Originally from Pennsylvania, Julia Wolfe is a musician and composer who takes inspiration from politically charged oral histories, folk, classical and avant-garde pop and rock. Her convergence of socio-political histories with American and European musical forms have made her a renowned composer-as-storyteller: Anthracite Fields, a concert-length oratorio for chorus and instruments, drew on the stories of the Pennsylvania coal region and won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for music, while a forthcoming work for orchestra and women’s chorus, Fire In My Mouth, continues her interest in American labor history, with its concern of women in the New York City garment industry at the turn of the 20th century.
Wolfe is also a co-founder and co-artistic director of the New York music collective Bang on a Can, which has been committed to “making music new” since its inception in 1987. In this excerpt from her conversation with Frosty for Red Bull Radio’s Fireside Chat, Wolfe shares stories about her early influences, meeting John Cage and her unique compositions.
I’m always curious when I speak to creative people about those epiphany moments that blow their mind open and make them realize that there are other possibilities out there. Was there a moment for you that changed everything?
Well, there are many. One I can remember very clearly is when I was in a dance class and I was laying on my back and stretching and “Music For 18 Musicians” by Steve Reich came on and I hadn’t heard it before. The piece has this resonance and sound that I really couldn’t have imagined and, you know, [it’s] very telling that it happened in a dance class. It wasn’t in a concert hall. So it was a wonderful moment and I was like, “What is that?”
One thing about it was just the sound, because of the way Reich works with doubling and patterns it kind of reverberates, so I think I was really drawn to what the sound of that group sounded like. But also, his music, along with some of his colleagues, was a return to a kind of consonance or welcoming in of consonance and really direct immediacy. It’s very deeply rooted in rhythmic tradition so, for example, Reich has spent time studying African music and jazz. So he’s accessing all this music that he loves and he’s a part of and it was no longer about, “I’m a genius brainy guy who has to tell you that in my music.” It was really this real love... you could hear the love of music in his music.
What was your trajectory prior to that moment? Was it better that you weren’t planning for that?
Well, I’m not much of a planner, so this is kind of the way my life goes. I guess in a certain sense, I’m very open. I’m just always watching and listening. At that point, I’d gone to a kind of alternative program at the University of Michigan called the Residential College. It was kind of a real political center at the school with no grades, very interesting classes and fantastic faculty. I got into music in a deeper way there.
Ann Arbor, Michigan also has a big folk scene, so they had the greatest bones player ever, this guy Percy Danforth. I think they even named some of the bones after him now. Bones are those clickety-clackety percussive instruments from the Appalachian folk tradition. There was also a great harmonica player in the scene, Madcat Ruth.
So this community was amazing and as a kid checking it all out, I wound up picking up the mountain dulcimer. I had taken some piano lessons as a kid and started taking piano again when I got to school but I actually wasn’t heading towards music. It just kind of grabbed me and it was some kind of combination of getting involved in the folk scene but then also for the first time hearing people like George Crumb or György Ligeti – the kind of experimental American and European composers who were really reaching into the netherworld. So I was somewhere in between. Those are kind of disparate worlds in some ways.
I am a historian in the sense that I’m telling the story through music.
The music of Ligeti and Crumb, were those coming to you through classes or were you digging to find it? Were you an active seeker or passive receiver?
Well, I’m always pretty active, so I’d say active. Active, connecting with people, probably is the main thing. And people played things for me as I played things for them. But in particular, I would say, with that music, my teacher at Michigan had no idea about any kind of hierarchy in music, so she played everything in her class. But she saw that I was really getting into composing and so she connected me with someone up at the music school and that person, Laura Clayton, she kind of took me under her wing and started to show me this crazy stuff, like Ligeti and also Charles Ives.
Mountain dulcimer, bones, American folk tradition – had that been part of your world prior?
