Julia Wolfe is a composer whose music has long been breaking new ground. She is one of the founders and artistic directors of Bang on a Can, known for its collaborative large-scale staged works, marathons and multi-disciplinary work. primephonic had the chance to talk to her about her storytelling within music, prizes and her opera Anthracite Fields.
I wanted to avoid this topic because you've always been an inspiring mentor to many, but since it's international women's day (for us at primephonic it's more like a month), let's address the "elephant in the room" - how is it to be a woman composer in this day and age?
It’s great to be a composer. Let’s start there. Writing music is a magical endeavor that requires a crazy amount of hard work. The act of creating is important to me - to imagine a world, have something to say, create it, and then share it with others. When I began composing there were few women in the field. This is no longer the case.
Bang on a Can. How and why did this incredibly influential and highly relevant ensemble/group come about? And did being a woman in the group play any sort of role or was it inconsequential?
I don’t see anything particular in my role that relates to being a woman - except for the fact that I can represent the possibility of leadership to other women. I founded Bang on a Can with composers Michael Gordon and David Lang 30 years ago, and it has been an incredible journey of friendship and a shared vision.
I have to mention your Pulitzer prize winning oratorio Anthracite Fields. What is the story behind this work? Why something so traditional as an oratorio?
I am not sure what you mean by traditional? It could be called a piece of musical theater, an opera, a gesamtkunstwerk? The terms are more for those who write about music than for those who write it. Anthracite Fields is about working people, the instrumentation is nontraditional, the music doesn’t fit neatly into a genre. I spent over a year immersing myself in the communities of the anthracite coal region - interviewing people, speaking with historians in the local museums, going into the mines, reading a great deal, looking at photographs, documents, etc. The piece is a portrait of that life and the issues that changed American labor.
You define yourself as a storyteller with music. What are some ways you're able to tell a story with your music?
Music can tell a story, reflect who we are, without text. Though in my recent works text is an important part of that telling. But these are not straight ahead narratives (maybe that is where the word oratorio comes in.) The pieces tell stories from different angles, with different colors, with a great deal of passion and concern.
And last question: your music, in a way, speaks for itself. Is there anything your music doesn't say that only words can define? If so, what might that be?
Music gets at something that is beyond words. Even when words are a part of a work the music is communicating something that we may not be able to fully articulate. Words have a power all their own and it has been great to get deeper into meaning and multiple meanings. Of course words can communicate life in great detail. We need both.
Julia Wolfe in conversation with Anthony Leigh Dunstan
Cantaloupe Music is the record label created and launched in March 2001 by Julia Wolfe along with the other two founders of New York's legendary Bang on a Can organization—composers Michael Gordon and David Lang —with Bang on a Can managing director Kenny Savelson. Cantaloupe Music has made a massive impact in the new music community, and has been recognized by critics and fans worldwide for its edgy and adventurous sounds.
The entire classical community is watching the formation of two more legendary pairings between conductor and orchestra with great interest and there is no doubt that starting in 2018, nothing will be the same.