Julia Wolfe Finds Her Place
Pulitzer Prize-winner Julia Wolfe mines history to create her innovative experimental compositions. But it wasn’t a given that she would be a composer—her first love was the written word.
Julia Wolfe is an innovative contemporary classical composer known for her work with New York–based collective Bang on a Can and her wide-ranging solo output. Her work has been performed by orchestras, chamber ensembles, and choral groups around the world. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2015 for her oratorio Anthracite Fields.
Born in Philadelphia in 1952, Wolfe studied music at the University of Michigan. After earning a masters at Yale School of Music, she founded Bang on a Can with David Lang and Michael Gordon (her husband). The group is best known for its Marathon Concerts—informal daylong presentations of contemporary classical music.
Wolfe’s interest in labor history informs many of her pieces. Her Pulitzer-nominated Steel Hammer (2009) tells the story of railroad worker John Henry. Anthracite Fields (2014) celebrates the history of coal mining in Pennsylvania. Her avant-garde orchestral work Fire in my mouth (2019) was inspired by the 1911 Triangle Factory Fire.
Wolfe is a professor of music at New York University.
Julia Wolfe never thought she was going to be a musician, much less a composer, but destiny had other ideas.
Julia Wolfe: It hit me like a lightning bolt. Music really grabbed hold of me.
That was in college where she was studying labor history, and unlikely as it seems, she would go on to make a lot of music about this topic, but before any of that could happen, the young Julia had to accept that her mode of expression would not be as she had expected, the written word.
Wolfe: The first thing that struck me was that writing music was something that was beyond words. So, I’ve done a lot of creative writing, written poetry and some plays, bunch of prose. This is something that was very familiar to me and very comfortable and suddenly I was confronted with this idea of writing music. It seemed completely mysterious, but also kind of just really magical and as a young woman in college, it also was like, I was reading a lot about people doing things and I thought, that’s fine, but I actually want to do something, actually want to make something. So, a composer, it really is the act of creation. You’re starting from nothing, from scratch, and you’re constructing this thing, this architecture of sound, and I just got the bug.
The bug would take her to New York City, where in the summer of 1982, she met two young composers, David Lang and Michael Gordon. Both became her collaborators in the avant-garde music collective, Bang on a Can, but from the moment they were introduced, she sensed a special connection with Gordon, now her husband of 35 years.
Wolfe: I was living in Ann Arbor and Michael was living in New York City in the loft where we live now with one of my friends from college. He was a photographer, Peter. He was like, “Hey, you haven’t come to visit me, and plus my roommate, he knows everything about everything you’re doing. He’s a composer and he’s a vegetarian.” Whatever it was, it seemed like a match for me. So, we went out for breakfast to Leroy’s Diner and I was mostly asking him about, he had just finished the program at Yale School of Music. I was kind of asking him, well, how was that and I’m trying to figure out my next step, and basically, I was like, I had my dulcimer slung over my arm and I was pretty green at this whole thing and I just liked him. That was just it. I sat at the diner and I don’t even know if I noticed my food, but I thought, oh, this is such an exciting world, but also I like him and he did say, “You have to meet my friend, David Lang,” and the next day, I went to New Haven where David was finishing up his studies and I sat with David for hours and he played me all kinds of cool music. So, it was a day later.
AJC: That’s astonishing, 48 hours in the life.
Wolfe: Yeah, these two people that totally changed my life. I left that trip to New York and particularly with my conversations with Michael feeling like anything is possible, anything is possible. It’s an incredible feeling to have inside and I didn’t have that before. I was waiting tables and working with a really fun theater company. I had a collective of women, we started a theater company. It was all really, really fun stuff, but this idea of creating these pieces that was a little bit more of a challenge, I just felt anything is possible and it was a life changer.
The trio quickly discovered that they shared a passion for innovation, a desire to create the future rather than merely be a continuation of the past.
Wolfe: We were all really interested in what haven’t we heard before, where are we going, we don’t know where we’re going. Those are kind of really important attitudes as opposed to, I mean I think you can be an artist and tend to look more backward. Like I am from this tradition, and I’m carrying on the tradition. We usually think we’re taking out a hatchet and going, we’re breaking this up, we’re kind of getting out the chopping our way—
AJC: Or just smashing the timeline and starting it again.
Wolfe: And in a certain sense, we’re following a tradition of people doing that. There’s a great American tradition, in particular people kind of being renegades and going their own way and we were all three very drawn to that kind of idea, the spirit of innovation and breaking new ground.
One of America’s greatest artistic renegades, John Cage, was an early fan of Bang on a Can’s weekend-long experimental concerts or marathons, during which an eclectic mix of compositions are performed one after another. All audience members are encouraged to listen casually, to come and go as they please over the 24+ hour-long shows. John Cage would become an enduring supporter of these dense, day-long feasts of sound, a high compliment from the composer who famously convinced the world that silence could be music.
Wolfe: I called, I don’t know where we got the phone number even, but I called him on the phone and he answered the phone. I was like, “Hello Mr. Cage”, and he’s like, “Yes”. I said, “Well, we’ve put together this 12-hour happening of music and we programmed your piece. It’s on very late at night,” and he said “Tell me a little bit about that.” So, I explained all this music back to back that normally wouldn’t have even been in the same zip code area, let alone the same venue. He’s like, “hmmm, interesting,” and he showed up. It was kind of amazing. I think because it looked different and it was covering some kind of different ground. He insisted on buying his ticket at the door. This is a little bit of a fight because composers don’t have to buy their ticket and he won, he paid for his ticket. He stayed for about four hours and then left before his piece was performed, and he came every year. He came to every marathon until he died.
The annual Bang on a Can Marathons continues to this day. 2020 will be their 33rd, but apart from the group, Wolfe has had an extraordinary career in her own right that has included a series of highly-acclaimed works that explore and expand upon her early interest in labor history. Steel Hammer retells the tale of John Henry, an African American railroad worker who attempted to prove his prowess by competing against a drilling machine. He won, but immediately died of a heart attack from the exertion. Then there was 2014’s Anthracite Fields, her Pulitzer Prize-winning piece exploring coal mining in Smalltown, Pennsylvania at the turn of the 20th century. And then, there’s her latest work, Fire in My Mouth, a work for symphony orchestra and chorus drawn from historical accounts of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146, mostly immigrant women, in New York City in 1911. The piece imagines their conditions, long hours in a massive hot, loud, an ultimately unsafe work space.
Wolfe: I’m thinking about what that sound would’ve been like on the garment-worker floor, a huge loft with all the machines going. There was no real recording at the turn of the century, at least that was so accessible, but there are many descriptions of walking in and the roar of all the sewing machines. So, when you think about sound and orchestra and the kind of volume you can get, how do you make the orchestra sound like that roar?
Today, Julia Wolfe and her long-term collaborators are still obsessed with innovation, seeking the new, the fresh, the transformative.
Wolfe: We stay young in that way and very fresh, even as we grow older. It’s kind of how you stay alive, really.