I saw this show at BAM on 12/2. I don't really remember why I got a ticket for it - - I might have needed it to round out my subscription for the fall season, or maybe it was because it featured the Bang On a Can All Stars, who I've been hearing about for years but had never heard perform. It turns out I had an even better reason to go be there: my friend Emily Eagen was singing in the show!
Emily and I know each other from Madison, she got her Master's there. She's an extraordinary singer and also a two-time International Whistling Champion. I got to BAM early (natch) and went to my seat and looked through the program - - I saw her name in the cast list and asked an usher how I could leave a note for her and hopefully meet up with her after the show. He sent me to someone in security, who told me where to find the stage door. I found the stage door and spoke with the affable guy who was guarding it.
ME: Hi there - - I have a friend in the show and I'd like to leave a note for her. Could I do that?
HIM: Sure thing, man.
ME: Great, thanks a lot.
HIM: Just for future reference, you'd have better luck if you sent your friend a text.
ME: The problem is I don't have a cell phone.
ME: Can you believe it.
HIM: No, I don't believe it. It's none of my business, but why don't you have a cell phone?
ME: Basically I don't want one. I don't want to be connected all the time. I like the feeling of walking away from a phone.
HIM: You know you can turn it off, right?
ME: Yeah, I've heard about that. I guess it comes down to I really don't want one.
HIM: Ya know, cell phones are supposed to connect people but most of the time they just make people more isolated.
ME: I can't tell you how many times I've literally run into people on the sidewalk because they're texting.
HIM: That's not right.
And then poof!, Emily walked by! Saying, "Chris Ryan!" We talked for a few minutes, she was very excited I was seeing the show and said she would be singing to ME. How sweet is that.
Composer Julia Wolfe wrote *Steel Hammer* in 2009 for Bang On a Can and a trio of singers. It's scored for clarinet (doubling saxophone), cello, double bass, piano, guitar (doubling banjo), and percussion. It's a retelling of the fable of John Henry, the African American railroad worker who went up against a machine. He won the race, and died of exhaustion. The music was fascinating, it sounded sort of folky but still completely original. Her writing for voice is idiomatic, and the instrumentation is tasty.
Director Anne Bogart heard a performance of *Steel Hammer* and was inspired to adapt the piece into a theatrical event for SITI Company. The ensemble had six actors/dancers who all did a great job. The dancing was fantastic, I wish she had kept it as a music piece with dance - - the problem is that she commissioned four playwrights (Kia Corthron, Will Power, Carl Hancock Rux, and Regina Taylor) to write scenes to be performed between the movements. These scenes went beyond not adding anything: they detracted from the power and momentum of the piece. All the air went out of the tires in these scenes, it just did not work.
I met Emily backstage after the show and talked with her a bit. She sang beautifully, it was a treat to see her and hear her in a show.