awarded a MacArthur fellowship the following year. And
she has transitioned seamlessly into the orchestral world: In
September, she was appointed to the Dallas Symphony’s new
position of composer-in-residence, where she will supervise
performances and workshops for the next two seasons. Her
catalogue has always exhibited a directness of expression,
one that has, in her recent engagement with American labor
history, acquired a moral force. In the central movement
of Anthracite Fields, the All-Stars guitarist Mark Stewart
fiercely belts out excerpts from a testimony to Congress
by John L. Lewis, the head of the United Mine Workers,
after an explosion killed 111 miners in 1947: “Those who
consume the coal and you and I who benefit from that
service because we live in comfort, we owe protection to
those men and we owe the security to their families if they
die.” With its stern call for social accountability, the music
resounds as an anthem for our time. •
William Robin is assistant professor of musicology at the
University of Maryland. He writes about contemporary music
for the New York Times, and is currently researching a book
on the history of Bang on a Can.
Aaron Jay Kernis. But having already befriended Lang
and married Gordon, she aligned herself less with this
symphonic school than with the upstart, renegade ethos
of figures like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. She moved
downtown and helped launch the first Bang on a Can
marathon, a ten-hour concert that abandoned buttoned-up conventions to attract an audience broader than the
typical new-music crowd. It was Wolfe, by the way, who
came up with the organization’s irreverent name.
Bang on a Can’s freewheeling marathons—originally
billed as an “eclectic supermix of composers and styles from
the serial to the surreal”—provided a space for different
idioms to coexist, and Wolfe’s music increasingly evinced
such heterogeneity. Captivating early pieces like The Vermeer
Room and Four Marys draw together impressionistic subtlety
with a pulverizing postminimalism indebted to the Dutch
master Louis Andriessen. She was the first of the Bang on
a Can trio to compose a work directly for its amplified All-Stars ensemble with the funk-imbued Lick, which funnels
the extroverted energy of James Brown into fitful grooves.
Since 2009, Wolfe has taught at New York University,
and is known for her supportive attitude there and at the
summer program for young musicians that Bang on a Can
runs at MASS MoCA. Today, Bang on a Can’s work spreads
across multiple genres, presenting music by everyone from
the Russian avant-gardist Galina Ustvolskaya to Sonic
Youth’s Thurston Moore. Perhaps the clearest sign of the
organization’s mainstream success is that the All-Stars were
featured in an episode of the PBS children’s cartoon Arthur
in which Wolfe was animated as—you guessed it—a wolf.
Only in the last decade has the composer begun to
tackle large-scale works, in the form of the evening-length
meditations Steel Hammer and Anthracite Fields. “There
was definitely a stepwise building,” she told me of her
oeuvre in a 2016 interview. “Until you felt like, ‘Now
it’s time to make a bigger statement.’” Anthracite Fields
won her the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2015, and she was
Composers Julia Wolfe and Steve Reich in the mid-1990s.
Photo: Courtesy of Julia Wolfe.
COMPOSER of the year
(left to right) Meredith Monk, Tania León, and Julia Wolfe in
the mid-1990s, celebrating the release of Wolfe’s first CD.
Photo: Courtesy of Julia Wolfe.
(back) Charles Amirkhanian, (left to right ) Philip Glass, Conlon
Nancarrow, and Julia Wolfe at the first Other Minds Festival, which
took place during the grand opening of the Center for the Arts at
Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco, November 1993. Photo: ©
1993 John Fago. Courtesy of Charles Amirkhanian, Other Minds Festival.