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Julia Wolfe is a cutting-edge American composer. She is one of the founders of Bang on a Can and is the composer of many unconventional works, including her Pulitzer Prize-winningAnthracite Fields (2014). Her music is heavily inspired by various genres including folk, classical and rock. She is able to create a synthesis of these styles, while also breaking their boundaries.
Julia Wolfe grew up in the small American town of Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania, between the bustling city of Philadelphia and the anthracite field region of coal country. At the time, the town’s roads were still made of dirt and the woods provided the children with plenty of entertainment in the forms of natural forts and ice skating trails. In addition to exploring the rugged outdoors surrounding her home, Wolfe also played piano.
During her student years, Wolfe was active as a folk singer and instrumentalist. This musical phase is still evident in many of her works, which use folk instruments, such as the mountain dulcimer inSteel Hammer (2009), which was composed for Trio Mediaeval and the Bang on a Can players. A folk influence is also evident in her workWith a Blue Dress On (2010, rev. 2014) for singing violinist and eight recorded fiddle tracks, based on a folk tune.
Wolfe never planned on studying music, but perhaps sociology, psychology or some discipline in the medical field. However, after enrolling in the Creative Musicianship course taught by Jane Heirich at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor at the insistence of a friend, her pathway was forever altered. Heirich’s open-minded approach to music really spoke to Wolfe, who described her as “an amazing teacher, who played us all kinds of things: Dave Brubeck, Terry Riley, you name it”. After this course, Wolfe decided to major in music and earned a bachelor’s degree. She also wrote and acted for the theatre group she founded, the Wild Theater Company, which is still active.
Wolfe continued her studies at Yale, where she received lessons from Martin Bresnick. Afterwards, she pursued her doctorate at Princeton University. Early influences on her music include Gyorgy Ligeti, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk and Louis Andriessen.
While still a student in Ann Arbor in 1982, Wolfe made a visit to New York where she met composer Michael Gordon, whom she married in 1984. The couple, together with David Lang, founded a composer’s group in 1987, which they called Bang on a Can. The group presented their first music marathon that same year, which eventually became a short music festival. Additionally, an annual summer course unofficially known as “Banglewood” has been established.
In response to the high demand for performances outside New York City, Bang on a Can All-Stars was founded. Wolfe, Gordon and Lang have all composed for the All-Stars and even collaborated on a few joint projects, mostly in the form of a full-evening staged work, includingThe Carbon Copy Building (1999), Lost Objects(2001), Shelter (2005) and Water (2008).
Wolfe is satisfied with her relationship with her colleagues, which she describes as non-competitive. Despite this, Dutch composer Louis Andriessen always claimed she was “the sharpest and most aggressive of the three composers” even though she “looked the most quiet and polite”.
Not only was Wolfe influenced by Reich, but so were Gordon and Lang. Reich stated, “I get a general feeling that what she and Michael (Gordon) and David (Lang) have done was certainly influenced by what I did early on”. The tides have turned since these early years, divulged Reich, saying “what’s interesting is that they’ve come up with techniques I haven’t thought of, and which I sometime may steal from them”. In regards to Wolfe’s replacement of open-fifths with extreme clusters in her workCruel Sister, Reich admitted, “it’s very effective. I wouldn’t do that. I mean, I haven’t done it. But you know what? I’ll put it away for a rainy day”.
Wolfe has composed a number of string quartets along with a concerto for the Kronos Quartet and orchestra, though she doesn’t expect to write many other traditional pieces as she is “not drawn to the establishment per se, but…to big and wonderful things”. She finds joy in the “sound that’s approaching in a massive body of players”. With this idea in mind, she often has her works performed in public spaces, in Bordeaux, France for example, where herTravel Music(2009) for 100+ musicians of any type was performed by musicians riding in bicycle cabs throughout the town.
Perhaps the last time that Wolfe wrote a conventional piece was when she was still a student at Yale. At that time she composed a woodwind quintet that received performances by two professional groups. Wolfe claims that she now follows both her ears and her heart as “some people are pretty open to these wacky ideas. Some of these really odd pieces get played at universities and festivals with an outdoor element”.
Recently, Wolfe has composed several major works including Steel Hammer (2009) andAnthracite Fields (2014). The former is an evening-length theatrical work written for the Bang on a Can All-Stars and singers, which toured with the STI Company in an expanded form under the direction of Anne Bogart, premiering in New York at BAM’s 2015 Next Wave festival. It is based on the legend of John Henry.
Wolfe made a huge impression with the latter, Anthracite Fields, for which she was awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music. The work was commissioned by the choral group, the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia. The goal of the work was to recognise the hard work and sacrifice of the anthracite coal miners, whose efforts gave way to the industrial revolution and ensured heat for the cities and towns on the East coast. With this work, Wolfe aimed to “show the life [of the miners and their families] and understand it from different angles”, and thus “honour the people who persevered and endured in the Pennsylvania Anthracite coal region during a time when the industry fuelled the nation, and to reveal a bit about who we are as American workers”.
In preparation for Anthracite Fields, Wolfe visited the mines in Scranton and Lansford, talked with families and interviewed retired miners. The result is a moving 65-minute work in five movements, which contains a text based on oral histories and interviews, local rhymes and songs, geology, an advertisement for coal, an accident index, modern-day activities that are dependent on fuel and a political speech by the Head of the United Mine Workers Union, John L. Lewis.
Anthracite Fields opens with the movement “Foundation”, in which names of miners from the Pennsylvania Mining Accident index 1869-1916 are chanted. As the list is very long, Wolfe chose to use only those with the first name John and a one-syllable last name. The second movement, “Breaker Boys”, focuses on the young boys working in the mines, who were in charge of removing debris from the coal that would come rushing down the chutes. In this movement, various children’s rhymes are used. The third movement, “Speech” uses the text from a speech by John L. Lewis, while the fourth movement, “Flowers”, was inspired by an interview with Barbara Powell, who comes from a family of miners, in which she discusses the gardens and flowers that the women maintained. In the final movement, “Appliances”, old and new devices requiring power are linked.
Other important works in Wolfe’s output include the 2011 percussion solo Iron Maidenfor Evelyn Glennie, Fuel (2007) for string orchestra, the body concerto riSE and fLY (2012) based on the street music and percussion of New York City, the 15-minute long Big Beautiful Dark and Scary (2002),Compassion (2001) for solo piano andReeling (2012), a piece based on a field recording of a French-Canadian singer. In addition, Wolfe arranged Brian Eno’sMusic for Airportsin 1998 for the Bang on a Can All-Stars.
Despite her lack of interest in conventional musical institutions and concepts, Wolfe holds teaching positions at Manhattan School of Music and New York University, where she is an official faculty member, about which she confesses, “Yeah, I’m shocked.”