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Big risks and adventurous friends: How composer Julia Wolfe became a renegade

Composer Julia Wolfe's latest work, <em>Her Story</em>, receives its world premiere in Nashville on Sept. 15, 2022.
Peter Serling
Courtesy of the artist
Composer Julia Wolfe's latest work, Her Story, receives its world premiere in Nashville on Sept. 15, 2022.

Sometimes, all you need is a little push. In the fall of 1976, when Julia Wolfe arrived at the University of Michigan from Pennsylvania, she was just 17 and viewed herself as a "wild teenager" with her sights on social sciences and politics. Activism was a possible path. Music wasn't on her radar.

But one day, a friend coaxed Wolfe into taking a peculiar music class, taught by a forward-thinking Quaker who didn't care how much you knew about composing. Wolfe found the idea of creating something with music not only liberating, but empowering. Her imagination blossomed. Around campus she could be seen strumming an Appalachian dulcimer, playing the rhythm bones and writing music for a women's theater group. She was on the right track, whether she knew it or not.

Now 63, Wolfe is still in touch with that teacher — one of many key people who, over the course of a celebrated career, opened doors and helped inspire her to take risks and spot opportunities. In 1987, almost on a whim, Wolfe, along with fellow composers Michael Gordon and David Lang, founded Bang on a Can, a new music collective that eventually spun off an in-house performing group (the Bang on a Can All-Stars), a festival, a record label and an education component. And she has maintained that youthful wildness in her own compositions, known for being frenetic, abrasive and concussively loud. The Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, another important force in Wolfe's life, once remarked that while she looked quiet and polite, her music, compared with that of her colleagues, was "the sharpest and most aggressive." That risk has paid off, too: Wolfe won a Pulitzer Prize in 2015 and was awarded a MacArthur "genius grant" the following year.

Wolfe's latest work, Her Story, follows in a string of large-scale pieces for orchestra and voices that arrestingly mix history with documentary storytelling in a quasi-oratorio style. These musical documentaries, with their proletarian leanings, have examined American labor history, from the legend of John Henry to Pennsylvania coal mining culture and the tragic 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York. Her Story explores what Wolfe calls "the passion and perseverance of women refusing subordination, demanding representation and challenging the prejudice and power structures that have limited women's voices." The work receives its world premiere Thursday with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, before moving on to performances by the Boston and Chicago Symphony Orchestras and the San Francisco Symphony.

From her lower Manhattan home, Wolfe logged on for a video chat to talk about her own battles for representation, her progressive approach to her career, her love of Led Zeppelin and the folk and rock traditions that are woven into her very American sound.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tom Huizenga: When we last spoke, in April 2015, it was just minutes after you won the Pulitzer Prize for your piece Anthracite Fields. You told me then that you thought of yourself as a renegade. Do you still feel that way?

Julia Wolfe: Well, that was a big statement for me to make. I guess maybe I should just back off and say, what the heck does that mean? Rather than being too self-congratulatory, I would say it means I'm always looking to challenge myself — I'm not just sort of going forward with what I already know, or business as usual. Certainly, there are dramatic examples of very inventive, forward-looking composers over the years. I don't know if I could claim that spot, but I think that it's sort of like an attitude. I'm not trying to write the perfect orchestral work. I'm trying to find a way to express myself that feels fresh and full of discovery.

When you and your colleagues David Lang and Michael Gordon were just starting Bang on a Can in the late 1980s, I feel you were thought of as renegades. But now, 30 years later, the so-called renegades are racking up Pulitzer Prizes and MacArthur Fellowships and commissions with many of the biggest orchestras. Have the mavericks finally become mainstream?

You know, the world is always changing — sometimes in your favor and sometimes not. I don't think that adventurousness or innovation is necessarily lodged in one place. For example, when I first got the opportunity to write for orchestra, I didn't think, "Oh, this is my orchestral music and that is my Bang on a Can All-Stars music." I just thought, how do I bring my voice to this context?

