JULIA WOLFE *12 IS MUCH IN DEMAND THESE DAYS, but the composer of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anthracite Fields and the Grammy-nominated Fire in my mouth can’t be in two places at once. On the same January weekend that her work Fountain of Youth is making its West Coast premiere with the San Francisco Symphony, Wolfe is in Los Angeles, in Walt Disney Hall, contemplating floor lamps.

Four floor lamps, mismatched and with drooping shades, surround the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the eclectic six-piece performance ensemble that is part of Bang on a Can, the new-music group Wolfe co-founded more than 30 years ago. The All-Stars are seated on a large Indian rug that, along with the lamps, was the inspiration of Wolfe’s production technician, Jeff Sugg. Wolfe says she didn’t even notice the lamps or the rug until the end of the first rehearsal, but she likes them; they create the homey feeling of a jam session in a Haight-Ashbury loft rather than a concert on a proscenium stage. The effect almost works, except for the 70-odd members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic arrayed behind them. 


They are all there to rehearse Wolfe’s newest composition, Flower Power, which would premiere Jan. 18. Wolfe’s Pulitzer and two Grammy nominations have made her one of the most sought-after classical composers. When conductor John Adams, himself a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, takes the stage to begin the rehearsal, he faces the orchestra and opens his arms wide. 

“Everybody wanted a piece by Julie,” he declares. “And we got one!”

As the title suggests, Flower Power is inspired by the Summer of Love. Wolfe says she was drawn to write the piece for the LA Philharmonic in part because many of its musicians are also top session players. When she asks them to play a certain section “sassy,” they know what she’s looking for. That’s fortunate, because the composition is musically challenging, as many of Wolfe’s works are. Where a typical tempo marking in most classical works might read allegro moderato, for example, Wolfe’s first marking in Flower Power says, “trippy.”

There is a lot of note-bending and glissando. All-Stars guitarist Mark Stewart plays his electric guitar with an erhu bow, in much the same way Jimmy Page did for Led Zeppelin in the late ’60s. Wolfe asks the Philharmonic’s woodwinds to play with an unusually wide vibrato, deliberately eschewing clean, crisp notes for more elongated ones. “Your first chord is a bit of a shock,” Adams confesses to Wolfe during a public discussion before the concert. “Just for a split second, it sounds like my junior-high orchestra, and then you kind of get into it and it goes to another place.”

“It’s a weird time right now,” Wolfe says in that pre-concert talk. “It’s easy to slip into cynicism. So I was trying to think about that change point in the late ’60s and that feeling of optimism and hope. Not to idealize that time, but trying to get back to a moment of people breaking open and thinking that they could change things.”

Thematically, Flower Power is something of a departure from several of Wolfe’s other recent pieces, which explored the American labor movement, yet it, too, has an historical dimension. Though it would be inaccurate to describe Wolfe as a history composer, several of her works draw on historical themes. In her 2009 composition, Steel Hammer, she reimagined the legend of John Henry, a battle between man and machine. Anthracite Fields examined the culture of Pennsylvania coal-mining country. Fire in my mouth, which premiered in 2018, centers on the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. In all, Wolfe has written about 65 compositions in her career, including string quartets, solos, and oratorios, in addition to works written collaboratively for Bang on a Can. In 2016, she won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” “Many of her works blur the line between music and theatrical experience,” the citation said. 

Audio: Steel Hammer — “Characteristics”

She is also another star in the constellation of the Princeton music department, one of the leading places for developing new music. In 2016, Ph.D. student Caroline Shaw won the Pulitzer for Partita for 8 Voices. In 2018, Pascal LeBouef, also a doctoral student, was nominated for a Grammy for best instrumental composition. Several other recent graduates also are doing innovative and exciting work. 

“It’s like Vienna in the 18th century,” jokes Professor Steve Mackey. “Back in the ’70s and ’80s, Princeton sort of had an intellectual, egghead reputation as a place where music was meant to be seen and not heard. Now we’re putting out composers whose music doesn’t just live on their teacher’s desk. It lives on stages all over the world.”

GROWING UP OUTSIDE PHILADELPHIA, Wolfe listened to a wide range of music, ranging from Motown to folk to spoken-word performer Gil Scott-Heron. Music was more of a hobby than a prospective career, though there were hints of something more. As a child, Wolfe began taking piano lessons; once she mastered that, she began to improvise. “I wouldn’t say really ‘compose’ yet,” she recalled in a 2018 interview, “but I’d be playing a piece and then change it a little bit.”

