Text by Paul Magid
Danny Barnes, Robin Holcomb, Rinde Eckert, vocalists; Bill Frisell, soloist
Northwest Sinfonia, Christian Knapp, conductor
Perhaps the best way to characterize Wayne Horvitz's (b. 1955) Joe Hill: 16 Actions for Orchestra, Voices, and Soloist (2004)-based on the life and times of the legendary labor activist and organizer-is as a radio play that tells the story of a man's life in words, instrumental music and songs. Like a song cycle, Joe Hill incorporates much previously-written material (nearly all of it re-harmonized). There are songs by Hill himself, such as "The Rebel Girl" and "There is Power in the Union," but also by others, including the folk poem "The Lumberjack's Prayer," Mississippi John Hurt's "Spike Driver's Blues," and an old English street cry, "Chairs to Mend." It also employs spoken word, including Joe Hill's famous "Last Will and Testament," plus words used as narration and dramatic dialogue. But "song cycles" don't usually include ravishingly beautiful stretches of chamber music, much less a completely open line in the score for an improvising guitarist-in this case, the most influential one of our time, Bill Frisell. This Rubik's cube of jazz, folk, classical and popular music is strikingly elegiac and autumnal in tone, more requiem and lament than celebration or call to "action." This is appropriate to its theme of martyrdom, though there are also many exhilarating, jaunty, and humorous sections. Apart from classical music and the blues its other major influences are what has come to be called "Americana"-to be more specific, Appalachian music's nasal vocals, affection for open fifths, ambiguity between major and minor thirds, and the jazzy Broadway writing of Leonard Bernstein, particularly his penchant for rapid time-signature changes. Horvitz has chosen to tell Hill's story in music that is both complex and direct, ironic and sentimental, dissonant and gorgeous, popular and artful, and that relishes a well-wrought song as much as long-form development.