cantaloupe Music recording of these two works played by the Ensemble Resonanz, with Mr Lubman conducting.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group