I felt like I really wanted to go into these larger contexts, these more establishment contexts, and bring myself to it. And "myself" is a kind of a wacky, folky, gritty, distorted-guitar-loving person. So I never think, "Well, OK, that's what orchestras do." I think, "What could an orchestra do?" I'm still thinking in this way. Certain environments are conducive to experimentation. But I think it's still me, I guess is what I'm saying.

What does that say about the listeners and the music industry? Maybe they are finally catching up to you?

[Laughs] That sounds good, yeah. But it's always evolving. There's been a huge explosion of interest in new ideas and music, and you can hear that in the so-called concert world that I'm lodged in. You can hear it in pop music and a lot of indie bands — people really interested in sound. You hear it in Sonic Youth or other bands that are very experimental, and Björk. Everybody's ears have opened and different kinds of musics and sounds are so accessible now. Things that might have been exotic in the past are very much in our ears for all kinds of reasons.

There are still challenges for all of us. It's never going to be, like, Top 40. I'm still basically in an experimental world. [But] I think some of the subjects I've been addressing connect to a different public — they've crossed a divide to a certain degree.

A 2018 performance of <em>Anthracite Fields </em>at Zankel Hall in New York. The piece, which documents Pennsylvania coal mining culture in the early 20th century, earned Wolfe a Pulitzer Prize in 2015.
Richard Termine / Carnegie Hall
Carnegie Hall
A 2018 performance of Anthracite Fields at Zankel Hall in New York. The piece, which documents Pennsylvania coal mining culture in the early 20th century, earned Wolfe a Pulitzer Prize in 2015.

Speaking of renegades, my mother has a silver plate with the words "Well-behaved women rarely make history" engraved on it. And I'm thinking that's perhaps an appropriate epigram for your brand new piece, Her Story, which receives its world premiere in Nashville on Sept. 15. It's a large-scale work for orchestra and the Lorelei Ensemble, the Boston-based women's choir.

Beth Willer, the artistic director of Lorelei, came to me and said, "Look, the anniversary of suffrage is coming up, we'd love to commission you to write a piece." I was a little bit hesitant. I knew there was going to be a lot of attention paid to suffrage, a very important moment in American history and history all over the world, but I didn't want to limit it to that anniversary year. It's just one important moment in a very long conversation, a very long battle for equality.

So I went fishing for some text and wound up becoming totally fascinated by Abigail Adams — the wife of John Adams — and her role as an informal adviser. Her letters are pretty amazing — letters that she wrote to John because he was traveling. And I picked this one particular letter that I didn't know before. Abigail is writing to him and saying: "Dear John, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and more favorable than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could." It is just very beautiful and powerful — a woman way ahead of her time.

The other historical figure whose text appears in the piece is Sojourner Truth.

Also an incredibly inspiring figure. They're sort of like bookends of the piece, because it begins with Abigail and the very last text is attributed to Sojourner Truth — an amazing woman, born a slave and then escaped to freedom. I don't know exactly at what point, but she had a kind of spiritual awakening. She was very much an abolitionist and a suffragist, but also very much a spiritual figure of strong faith. And her mission was to fight oppression of all kinds.

I'm wondering if, while writing this new work about equality for women, you were looking back and thinking about your own pathway to becoming a composer.

Especially in the beginning, I definitely came across weird moments of sexism — from being discouraged, like someone saying, "You're just going to be dilettante, dabbling in this," to, "We don't have time to rehearse this piece." So there were battles. But I have had so much support in so many different ways, from my Bang on a Can colleagues and from other musicians, that it's been a glorious ride, and certainly a very different world than when I started. I was the only female composer in my class in graduate school, and then another female composer came the second year. And now, I think a lot of programs are sometimes all women, or half. It's been so much easier for me than, say, the generation before me — people like Joan Tower and Tania León and Meredith Monk, they really had to get the machete out and carve a path. Nobody was really, truly recognizing women composers in that generation.

People like Joan Tower, Tania León and Meredith Monk, they really had to get the machete out and carve a path. Nobody was really, truly recognizing women composers in that generation.