In person, Wolfe is cheerful and engaging, diving into discussions about the research she undertakes for her compositions with a professor’s mild intensity. (Wolfe teaches musical composition at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Music.) She seems like a teacher. She does not — how does one put this? — seem like a hard-core Led Zeppelin fan.

Wolfe entered the University of Michigan intending to major in the social sciences, but a freshman-year course called Creative Musicianship changed her direction. The professor, Jane Heirich, had her students listen to all kinds of music, from Mozart to Dave Brubeck. “She didn’t think in terms of ‘higher art’ and ‘lower art,’” Wolfe recalls. “She’d play a piece and ask, ‘What’s interesting about it?’” Heirich also assigned her students to write short musical sketches, and Wolfe found that she was good at it. By the time she graduated, Heirich had hired her to teach a section of the class to freshmen.

During a visit to New York in 1982, she met composer Michael Gordon, whom she married two years later, and another young composer, David Lang. Five years later, the three were living and working in New York, navigating a music scene that was divided, Wolfe recalls, between genres and age groups, high and low, serious and allegedly unserious. 

Hoping to find a place where they could play and hear the broad range of new music they liked, the trio approached a SoHo art gallery with a proposal to stage a 12-hour music marathon. Wolfe, Gordon, and Lang invited many composers and artists to attend — and 400 people came. Someone advertised the show as “a bunch of composers banging on cans” and the three musicians embraced the name.

Bang on a Can, the group they co-founded, has repeated the marathon every year since, and expanded it, drawing thousands of fans. (Now called the LONG PLAY Festival, this year it takes place May 1–3 in Brooklyn.) Over the decades the group has showcased everyone from Philip Glass to much more obscure artists, and almost nothing is off-limits. In 2006, for example, it staged, for the first time, Anthony Braxton’s Composition No. 19, written for 100 tubas. (The New York Times reviewer described the work as “somewhere between elegy and exorcism.”) 

“At the time, nothing really looked like that,” Wolfe says of the marathons. “It was somewhat of a new idea to try to throw music together based on its power and adventurous quality.”

In 1992, Wolfe, Gordon, and Lang created the Bang on a Can All-Stars as, in essence, a house band to perform their work at concerts and festivals around the world. Bang on a Can now stages a summer music festival (known affectionately as “Banglewood”) at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and hosts a developmental program for young composers. It created the Asphalt Orchestra, a “radical street band that brings ambitious processional music to the mobile masses,” according to the group’s website. The musicians also have come up with other, more entrepreneurial innovations. To gain wider distribution for their music and works by similar artists, they formed their own music publishing company, Red Poppy Music, as well as a record label, Cantaloupe Music. 

Meanwhile, Wolfe was writing her own works. She had a master’s degree from Yale, but in 1991, Mackey persuaded her to apply to Princeton’s Ph.D. program. The music department was going through its own metamorphosis, Mackey says, working toward a broader and more inclusive post-modernism of just the sort that Wolfe embraced. After completing her coursework, Wolfe left for the Netherlands on a Fulbright Scholarship and did not return to write her dissertation for two decades. The doctoral degree, she concedes, was a condition of her getting tenure at NYU, but her composing career had flowered without it.

Exactly 146 singers perform in Wolfe’s Fire in my mouth — the number of workers who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911.
© Chris Lee

WOLFE’S WORK HAS CONTINUED to cross boundaries, drawing inspiration from a broad range of sources, time periods, and styles. Her 1989 work The Vermeer Room was inspired by the Vermeer painting A Girl Asleep, while Four Marys (1991) was inspired by Wolfe’s love of the mountain dulcimer common to folk music of Appalachia. Cruel Sister (2004), written for a string orchestra, is based on a 17th-century Northumbrian ballad, but several pieces have their roots in contemporary music. My lips from speaking (1993) contains pieces of chords from the opening bars of Aretha Franklin’s Motown hit “Think.” Believing (1997) has some of the same psychedelic flavor as Flower Power. Lick (1994) has a driving funk beat.

Some of Wolfe’s compositions are more experimental than others. My Beautiful Scream (2003), a 25-minute long concerto for amplified string quartet, was written in response to the Sept. 11 attacks and mimics a long, slow-motion scream. Her 2007 composition, Lad, was written for nine bagpipes, while riSE and flY (2012) is a “body concerto” in which percussionist Colin Currie, backed by the BBC Orchestra, snaps his fingers, claps hands, and thumps his chest.

