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News - Julia Wolfe named 2016 MacArthur Fellow

Photo: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Thursday, September 22, 2016
Julia Wolfe has been named a 2016 MacArthur Fellow. The MacArthur Fellows Program awards unrestricted fellowships to 'talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.' Each Fellow is granted a stipend of $625,000, paid out in equal installments over five years. There are three criteria for selection of Fellows: 'exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.'

As a composer, Julia Wolfe draws inspiration from folk, classical, and rock genres, bringing a modern sensibility to each while simultaneously tearing down the walls between them. Her music is distinguished by an intense physicality that pushes performers to extremes and demands attention from audiences. Wolfe came to composing when, as a freshman, she accidentally entered Jane Heirich's class at the University of Michigan, where she was enrolled in the liberal arts Residential College. While Wolfe grew up in a household of music lovers and played piano and folk guitar, this class, in which all music was presented without hierarchy, would be Wolfe's first formal composition training. She was drawn to the course and, eventually, the life calling, because she wanted to be a creator rather than an observer. The study of social sciences continues to interest Wolfe to this day, but composing gave her an opportunity to make something.

Wolfe went on to study at Yale and Princeton universities, and is currently on the composition faculty at the Steinhardt School at New York University. Nearly 30 years ago she co-founded the music collective Bang on a Can with composers Michael Gordon and David Lang. The organization was so-named after Wolfe casually described what they wanted to achieve as 'a bunch of composers sitting around banging on cans.' Wolfe has collaborated with theater artist Anna Deveare Smith, choreographer Susan Marshall, designers Jeff Sugg and Jim Findlay, and director François Girard, among others. Her music has been heard at venues throughout the world, including Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, the Sydney Olympic Arts Festival, LG Arts Center (South Korea), SettembreMusica (Italy), and Theatre de la Ville (France), and has been recorded on Cantaloupe Music, Teldec, Point/Universal, Sony Classical, and Argo/Decca.

Wolfe's recently announced upcoming work is an evening-length piece for orchestra and women's choir. The piece will draw on oral history and archival materials to recreate the world of the women who worked in New York City's garment industry in the early 20th century. Scenic projection by Jeff Sugg will complement the text and music. The piece is a commission by the New York Philharmonic to be presented in its 2018-19 season. In the lead-up to the premiere, Wolfe will lead workshops at the New York Philharmonic's commissioning partners: Cal Performances at the University of California, Berkeley; the Krannert Center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and the University Musical Society at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Campus-wide discussions about history, music, and creative writing will be an important part of Wolfe's writing process.

Wolfe's 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning evening-length oratorio, Anthracite Fields for chorus and instruments, draws on oral histories, interviews, speeches, and more. 'My aim with Anthracite Fields,' Wolfe wrote, 'is to honor the people who persevered and endured in the Pennsylvania Anthracite coal region during a time when the industry fueled the nation, and to reveal a bit about who we are as American workers.' Anthracite Fields, premiered and commissioned by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, is written in five movements, each based on a source text describing a way the coal industry affected life in America. The recording of Anthracite Fields, with the Bang on a Can All-Stars and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, was nominated for a 2016 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. Last fall the piece was performed in the Pennsylvania coal country which inspired it. The Los Angeles Times wrote that Anthracite Fields 'captures not only the sadness of hard lives lost…but also of the sweetness and passion of a way of daily life now also lost. The music compels without overstatement. This is a major, profound work.'

Wolfe's look at Appalachian working culture, Steel Hammer, takes on the many faces of the John Henry legend, using mountain dulcimer, banjo, harmonica, bones, clogging, and body percussion. 'Steel Hammer is inspired by my love for the legends and music of Appalachia,' Wolfe explains. 'The text is culled from the over 200 versions of the John Henry ballad. The various versions, based on hearsay, recollection and tall tales, explore the subject of human vs. machine in this quintessential American legend. Many of the facts are unclear — some say he's from West Virginia, some say he's from South Carolina, some say he's from New Jersey — but regardless of the details, John Henry, wielding a steel hammer, faces the onslaught of the industrial age as his superhuman strength is challenged in a contest to out-dig an engine.' Steel Hammer was recorded by the Norwegian vocal ensemble Trio Mediaeval and the Bang on a Can All-Stars for Cantaloupe Music in 2014. It recently toured in an expanded theatrical form with director Anne Bogart and her SITI Company. The Boston Globe called Steel Hammer '[an] epic explosion and reconstruction of the folk ballad.'

Wolfe has written a major body of work. Her string quartets, as described by The New Yorker, 'combine the violent forward drive of rock music with an aura of minimalist serenity [using] the four instruments as a big guitar, whipping psychedelic states of mind into frenzied and ecstatic climaxes.' Wolfe's Cruel Sister for string orchestra, inspired by a traditional English ballad, was commissioned by the Munich Chamber Orchestra and received its U.S. premiere at the Spoleto Festival. Fuel for string orchestra is a collaboration with filmmaker Bill Morrison, commissioned by Ensemble Resonanz. Wolfe's body concerto riSE and fLY, commissioned by the BBC and performed last season by the Cincinnati Symphony, features percussionist Colin Currie playing rapid-fire body slaps and street percussion. The influence of pop culture can be heard in many of Wolfe's works, including Lick and Believing for the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Lick, based on fragments of funk, has become a manifesto for the new generation of pop-influenced composers. The raucous my lips from speaking for six pianos was inspired by the opening riff of the Aretha Franklin tune Think. Wolfe's Dark Full Ride is an obsessive and relentless exploration of the drum set, beginning with an extended hi-hat spotlight. In LAD, Wolfe creates a kaleidoscopic landscape for nine bagpipes. Wolfe recently created the city-wide spectacle Travel Music with architects Diller Scofidio+Renfro in Bordeaux, France, filling the streets of the old city with 100 musicians walking and riding in pedicabs.

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