Women composers, as you can see now, are very celebrated — not that you don't run into odd moments at times. And there's the flipside, which is, you don't want to be dealing with tokenism either. You want to just be a composer, you know? You don't want to be a "female composer." You really want to just do your art and say what you have to say.

Women are still underrepresented at America's big orchestras. For example, next season the Cleveland Orchestra will present music by 39 different composers and only three are women.

Historically, and in recent history, it's been a problem. But I feel a very strong reaching out now, like orchestras — obviously not every orchestra — are reexamining representation in every way.

I can just speak for myself, but you grow by the opportunities you get. When you look at history, it's problematic because women didn't have opportunities. It wasn't even a question of, are we leaving them out. Now, there's a wonderful process of rediscovery. I just was a curator for a festival in Finland and I programmed Fanny Mendelssohn, whose pieces are really incredible and certainly have been ignored. She didn't write very many pieces because she wasn't asked to. Amazing that these women powered through the lack of opportunity and made really incredible work. Opportunity is big, as it is in any field, if you get to have it. So I feel a shift, not just for me personally.

Your new work, Her Story, is set up similarly to three large works that precede it: Fire in My Mouth, about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York; Anthracite Fields, about Pennsylvania coal mining culture; and Steel Hammer, about the legend of John Henry. I think of these pieces as "docu-torios" — a marriage of documentary, history and music, in basically an oratorio format. I'm curious as to how that formula came to you.

I totally love "docu-torio." Can I steal that? Because just the other day someone asked, "What do you call these pieces, oratorios?" I thought that worked, because they are narratives and I am telling a history. But I like docu-torio much better.

I think [the formula] has been there all along. I've been a storyteller and I have a theater background. It's been there in the titles of my pieces. It's been there in that I think extra-musically. But at a certain point I thought, OK, people are asking for pieces and it's so wonderful to be commissioned, but I really need to just stop in my tracks and think, what do I want to do next?

That's when I started to think about Steel Hammer. For that piece, I thought about the sound before the subject, and I just kept coming back to that quintessential American ballad about working, human against machine and all the variations of that ballad. That's the piece where I made the shift. It was much closer to a lot of the performance elements and practices of my American folk music background than my classical life.

I watched a video interview you did for Carnegie Hall not long ago. You said, "As a composer, I'm very interested in human stories and how you can tell history in a very different way with music." How does music help you tell the history in a different way?

There are so many books about all these subjects, great books. You read about the tragic elements of all these stories and it's heartbreaking. You're going to feel that when you read about them and when you look at the photographs or when you watch documentaries. But it's a very different thing to sing an idea, and find ways of singing it. It makes it very personal and emotional, and just takes you to a different place. All art is a reflection of somehow figuring out who we are, what we want to say about who we are.

Some of your docu-torios are presented with theatrics and projections, and they strike me as just one step removed from opera. Might we hear a Julia Wolfe opera one day?

Well, people have asked me that. If and when I ever would try to go in that direction — where there are characters — I would definitely want to pick the singers. All of my pieces that are in this docu-torio form require a very natural voice, in the sense that there is very little vibrato. I really want to hear the words; the words are so important. In many of the pieces, they get chopped up and repeated, so you have a good chance to get them if you didn't hear them the first time. I think in opera — because you know the piece already or it's in a different language — there's sometimes less emphasis placed on hearing what they're saying. I guess it's taken care of by subtitles or supertitles. I want it to be more like old balladry, where you're just going to hear it.

Wolfe incorporates theatrics and projections in her large-scale pieces for voices and orchestra, including this 2019 performance of <em>Fire in My Mouth</em> with the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall.
Chris Lee / New York Philharmonic
New York Philharmonic
Wolfe incorporates theatrics and projections in her large-scale pieces for voices and orchestra, including this 2019 performance of Fire in My Mouth with the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall.

You grew up in a household that loved music — you studied piano as a kid and strummed a guitar — but music was not your path at first. You kind of backed into it while at the University of Michigan when a friend talked you into taking a class called "Creative Musicianship." What happened in that class and how did it change your mind about music?

