Julia Wolfe: Dark Full Ride
Cantaloupe Records

I first became aware of New York-based composer Julia Wolfe's music when Philip Glass's Point Music label issued her Arsenal of Democracy CD in 1996. That collection was sufficiently memorable that ever since I've waited excitedly for anything else by the Bang on a Can organization co-founder (along with David Lang and Michael Gordon) to appear. Her Dark Full Ride is more in keeping, sonically speaking, with the wide-ranging spirit of that early release in contrast to the string quartets collection that was issued on Canteloupe in 2003. Consider: Wolfe composed the new recording's four multi-part pieces for multiples of individual instruments: nine bagpipes, four drum sets, six pianos, and eight double basses. Don't think for a moment that limiting each piece to a single instrument results in a diminished musical experience either; while Wolfe doesn't necessarily coax novel sounds from the instruments, her handling of them is so inventive that the material remains captivating.

Serendipity also plays a part in Wolfe's compositional process, as shown by the fact that she learned when writing “LAD” that filling a bagpipe with air produces a drone, and so subsequently incorporated it into the piece's opening part. Upping the ante, Wolfe staggers multiple bagpipes as they individually rise upwards, resulting in a phantasmagoric effect that's completely captivating. In the mesmerizing second part, the bagpipes roar with a keening bleat and wail that grows ever more ecstatic and cacophanous. Wolfe's audacity carries over into the title piece when its opening seven minutes are performed using only a drum kit's hi-hats and cymbals. But ever-changing rhythm patterns and opened and closed treatments of the hi-hats prevent one's attention from straying, despite the minimal means deployed. During part two, cymbal rolls pan from channel to channel, and patterns of tom-toms and bass drums stagger in and out of sync in a way that suggests Billy Cobham times three. The three-part “my lips from speaking” builds from a bluesy piano riff (apparently from a classic R'n'B song) into a fractured, at times overwhelming and clangorous mass before reverting back to its bluesy origins. Be forewarned that Dark Full Ride isn't ambient music by any stretch of the imagination, nor is it minimalism-styled systems music (though some hint of that comes into play when an occasional arpeggio pattern courses through the double bass piece “Stronghold”) but rather a challenging stream of “new classical” music by an admirably bold and, I suspect, somewhat underappreciated composer.

January 2010