Julia Wolfe (born December 18, 1958) is an American composer whose music, according to the Wall Street Journal, has "long inhabited a terrain of its own, a place where classical forms are recharged by the repetitive patterns of minimalism and the driving energy of rock." Her work Anthracite Fields, an oratorio for chorus and instruments, was awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Music.
Wolfe has written a major body of work for strings, from quartets to full orchestra. Her quartets, as described by The New Yorker magazine "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 of a love rivalry between sisters, was commissioned by the Munich Chamber Orchestra, received its US premiere at the Spoleto Festival USA, and was released (along with her other string orchestra piece, Fuel) on Cantaloupe Music. Written shortly after September 11, 2001, her string quartet concerto My Beautiful Scream, written for Kronos Quartet and the Orchestre National de France (premiered in the US at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music under the direction of Marin Alsop), was inspired by the idea of a slow motion scream. The Vermeer Room, Girlfriend, and Window of Vulnerability show Wolfe's ability to create vivid sonic images. Girlfriend, for mixed chamber ensemble and recorded sound, uses a haunting audio landscape that consists of skidding cars and breaking glass. The Vermeer Room, inspired by the Vermeer painting "A Girl Asleep"—which when x-rayed reveals a hidden figure—received its orchestral premiere with the San Francisco Symphony. In Window of Vulnerability, written for the American Composers Orchestra and conducted by Dennis Russell Davies, Wolfe creates a massive sonic universe of dense textures and fragile windows.
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, while Lad is a piece for nine bagpipes.
Wolfe has also extended her talents to theatre by composing for Anna Deavere Smith's House Arrest, and won an Obie Award for her score to Ridge Theater's Jennie Richie. She has compiled a series of collaborative multimedia works with composers Michael Gordon and David Lang, including Lost Objects (Concerto Köln, directed by François Girard), Shelter (musikFabrik and Ridge Theater), and The Carbon Copy Building (with comic-book artist Ben Katchor). Wolfe recently created the city-wide spectacle Traveling Music with architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro in Bordeaux, France, filling the streets of the old city with 100 musicians walking and riding in pedi-cabs. Her work with film includes Fuel for the Hamburg-based Ensemble Resonanz and filmmaker Bill Morrison, and Impatience and Combat de Boxe for the Asko/Schönberg Ensemble and 1920s film experimentalist Charles Dekeukeleire.
For the Pulitzer Prize-winning piece Anthracite Fields, which premiered in Philadelphia and was performed at the New York Philharmonic Biennial in the spring of 2014, she drew on oral histories, interviews, geography, local rhymes, and coal advertisements to create an oratorio about the coal mining community of her native Pennsylvania. In the 2015-16 season, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, with first the Los Angeles Master Chorale and then the Danish Radio Vocal Society, give Anthracite Fields its West Coast and European premieres, and Cantaloupe Music releases the studio recording, featuring the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and the Bang on a Can All-Stars.
Wolfe’s interest in labor history has informed her recent work, including Steel Hammer, an evening-length art-ballad that was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize. The text is culled from more than 200 versions of the John Henry legend and based on hearsay, recollection, and tall tales that explore the subject of human versus machine. Premiered by the Trio Mediaeval and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Steel Hammer is presented in a fully staged version by director Anne Bogart and her SITI Company at the University of Illinois, UCLA, Virginia Tech, OZ Arts Nashville, and BAM in the fall of 2015.
Following her folk interests and the tradition of body percussion in American folk music also led her to compose riSE and fLY, a concerto for body percussionist Colin Currie. The piece premiered in 2012 with the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Keith Lockhart, and premiered in the Netherlands with the Codarts Ensemble and the United States with the Albany Symphony Orchestra in the 2014-15 season.
