Musical America

Composer of the Year: Julia Wolfe

Her Pulitzer Prize-winning Anthracite Fields in 2015 and MacArthur “Genius” fellowship the following year led to a flurry of commissions, including world premieres by the New York Philharmonic and New World Symphony in the first half of 2019.

In March, in a Q&A session following a stunning performance of Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields at the Kennedy Center, an elderly woman stood up to announce her close connection to the material of the Pulitzer Prize-winning work, an oratorio that meditates on the history of coal mining. The granddaughter of a miner, the woman asked Wolfe if she had visited the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum (the composer had) and sent greetings from a new mutual friend in the northeastern part of that state, whom Wolfe had interviewed in the course of researching the piece.

Such an interaction might seem foreign to the red-carpet pomp of the Kennedy Center, but it felt like an entirely appropriate response to the music of Wolfe, a composer who has consistently sought to create friendly encounters with unfamiliar music. With her organization Bang on a Can—co-founded with composers David Lang and Michael Gordon—she has fought to make the world of contemporary music accessible to those beyond its specialist confines. What started off as a do-it-yourself marathon concert in the Lower East Side in 1987 has since expanded into a multi-million dollar outfit that oversees a new-music ensemble, a marching band, a record label, and a commissioning fund, and unfailingly advocates for the new.

A fascination with the working class
The grand Anthracite Fields, written in 2014 for the choral Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia and Bang on a Can’s All-Stars ensemble, belongs to Wolfe’s fascination with the lives and legacy of the American working class. Though this focus coincides with a moment in which the image of the coal worker is being mythologized to advance an environmentally destructive political agenda, Wolfe does not share the nostalgia of the current presidential administration. “It feels to me like kind of a romanticization of coal miners—and that doesn’t feel good,” she told the New York Times last year about the Trump administration’s regulatory roll-backs. Anthracite Fields instead infuses the history of Pennsylvania’s mining enterprise with the very real violence that undergirded it. The work opens with a hauntingly repetitive series of names intoned atop a grim drone, punctured by fiercely dissonant instrumental interjections. Dozens of names are chanted, all beginning with “John”; culled from the Pennsylvania Mining Accident index, the chilling list comprises only a fraction of those who gave their lives to the coal industry a century ago.

That intensive engagement with historical materials has become typical of Wolfe’s compositional process. In the 2009 work Steel Hammer, composed for the All-Stars and the Trio Mediaeval, she fuses more than 200 versions of the classic folk ballad of John Henry, with music that intertwines Appalachian folk, medieval descant, and rock; for Anthracite Fields, she visited the coal mines, interviewed retired miners, and sifted through oral histories. Wolfe’s next major project, Fire in My Mouth—her first commission from the New York Philharmonic, which will debut under music director Jaap van Zweden’s baton in January 2019—is a multimedia meditation on the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

Although such historical projects are a more recent interest, Wolfe’s lifelong fascination with folk music evinces a more long-term engagement with the sounds of blue collar America. Born in 1958, she was raised in a small town in Pennsylvania, not far from the anthracite region. “I didn’t grow up around miners,” Wolfe told the Los Angeles Times. “But the sensibility of the region wasn’t so different from the small town where I did grow up, so it felt familiar.”

Her start as a composer came relatively late. Wolfe flirted with being a Joni Mitchell-style singer-songwriter in high school, played in an all-female drumming group at the University of Michigan, and turned towards formal music studies only after taking an elective with a particularly open-minded teacher. Following a tough battle with another professor who sought to turn her into a serialist—a rite of passage for composers of her generation—Wolfe arrived at the more open-minded environs of Yale in the mid-1980s, just as the school had become a powerhouse for young orchestral superstars like Aaron Jay Kernis. But having already befriended Lang and married Gordon, she aligned herself less with this symphonic school than with the upstart, renegade ethos of figures like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. She moved downtown and helped launch the first Bang on a Can marathon, a ten-hour concert that abandoned buttonedup conventions to attract an audience broader than the typical new-music crowd. It was Wolfe, by the way, who came up with the organization’s irreverent name.

A coexistent of different idioms
Bang on a Can’s freewheeling marathons—originally billed as an “eclectic supermix of composers and styles from the serial to the surreal”—provided a space for different idioms to coexist, and Wolfe’s music increasingly evinced such heterogeneity. Captivating early pieces like The Vermeer Room and Four Marys draw together impressionistic subtlety with a pulverizing postminimalism indebted to the Dutch master Louis Andriessen. She was the first of the Bang on a Can trio to compose a work directly for its amplified All-Stars ensemble with the funk-imbued Lick, which funnels the extroverted energy of James Brown into fitful grooves.
Since 2009, Wolfe has taught at New York University, and is known for her supportive attitude there and at the summer program for young musicians that Bang on a Can runs at MASS MoCA. Today, Bang on a Can’s work spreads across multiple genres, presenting music by everyone from the Russian avant-gardist Galina Ustvolskaya to Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. Perhaps the clearest sign of the organization’s mainstream success is that the All-Stars were featured in an episode of the PBS children’s cartoon Arthur in which Wolfe was animated as—you guessed it—a wolf.

Only in the last decade has the composer begun to tackle large-scale works, in the form of the evening-length meditations Steel Hammer and Anthracite Fields. “There was definitely a stepwise building,” she told me of her oeuvre in a 2016 interview. “Until you felt like, ‘Now it’s time to make a bigger statement.’ ” Anthracite Fields won her the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2015, and she was awarded a MacArthur fellowship the following year. And she has transitioned seamlessly into the orchestral world: In September, she was appointed to the Dallas Symphony’s new position of composer-in-residence, where she will supervise performances and workshops for the next two seasons. Her catalogue has always exhibited a directness of expression, one that has, in her recent engagement with American labor history, acquired a moral force. In the central movement of Anthracite Fields, the All-Stars guitarist Mark Stewart fiercely belts out excerpts from a testimony to Congress by John L. Lewis, the head of the United Mine Workers, after an explosion killed 111 miners in 1947: “Those who consume the coal and you and I who benefit from that service because we live in comfort, we owe protection to those men and we owe the security to their families if they die.” With its stern call for social accountability, the music resounds as an anthem for our time. •

William Robin is assistant professor of musicology at the University of Maryland. He writes about contemporary music for the New York Times, and is currently researching a book on the history of Bang on a Can.

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