First of all, I should say the program that I went to was called the Residential College. I left high school a year early — I was this restless, wild teenager, and I was like, "I've got to get out of here. I've got to go do my thing." Because I was sort of political in high school, I was always saying we shouldn't have grades. And so this program had no grades, very interesting faculty, really small classes. I was thinking I would study social sciences. I was taking classes reading Marx and Engels, looking at labor history.

Anyway, I walked into this class and I was fascinated about the idea of being able to make something with music, to build something. As a young woman, it felt very empowering. I liked reading about people doing things, but I didn't want to just read about people doing things. I wanted to do something! And in a way, because I was coming from the outside, I probably didn't feel the oppression and inhibition of being a woman composing.

I'm still in touch with the teacher, Jane — she's, I think, 88 or 89 now. She wasn't a composer, she was a pianist and a singer. And she had this really interesting educational philosophy, which was: It didn't matter where you started, you could be the most advanced person in the class, but if you didn't go from here to somewhere else, that was a problem. I'm sure I was the most beginning person in her class that semester. She had these ear training laboratories — beginning, middle and highest level. By the end, I was teaching the beginning one with her.

I think it did make a difference that she was a woman. She then led me to a graduate student, sort of the star student at the University of Michigan music school, Laura Clayton. She was great, super-supportive. I remember looking at these women who were composing and going, "I'd like to do that." Role models are very powerful.

So once you felt like writing music was a thing, how did you eventually find your voice as a composer? Or are you still looking for it?

I think I've found the things I love. And that's what I think a voice is, in a way — when you can identify a composer's style. I always think, "Well, those are all the things they love, and that's why they put it in their pieces." I can identify certain things that I love doing and it seems to be present in a lot of my music. But it wasn't a straight route. I did music and theater. I wrote music in the context of plays. I just didn't go from here to there.

I remember going into the first lesson at University of Michigan [as a postgraduate]. I brought in this crazy piece that was for a mixed ensemble with trapeze artists; it was a wacky thing. The teacher said, "Oh, no, no. We have to put that aside. Here are your 12 pitches. We're going to write a solo piano piece." And it was like being in a straitjacket. I learned a lot, and I did get exposed to [composers] Ligeti and Ives and Crumb and all this amazing music. It was a good exercise — but way too long, about two years. And that's the point where I met Michael, whose life was so varied musically, and he said, "You've got to get out of those lessons." So I did.

Then I got a spot at the Yale School of Music — miraculously, because I hadn't written that much yet — and studied with Martin Bresnick for all four semesters. He handed me a score of De Staat [by Louis Andriessen], and I just looked at it and thought, "Whoa, what the heck is this?" It was so bold and direct. It's not trying to be subtle and mysterious, it's just like, bam, right in your face! And I loved that. Just the way it looked on the page, with the chicken scratch handwriting he had, but it was quarter notes pounding away. It was a very bold sound. That was a huge influence.

So that experimental interest also began in that context. I was very green, and I was finding my language — but I had the support, and had already met David Lang. So between Michael and David and all the conversations we had, it felt like everything's possible, the world's cracked open. It was a great moment in my life, a huge shift, hanging out with those guys. They were so adventurous and curious themselves, and pretty radical in many ways.

Speaking of Michael and David, I'm wondering how Bang on a Can might have helped influence your sound. It started in the late 1980s as a concert presented by a trio of composers, but grew into a multi-pronged organization that included an in-house performance ensemble, a record label and an annual festival. You would have had to think about things like the marketplace for new music, advertising, fundraising, grant proposals, et cetera. Did that responsibility affect your writing?

It was more like a liberation. Even with your greatest teachers, you have to get them off your back, because they're going to have a different perspective from you. They're a different generation. Bang on a Can was just us kids, figuring out what was meaningful to us, and I got exposed to so much music and learned about so many great artists. Just these interesting ideas that John Cage had — he came to the very first Bang on a Can marathon. So, you're absolutely right, that was a huge education, just being in that context of curating. We did learn how to get the word out, but it starts from the music — like, "Oh, I love that piece. We have to figure out how to do that piece."

