Wolfe Julia

In an age of trends and fashions, movements and anti-movements, genre and sub-genres, Julia Wolfe's life and work defy easy categorization. On the surface, she seems the quintessential composer for the 90s -- New York-based, politically aware, and, don't forget, female -- and in fact her career has been appropriately meteoric. In the last few years she has sprung into the consciousness of the musical cognoscenti through a few startlingly individual and unforgettable works for orchestra, string quartet, large brass ensemble, six pianos, and chamber ensemble, and she is now rightly regarded as one of the key musical voices of her generation. Given all this, one would ordinarily expect something post-minimal or pre-millennial, something filled with fin-de-siecle hipness, something befitting the "latest thing." But when one hears her music, the catch-phrases immediately become inadequate and simplistic.
Born in Philadelphia in 1958, her resume is bedecked with degrees and prizes: doctoral work at Princeton, MM from Yale where she studied with Martin Bresnick, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a generous assortment of commissions and awards from the Koussevitzky Foundation, Kronos Quartet, the Library of Congress, Cary Trust, Meet the Composer, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and other august bodies. Her pieces have been performed by an equally prestigious cast of characters: the San Francisco Symphony, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the American Composers Orchestra, Piano Circus, Orkest de Volharding, the Cassatt Quartet, the Lark Quartet, and Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne. Her work for theater includes music for Anna Deveare Smith's play "House Arrest". Most recently, along with fellow Bang on a Can composers Michael Gordon and David Lang, she was commissioned by the Settembre Musica Festival in Turin, Italy to create a new comic-book opera, The Carbon Copy Building, in collaboration with comic-strip artist Ben Katchor. The revolutionary new opera premiered in Turin, Italy on 9 September 1999.Wolfe is featured in Michael Blackwood's recent documentary "New York Composers". In addition to her compositional work, Wolfe is co-founder of New York's Bang on a Can Festival, presenting hundreds of new and unknown works over the past 11 years.
Wolfe's appetite for music is wide-ranging and voracious with her enthusiasm for late Beethoven, her passion for Led Zeppelin, and her love of traditional American folk music. These influences and many others can be heard subtly but clearly in her work, yet in no way is her music a pastiche of styles. Rather, disparate sounds and structures are put to new, unexpected uses, the point being not one of self-conscious reference, but rather that of finding expression for the unique way she has processed the material. There are no power chords in the breathtakingly virtuosic string quartet Early that Summer, but the vibrancy of rock and roll sears through every moment. Similarly, one can sense the spirit of Stravinsky and Andriessen in The Vermeer Room and Arsenal of Democracy, and yet these pieces have identities that are distinct and utterly Wolfian.
What then marks Wolfe's musical "style?" The word as it is traditionally used in musical circles simply doesn't apply. What her pieces have in common is not any single identifiable element but is rather a focus on the act of making sound, sound not for its own sake but as a product of human endeavor, as a beautiful and powerful abstraction that people create, contemplate, imbue with and derive meaning from. Sound is for Wolfe a metaphor for human activity in general, and she approaches it with a care and attention to detail that is both masterful and highly respectful. The result is a music that is, as she herself puts it, "not meant to be 'clever' or 'well-written,' but rather entered into by the listener." This is perhaps most evident in her first string quartet, Four Marys, in which the ballad of the same name is not referred to literally, but instead evoked through a minute examination of a sound quality which is culled from Appalachia. It is as if the sound of the dulcimer is put under a microscope, examined with loving detail, and transformed into a music of rare, strange beauty. In Window of Vulnerability, written for the American Composers Orchestra, the source is the massive sonic universe of rock: the music takes this relatively recent musical possibility -- sheer volume -- and reinvents its function and use. For the piece is not simply about sound, although it is mind-bogglingly loud, but is rather about 80 people making sound together -- what this means as well as how it is experienced. These titles -- and others such as Arsenal of Democracy, my lips from speaking, and Amber Waves of Grain -- are evocative but unpolemical, and are indicative of Wolfe's work as a whole. They make their points effectively without harangue or grandstanding. Instead, they deliver subtle, powerful messages, allowing the listener to make connections between the music and other, perhaps larger concerns. The militaristic euphemism Window of Vulnerability, used to justify large-scale arms expenditures, combines with the music to transcend itself, revealing the root of which the phrase is borne -- our frailty, our need to bond together -- and causing us to reflect on the ease with which these communal needs can be abused and manipulated. This highly humanistic message is emblematic of Wolfe's artistic work, a wonderful example of humanly organized sound, working toward a soundly organized humanity.

-- Evan Ziporyn

Julia Wolfe's music is published by Red Poppy (ASCAP) and distributed by G. Schirmer, Inc.

Photo © Peter Serling, 2009