Video: Colin Currie performs Julia Wolfe’s  riSE and fLY

Wolfe’s growing interest in American labor history drove her 2009 composition Steel Hammer, an oratorio in eight movements. The work amalgamated more than 200 versions of the old ballad “John Henry,” including those by Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash, and was nominated for a Grammy. 

Five years later, another composition debuted: Anthracite Fields, which is now seen as Wolfe’s master work. Though the Philadelphia-based Mendelssohn Club, which commissioned it, initially expected a 20-minute choral composition, Wolfe proposed something much more ambitious: a full-length oratorio that looked at the history and legacy of Pennsylvania’s coal fields. Over the next year, Wolfe read everything she could about coal mining, from geology textbooks to oral histories. She conducted interviews with miners and their families, visited museums and small towns, scoured public records, and even went down into a mine herself. 

The result was a collage-like blend of styles and sources that resembles Braque’s or Picasso’s Cubist paintings or John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. novels. The libretto contains snippets of old coal-country nursery rhymes, passages from a speech by labor leader John L. Lewis, lists of appliances run by coal-generated electricity, and even a government report, the Pennsylvania Mining Accident Index, 1869–1916, from which Wolfe pulled the names of injured miners named “John” with a single-syllable last name, then set them to music in an almost dirge-like chant (“John Ace, John Art, John Ash, John Ayres ...”). The score begins with bows digging into the strings of a double bass and an electric guitar being scrubbed with the handle of a metal kitchen whisk to create what Wolfe calls the “deep woolly sound” of a dark mine. Other sections break into a driving hard-rock jam. 

“It’s out there, it’s weird, and it’s abstract,” says Mackey, who happened to be one of the Pulitzer judges in 2014, when the work was nominated. “[Anthracite Fields] is a real tour de force of text and signing and music.”

Wolfe’s focus on labor history continued. Fire in my mouth (2019), her next major choral composition, looked at the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and the movement for higher wages and safer working conditions in New York’s garment industry. Joining the New York Philharmonic, which commissioned the piece, were the Bang on a Can All-Stars, 36 women from The Crossing, a Philadelphia-based new-music choir, and 110 girls from the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. The number of singers equaled the number of people who died in the fire.

As she had in Anthracite Fields, Wolfe built the libretto for Fire in my mouth from every historical fragment she could find, portraying those who died not just as tragic victims but as immigrants seeking a better life and struggling for their economic rights. The title comes from an interview with Ukrainian immigrant Clara Lemlich, one of the organizers of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, who in later life reflected on her youthful activism saying, “Ah, then I had fire in my mouth!” 

Again, Wolfe played with new and unusual sounds. In one section, 12 women open and shut heavy shears in unison; Wolfe scoured supply stores in Manhattan’s garment district searching for shears that made just the right sound. In the second movement, “Factory,” violinists strike the strings with their bows, creating a scratchy sound that evokes the whirling sewing machines of a garment factory. The final section, “Fire,” culminates in “slashing sounds in the strings; low, ominous rumbles in the double basses and contrabassoon; and, at times, all-out orchestral pandemonium,” a Wall Street Journal reviewer wrote.

Audio: Fire in my mouth — “II. Factory”

WOLFE WILL NEXT TURN HER FOCUS toward another historical theme. In September, the Nashville Symphony will premiere Her Story, a 40-minute composition for orchestra and women’s vocal ensemble celebrating the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Wolfe wanted the piece to debut in Tennessee, which was the 36th — and deciding — state to ratify the amendment.

Why write about the suffragettes? Why write about a labor tragedy or coal miners? Why, for that matter, write a piece for bagpipes or one that makes use of garment shears? If nothing else, Wolfe’s work disdains the distinction between high and low, between serious and popular, between what composers can do and what they supposedly can’t. She writes about the topics she finds interesting and uses sounds and instrumentation that augment them.

Though the premiere date is set, the score for Her Story still exists only in Wolfe’s head. Speaking about her approach to Flower Power and other compositions, though, offers a sense of where she might go with it. 

“I like the idea of presenting in a musical context these things that I’m thinking about or that I care about or that jumped out at me, and everyone else can think about them or interact with them,” she says. “I want it to be an interesting conversation.” 

Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.