The era when I was coming into music was post-’60s, it was after Woodstock, but I was definitely aware of that scene and everything going on. But I was also really interested in Motown and political folks like Gil Scott-Heron. I grew up in this small town, but the biggest city near me was Philadelphia and there was a very interesting art scene down on South Street, so I think it came at me from all different directions. I was definitely a high school kid looking for art of some kind and did see a lot of avant-garde experimental films, but music is really the thing from as far back as I can remember that totally grabbed my soul. I love visual art. I like going to museums. I like reading. But once I really dove into music, I was like, “Oh, this is my thing.”
It’s funny because my parents bought a piano, I think, because it looked beautiful. My brothers and I all took lessons, but I was the one who really stayed with it. And then at one point... I actually quit my lessons and just started playing... sort of started to make things up. I wouldn’t say really compose yet, but I’d be playing a piece and then change it a little bit. But then I picked up folk guitar and started to write some songs. So when I entered college I was really writing my first songs.
How did your collective Bang on a Can with Michael Gordon and David Lang come together?
Well, we all had just recently landed in New York City, so it was like the fall of 1986, and we’re good buddies, but we didn’t fit in anywhere. I think at the time, New York was much more divided. There was a very formal concert world uptown, and then downtown was also somewhat formal, kind of grunge form, but also a bit serious. Then there were very exciting things going on, of course, all over the city, but we didn’t necessarily tap into a community or a scene. I think the audience was small and enthusiastic, but it hadn’t really blown out fully as it is now. Finally, after complaining, we thought, “Well, maybe we should actually do something about this.”
We didn’t think, “We’re going to start an organization.” We just were like, “We’ve got to do something.” So we came across this gallery in Soho and knocked on the door and just said, “Hi, we want to do this crazy 12 hour marathon. What do you think?”
There’s something very cleansing to me about really digging in and addressing the issues.
We wanted to do it all night, but they didn’t want to do it all night, so they said, “Great, if you start late afternoon, you can go into the early hours of the morning,” and we said, “OK, great,” and that was 1987 – the first time we put these pieces together.
At the time, nothing really looked like that, because we were supporting a generation of like-minded people who were exploring music from other sources, from different cultures, and from rock and noise bands at the same time, combining what we thought were very powerful forms of music from different worlds. Then, it was much more segmented, so it was somewhat of a new idea to try to throw music together based on its power and adventurous quality than some other criteria.
What was the pitch to people to come to the show, and why the durational aspect of it? Why was that important?
We found that a lot of our peers, let’s say, college friends, they would be totally ready to go to an experimental film or a new dance, poetry reading, but they weren’t crossing the divide into this kind of experimental music. Our aim was to welcome these kind of curious, intellectually curious people in.
We made these postcards with all kinds of very amusing copy on them of ways of describing music that wasn’t typical. It seemed to work. 400 people came the first year, crowded into this gallery loft, and then it just kind of grew exponentially over the years, but we really did aim to reach those people as opposed to anyone who had special knowledge. The audience was a big part of it and still is a big part of it.
Were there any moments that stick out from that first marathon event?
It was very exciting when John Cage showed up. I actually had the job of calling him, so there was no texting, there’s no internet. He had a phone number and so I just called him, and I said, “Hello, Mr. Cage. We have one of your pieces on,” and he said, “Well, tell me a little bit about the event,” and I just told him what it was and he said, “Interesting.” So he showed up and insisted on buying his ticket.
He stayed for several hours, not late enough for his piece, because it was a little late at night. But he came every year until he passed away – every year. We felt that from a number of people who came that first year, came the second year and they were excited. They were excited about this kind of energy, and the vision we had.
Do you think that having people like Cage, people that you obviously were excited to present their work but maybe come from a different generation, has that enhanced the idea of intergenerational exchange of creative energy?
I think the idea of having an intergenerational dialogue is crucial, and we definitely got that not only because we looked to the previous generation as mentors, but because of who they are. They stay really current. I mean, you can just isolate yourself and be like, “I don’t know what this new generation’s doing,” but they didn’t do that. They actually were totally up on what’s happening, wanting to have this relationship and this dialogue with us, and end up on what the latest technology is, or whatever else they’re interested in. That was a lesson without even knowing it was a lesson.
