Julia Wolfe by David Krasnow

BOMB 77 Fall 2001
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Julia Wolfe, 2001. Photo by Peter Serling.

I heard my first Julia Wolfe work, performed by the Spit Orchestra, in the early nineties. It took me back to teenage concerts where I hung off the thin edge of the stage in front of the speaker stacks, hearing in my stomach as much as my ears. I was equally thrilled listening to a recent piece played by Wolfe’s quartet, Ethel; this time the excitement was in trying to decipher how a fantastic maelstrom was put together so exquisitely, with the demure materials of harmony, rhythm, and strings.

Wolfe has all the credentials a young composer could want: a degree from Yale, a Fulbright, and commissions and awards from The Kronos Quartet, Library of Congress, Cary Trust and Meet the Composer, for starters. But she’s best known as one of the three founders of Bang on a Can, a homegrown festival (with concerts sometimes lasting 12 straight hours) that’s become one of new music’s major events and spawned an ensemble, Bang on a Can, a commissioning fund and a record label, Cantaloupe. The first American concert exclusively of Wolfe’s work will be presented at New York’s Miller Theater next year.

From orchestra to a cappella, Wolfe’s attention to sound as a material with physical weight owes as much to the New York School of Morton Feldman as to the Minimalists’ rigorous patterning (officially, she is postminimalist). Feldman, however, didn’t consider the sound of a car skidding as musical material. Julia’s studio, where we talked, was filled with the staccato rhythm of jackhammers and the slow crescendos of crane engines from outside. I listened, and wondered when they’d show up in one of her compositions.

David Krasnow Let’s say you’re on an airplane sitting next to one of these nice outgoing people who asks, “So what do you do?” And you answer, “I’m a composer.” And they say, “Really, what kind of music do you write?”

Julia Wolfe Oh man. Yesterday the eye doctor asked exactly that. So what I said is, “I’m classically trained,” because that puts it in the world of music that’s written on paper and being performed. But, and this is a big but, it’s influenced by all the music that I love: funk, hip-hop, Appalachian folk music, Led Zeppelin, Beethoven. I don’t know if fusion is the right word, but it’s the outcome of living with a lot of different music.

DK Was that a good enough answer?

JW He looked a little, like, let’s check your eyes.

DK When you sit down to write, do you have goals and a set of ideas to work with, a mission? Or do you rethink case by case?

JW Definitely rethink. Whether I start completely from scratch or not, it almost always feels like a blank slate. I wonder, How do I write music again? But every piece is like a different person because I’m working pretty much all the time on commission.

DK A player or a group comes to you with funding: This is who we are, write a piece for us.

JW Even if I’ve taken the initiative and want to write for that group, it still comes with a set of baggage. The first thing I look at is who it’s for, not only what they play, but what their feel is like, what they’re like personally. I try to get to know them. It could be as simple as where they’re from. Girlfriend was first commissioned by a group from Los Angeles, and the piece has a real LA attitude. I wasn’t conscious of it until afterwards, but it’s a piece with sample sounds and there are a lot of car skids and glass breaking. It’s a real car culture out there.

DK Glass breaking, that’s what LA people think of New York.

JW It may be a really distorted view of LA, but somehow that image affected how the music came out. There’s something meditatively eerie about that piece. The only “goal” I have, it’s somewhat abstract—is to try to get a gestalt.

DK How do you go about evoking that essence? In compositional techniques or in what instrument you score for, what sound colors?

JW They’re married together; I can’t separate them. There’s something called writing in piano score, which means you write out all the lines and then orchestrate. I hardly ever work that way. When I’m thinking of melody I’m thinking of who’s playing it: this is a guitar lick, here’s what the flute’s gonna do, this is the drums. For me the essence of what a piece is about is connected to the sound of the instruments.

DK As a classically trained composer, how do you go about working with sampled sounds like the skid of a car?

JW It’s a cool way of expanding your harmonic language. With conventional instruments, you can expand the harmonic language by getting into microtones, the pitches between the tones, but basically, when you bring in what’s thought of as noise, everything changes. People usually think, A car skid, what kind of harmony is that? But it has tone, and pitch, and an attack, just the way a bow on a cello does.