When people talk about your music, they always mention rock. Compared to your Bang on a Can colleagues, your music does have a louder, more feisty sound. Did you listen to a lot of rock music growing up?

Oh yeah, that's probably all I listened to. Well, I was a big Joni Mitchell fan. But you know, as ridiculous as the lyrics are, I totally listened to Led Zeppelin. I find that music amazing. I listened to The Doors and Aretha Franklin, going into Motown and R&B. I love a lot of music, I have to say. But my upbringing was far less classical than it was connected to popular music. I played show tunes on the piano and my grandmother would sing. I spent a lot of time with popular music, dancing to it and playing it. So, very much a child of rock and roll.

Was there a certain point where that more aggressive sound entered your music? I guess the piece where I think it shows up for sure is Lick, from 1994, with that ferocious drumming and grinding guitar.

Lick was a change point. You're spot on about that. I remember saying to myself, "Oh, I've got to crack this open. I've just got to let this come into the music." And that's the piece where I really embrace it. It's a piece of new music, in a sense, that is irregular and erratic, and the beats are all kind of disjointed, but it's got a lot of rock and roll in it. And some funk.

That might have been a breakthrough piece for you in terms of a more energetic sound. But was there a general breakthrough piece for you, a work which made everybody take notice, something that opened doors for you as a composer?

I remember with Cruel Sister I thought, I'm writing pieces that aren't that long. I think I need to have a longer trajectory. I need to make a bigger statement. And Cruel Sister did that, as well as got into some new sonic territory for me. But I'd say, in terms of the public, Steel Hammer was the change point.

And that work was shortlisted for a Pulitzer in 2010.

I remember being very surprised, especially with Anthracite Fields winning the Pulitzer later — because those are two really gritty pieces. It seems like such a fancy prize for such a gritty piece.

Since we're talking about those pieces, quite a bit of your music is tied to America — whether it's that legend of John Henry in Steel Hammer or your love for the Appalachian dulcimer in Four Marys, or even your response to Sept. 11 in Big Beautiful Dark and Scary. Do you think your music has an "American sound?"

Absolutely, in a number of ways. One is just the rawness of it and what I feel is a very natural tie to rock and roll and American folk music. It's interesting because Michael and I lived in Amsterdam for a year; I think it was 1992. We went there partly because Louis Andriessen was just a great, very welcoming figure. He'd say, "Everybody meet for drinks," or "Everyone come down, let's play doubles ping pong." That was a great year — but I felt very American. There's just a different sensibility, a different tie to history. You feel the weight of history more, I think, as a European. [In America] it's like anything goes, and the irreverence has its problems. But it also sets an environment where you can do whatever the heck you want. I don't have to worry about what the tradition is, or if I'm breaking with tradition.

Getting back to that idea of being a renegade, from the beginning of our conversation: You've created an entire renegade organization with Bang on a Can and its many tentacles reaching here and there. Is there still room for renegades in music today?

It's a really good question: What does it mean to be a renegade now? When I look at the generation before us, there was more to fight against. It was a very restrictive period, like when I was describing those lessons I had at the University of Michigan. Now, the university is a really great place. I have friends teaching there, everyone's happy. But it was a period where you had to make a stand: "I'm against this!" or "I'm for that!" That was their battle. When we came into the professional field, it wasn't as much our battle. [Although] we definitely annoyed a lot of people who were like, "What's this bulls*** that they're doing?"

Now it's a much more open time. It's a much healthier time. I teach at NYU and in the summer institute of Bang on a Can up at Mass MOCA, so I'm very connected to the new generation of composers and performers coming up. It's great that people can realize their ideas, and because it's so open, there are a lot of crossovers with popular music. People are in bands, and they compose. It's very fluid, which I think is very healthy for everybody.

But it's great to remember — and I try to have my students think — about thinking outside the box. What's exciting? Where can we take ideas? It's still interesting to think about experimentation, and to take risks.

So there's still a box to think outside of?

I think there is. It's a much broader box. I guess I have a bias towards the grit. Looking for the intensity, and how we can express who we are, still has its challenges.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.