Is or was there a composer that you feel inspired by the bravery of, or who sonically, the world wasn’t ready for?
I think there are many. I mean, Meredith Monk has such a unique sound and way of working with the voice, and the voice combined with instruments. But even though she is wonderfully celebrated today, all along the way I think she hit walls and barriers.
I have wonderful women that are in my own generation like Annie Gosfield, Eve Beglarian, Kaija Saariaho and just lots of other really powerful voices out there.
I feel very, very fortunate I’ve had a great, and continue to have a great life in music. I can’t really complain about anything, but I’ve been in a kind of unique niche of very supportive people, and so maybe that’s a little bit golden in a certain sense.
What is your ideal space to exist in and work in?
I think it’s an ongoing discovery. I try to stay open to possibilities. Every piece is different and a new challenge. I think that there are so many ways of expanding the experience, and I think these kinds of experiments are going on in the more classical concert world, and the rock world, and in the folk world.
Recently, my focus has been on these sort of large-scale pieces that tap into labor history, and that has been interesting on so many different levels. First of all, I’m learning a ton. I’m a wannabe historian, but in a way I am a historian in the sense that I’m telling the story through music. It’s a very personal, emotional reaction to history. And history is this continuum, it’s alive, it’s ongoing. There are many different histories. Whose history are we telling, whose version of history are we telling? So that’s been remarkable.
I think one of the most powerful aspects of it for me has been connecting to a much broader community. So, for example with this piece Anthracite Fields, it’s a piece about coal mining in Pennsylvania. The anthracite coal region, which is a little bit north of where I grew up, just going and spending time there, and interviewing people, and hunting and gathering and gleaning all this information about that industry, about that community. I’m suddenly interfacing with the world in a very, very different way. I’m telling someone’s story, I’m telling our story as workers here in America, primarily beginning at the turn of the century. And, all of a sudden people are coming for a totally different reason.
So, every performance I’ve been at, someone comes up to me and they say ‘My grandfather died of black lung,’ or ‘Here’s the ledger from the relatives of mine saying how much they got paid per week.’ I’m really blown away. This happens regularly that people send me emails, they write me letters, they send me books. It has been this interaction with a community that wouldn’t necessarily find this music. And, I’m very, very grateful for that, because it’s an expansion of the maybe smaller world that I live in.
Have you been investigating the musical traditions of those cultures through your research?
I did. So, for the coal mining piece, I listened to a lot of labor songs. I didn’t wind up quoting any labor songs, but just knowing what people were singing and what they were saying, there is a lot of information in those songs.
Dealing with such heavy material, do you find yourself looking for a cleansing balm or an escape, and is music part of that in terms of what you’re listening to?
It depends. My listening really depends on where I’m at in a piece. If I’m really deep into a piece, I don’t listen because my ears are so full up all day long. Also, when I’m writing about these dark subjects, I don’t mind that so much. There’s something very cleansing to me about really digging in and addressing the issues. I’m not afraid of the bad and the ugly parts of us. I think we’re all on both sides of this.
I believe you have to look at these things, so the process of dealing with these challenging subjects, and dark subjects at times, is cathartic. I told myself, you cannot put your head in the sand, you can’t just pretend it’s not there and it’ll go away. So, confronting who we are and who we’ve been is very, very important to me.
What do you hope people gain from your craft?
I feel like I have this great experience with music and I want to share that. Whether it’s something I’m trying to do in my own music, or music I’m presenting. We actually have a lot of power, personal power in the most positive sense of the word, and so I’m very interested in that, that we are driving the ship as opposed to the entities or the folks that are mostly interested in money. It seems very simple, but I think that that has to be reclaimed in a very, very serious way in order to be human, I guess, and to make art.