Wolfe has collaborated with theater artist Anna Deavere Smith, architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, filmmaker Bill Morrison, Ridge Theater, director François Girard, Jim Findlay, and choreographer Susan Marshall, among others. Her music has been heard at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Sydney Olympic Arts Festival, Settembre Musica (Italy), Théâtre de la Ville (Paris), Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and Carnegie Hall, and has been recorded on Cantaloupe Music, Teldec, Point/Universal, Sony Classical Records, and Argo/Decca. Wolfe received a 2000 Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists Award.
A graduate of University of Michigan (B.A.), Yale School of Music (M.M), and Princeton University (PhD), Wolfe is co-founder of New York's music collective Bang on a Can. Her music is published by Red Poppy Music (ASCAP) and is exclusively distributed worldwide by G. Schirmer Inc. Since 2009 she has been Professor of Music Composition at New York University in the Steinhardt School.
- Fuel (2007) - 21 minutes - String orchestra (min 65431)
- Cruel Sister (2004) - 35 minutes - str (min 65431)
- Tell me everything (1994) - 8 minutes - 111.asx.1/1110/2perc/hp.pf/str(amp 2vn, amp va, amp vc, amp db)
- Window of Vulnerability (1991) - 9 minutes - 3(2pic).3.3(bcl).2+cbn/4.3.3(btbn).1/timp.4perc/hp.syn.pf/str
- The Vermeer Room (1989) - 11 minutes - 1(afl).1.1(bcl).1/1.1.btbn.0/2perc/pf/hp/str(2vn, va, vc, db)
- Amber Waves of Grain (1988) - 8 minutes - 2(pic).222/432+btbn.1/4perc/hp/str
Soloist(s) and Orchestra
- riSE and fLY (2012) - 25 minutes - Street percussion/body percussion & orchestra
- Steel Hammer (2009) - 75 minutes - 3 Singers, Appalachian & traditional instruments (Cello, Contrabass, 1 perc, 1 pno, el guit-bjo-dulc, ca/bcl)
- My Beautiful Scream (2003) - 25 minutes - Soloist(s): amplified string quartet, Orchestra: 3(pic).2+ca.2+bcl.2+cbn/4.3.2+btbn.1/4perc/amp pf.hp.ebgtr/str
Large Ensemble (7 or more players)
- Anthracite Fields (2014) - 45 minutes - SATB chorus, cl, egtr, perc, pno, vc, db
- You breathe (2013) - 5 minutes - SATB + string quartet
- Combat de Boxe (2011) - 8 minutes - Orchestra
- Guard My Tongue (2009) - 8 minutes - SATB
- Traveling Music (2009) - 100+ musicians of any type
- Thirst (2008) - 27 minutes - SATB
- Stronghold (2008) - 25 minutes - 8 Double Basses
- Lad (2007) - 14 minutes - Nine bagpipes
- Impatience (2005) - 37 minutes - 1(pic)111/1111/2perc/hp.pf.egtr/11111
- Steam (1995) - 7 minutes - fl, vc, eorg, Harry Partch instruments
- Arsenal of Democracy (1993) - 9 minutes - 1(pic).00.ssx+asx+barsx.0/132+btbn.0/bgtr/pf
- Girlfriend (1988) - 18 minutes - all instruments amplified: fl(afl,pic), cl(bcl), full-size MIDI kbd with Electric Organ sound, perc, twelve cheap wine glasses (to be stomped on, 2 per player), vn, vc, audio tape with click track
Soloist(s) and Large Ensemble (7 or more players)
- Accordion Concerto (True Love) (2005) - 20 minutes - Soloist(s): Accordion, Orchestra: 1.1.1(bcl).1/188.8.131.52/perc/hp.pf/str (184.108.40.206.1)
Works for 2-6 Players
- Cha (2015) - 11 minutes - saxophone quartet
- Reeling (2012) - 5 minutes - cl, egtr, perc, pno, vc, db
- With a blue dress on (2010, rev. 2014) - 10 minutes - 5 violins/voice
- singing in the dead of night (2008) - 18 minutes - fl.cl/perc/pno/vn.vc
