By Ricky O’Bannon
If there is a cutting edge in new classical music, it exists in a blurry space.
Composers who grew up with the sounds of rock, pop or electronic dance music in their ears often look to mine those musical source materials alongside the orchestral canon. Often the walls of the classical concert hall and the local music club are porous, and in some cases contemporary classical music can find a sophisticated conversation between worlds that once had little to say to one another.
For Julia Wolfe whose iPod skips from Led Zeppelin and Aretha Franklin to Steve Reich and Glenn Gould, all of those sounds find a thoughtful place in her distinct composing voice.
Wolfe — who was awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for her piece Anthracite Fields earlier this week — is best known for her work with New York City-based contemporary classical music organization Bang on a Can. Created in 1987, Bang on a Can was co-founded by Wolfe, composer Michael Gordon (Wolfe’s husband) and fellow Pulitzer-winning composer David Lang.
The organization is known for marathon concerts that can last for more than 24 hours and bring together music acts ranging from avant garde or minimalist classical composers to experimental indie-rock groups under one umbrella of “radical, new music.” The Bang on a Can All-Stars was born out of the marathon concerts, and is an eclectic sextet that mixes rock and classical instruments and is dedicated to performing new music, often performing works by Wolfe herself.
Wolfe’s composing style is often based upon driving, ferocious rhythm — owing in part to her love of minimalist and post-minimalist composers like John Adams. While repeated rhythms usually propel her work, Wolfe also builds a larger shape in her compositions, adding new layers and borrowing ideas from folk music and rock.
Below are three pieces to explore Wolfe’s composing voice including the work that won her classical music’s top honor.
Believing is one of several works Wolfe has written for the Bang on a Can All-Stars. The group — featuring a cello, double bass, electric guitar, clarinet, percussion and keyboards — offer a range of aural colors for Wolfe to exploit. The guitar in particular at one moment brings a distorted, hard rock edge and in other places sounds almost like a plucky banjo. The entire piece is built around a furious pattern starting in the cello — punctuated by percussion — that is given added layers and new musical territory to explore over the work’s duration.
My Beautiful Scream (2003)
Wolfe started writing My Beautiful Scream after the September 11 attacks when she lived near by the World Trade Center site in Manhattan. Wolfe writes in a program note that her life in general was very beautiful as her children were at a “particularly magical” age. However she said, “At night I would have this strange sensation that I was going to die.” The work is meant to explore the conflicting feelings she felt of living in beauty and simultaneously having the “sensation of a long drawn out internal scream.” Musically this is represented with an amplified string quartet that grows from a quiet place to ride over the more menacing and violent orchestra. The piece received its America premiere under the direction of Marin Alsop at the Cabrillo Festival.
Anthracite Fields (2015)
Anthracite Fields is an oratorio for choir and Bang on a Can All-Stars sextet that explores life in a Pennsylvania coal-mining town at the turn of the 20th century. The Pennsylvania-born Wolfe has a self-professed love and fascination with the history of labor, and the oratorio honors the dangerous and difficult work of the miners digging for anthracite (a particularly pure and valuable form of coal) and the women and families supporting them and living with the consequences. Wolfe spent a year researching historic texts, documents and collecting first-person accounts to create the libretto for the work. “Flowers,” the fourth movement of the work comes from an interview with the daughter of a coal miner who described the flower boxes common in the patch towns that sprung up around a mining site.