- Big Beautiful Dark and Scary (2002) - 9 minutes - amplified sextet: clar/b clar, perc, pf, egtr, vc, db
- Dark Full Ride (2002) - 18 minutes - four drum sets
- Keeper (2000) - 11 minutes - 6 male voices, tp
- Close Together (2000) - 18 minutes - cello, percussion, electronic tape
- Believing (1997) - 9 minutes - amplified sextet
- Believing (expanded version) (1997) - 20 minutes - amplified sextet
- Mink Stole (1997) - 10 minutes - vn, pf
- Dig Deep (1995) - 14 minutes - string quartet
- Lick (1994) - 8 minutes - all instruments amplified: ssx, perc, pf, egtr, vc, db
- my lips from speaking (1993) - 13 minutes - 6 pianos
- Early That Summer (1993) - 12 minutes - str4t
- Four Marys (1991) - 12 minutes - str4t
- On Seven-Star-Shoes (1985) - 6 minutes - fl(pic), ob, cl(bcl), bn, hn
- Emunah (2015) - 10 minutes - Cello
- Lass (2014) - 8 minutes - Flute
- Iron Maiden (2011) - 12 minutes - Percussion
- Compassion (2001) - 7 minutes - Piano
- Earring (2001) - 2 minutes - Piano
- East Broadway (1996) - 3 minutes - Toy piano, toy boombox
- Cloud-River-Mountain (2015) - 20 minutes. Music by Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe. - soprano, cl, perc, gtr, piano, vc, db
- Water (2008) - 76 minutes. Music and text by Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe. - SATB, 220.127.116.11(cbn)/18.104.22.168/2perc/pf/egtr/str(22.214.171.124.1) [all instruments and voices amplified]
- Shelter (2005) - 65 minutes. Music by Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe. Text by Deborah Artman. - 3 Sop, fl, ob, cl, bn, hn, tpt, tbn, tba, pno, e gtr, e bgtr, perc, 2 vln, vla, vc, cb [all instruments and voices amplified]
- Lost Objects (2001) - 62 minutes. Music by Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe. Text by Deborah Artman. - Sop, 2 countertenors, small chor, DJ, baroque orch, e gtr, e bgtr, perc, synth [all instruments and voices amplified]
- The Carbon Copy Building (1999) - 72 minutes. Music by Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe. Text by Ben Katchor. - Cast: Ms, T, Bar, Bar/Ct, cl(bcl, cbcl, ssx)/perc/syn/egtr [all instruments and voices amplified]
- Music for Airports (1998) - 48 minutes - cl, egtr, perc, pno, vc, db
- New York Composers: Searching for a New Music (1997). Directed by Michael Blackwood. Produced by Michael Blackwood Productions, in association with Westdeutscher Rundfunk. New York, New York: Michael Blackwood Productions.
- Democracy (1999) - 15 minutes - electronic tape
- Anthracite Fields by Julia Wolfe with the Choir of Trinity Choir Wall Street, directed by Julian Wachner, and the Bang on a Can All-Stars (2014)
- Steel Hammer by Julia Wolfe with Trio Mediæval and the Bang on a Can All-Stars (2014)
- Cruel Sister by Julia Wolfe with Ensemble Resonanz (2011)
- Dark Full Ride by Julia Wolfe (2009)
- Julia Wolfe: The String Quartets including artists Ethel, Cassatt Quartet, and Lark Quartet (2003)
- Arsenal of Democracy by Julia Wolfe (2003)
- Lost Objects with artists Michael Gordon, David Lang, Roger Epple, Andrew Watts, Daniel Taylor, and Concerto Köln (2001)
- Bang on a Can Live, Vol. 1 with artists David Mott, Robert Black, Anna Cholakian, Karl Parens, and Andrew Sterman (1994)
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- Julia Wolfe: Home, the composer's personal website
- Bomb Magazine: Julia Wolfe interview by David Krasnow
- Schirmer.com: Julia Wolfe
- NYU Faculty Bio webpage