DK What were your first experiences writing music?

JW I had a theater group in Ann Arbor at an alternative enclave college within a huge university machine. Four of us, all women, formed a theater company called Wild Swan and did pieces based on folk stories. We’d work on the script together, act. I’d write music.

DK The music must have been very simple.

JW Yes. A lot of times I would play an instrument called the mountain dulcimer, which you hold on your lap, and I would sing. That was a great collaborative experience. I’m a real team player—I love being in situations where you’re getting ideas from everybody. But musically I really wanted to do more, to write for big groups of instruments. I had started taking lessons at the music school at the University of Michigan, which was very strict in serial composition. I learned a lot about structure, and listening really closely to every note, but ultimately it was suffocating. From there I went to Yale for graduate school.

DK So folk and classical music really came to you at the same time.

JW My natural music is pop. I’m not from one of these families where people are raised strictly on classical music, if those still exist. I’d play piano and my mother would come in and sing, we’d do the most corny show tunes. In terms of classical training, I started taking flute lessons, and I would play in chamber music groups. And I sang in madrigal groups. I sing alto. It’s incredible to be in the middle, because you feel a part of the chord, and part of the harmony.

DK Does that sense affect how you write?

JW I think it does. I rarely write solo parts, or anything that seems showy or stands out. I’m very much an ensemble writer. It’s really an unconscious political attitude—everyone’s just a part of the wheel. Generally the pieces are about that. A lot of times when players look at my scores for the first time, they’ll say, “Oh I don’t have that much to do in my part.” They might be playing all the time, but they don’t have to do any of the fancy leads. But all of a sudden they’ll see it’s so much harder than they thought because they’re locking in with somebody else to make something. That’s a lot of what my music is about, how people lock in together.

DK Almost uniquely among classical ensembles, the Bang on a Can All-Stars has strings but no violinist. Does that come out of your feelings about sopranos?

JW Not consciously. All of the All-Stars played as soloists at the early Bang on a Can festivals, and stood out as incredible players. It took a while to evolve as a group, this particular mix of players, their energy. It’s kind of by accident that there is no top voice. Well, maybe not by accident. But you have to compensate: the guitar can play pretty high, the cello can actually play higher than you’d imagine. The keyboard has the top end. There’s the clarinet. But it’s definitely bottom-heavy.

DK Bottom-heavy brings us back to Led Zeppelin, who are often cited as an influence on you. When did you start listening to them?

JW In the early ’90s—kind of a delayed male adolescence. But I was always into that kind of force.

DK So you weren’t listening to ’70s rock in the ’70s.

JW Well I was, but not consciously. I was buying Joni Mitchell records—the opposite side of it.

DK How much did that cultural moment shape you, when the idea of “art rock” was born? Were you aware of Henry Cow, Fred Frith’s British group, or Brian Eno?

JW I didn’t hear Eno’s Music for Airports until ’81 or ’82. I heard Steve Reich and Philip Glass first. I was hanging out with modern dancers, and they were dancing to this music. But I remember the first time I heard Music for Airports, being blown away by it.

DK Were the Minimalists dominant when you were coming up as a composer in graduate school?

JW Oh, they were the bad boys. They still are. Because they don’t teach anywhere. And that’s to their benefit because they never got entrenched. They run their own ensembles and never answer to some idea of what they’re supposed to do, how performers are supposed to play. They’re much more accepted now but then people just said, “They’re idiots,” completely negating their existence. Whenever I wonder, Why do I bother to write music? I put a Steve Reich CD on, Tehillim or Four Organs. Actually, I haven’t done that so much recently. Maybe I know now why I’m writing music.

DK Yet your music works on very different processes and is much denser in its use of color and rhythm.

JW I like density. But in that density, the elements are simple and clear, which relates to the Minimalist aesthetic—a clarity. The elements are earthy and layered. I like the sound of the Minimalist processes, the sound of elements phasing in and out of synch.

DK Some of the signature Minimalist works were really long, too, while yours are short and in one movement, like songs. Is there any place for a symphony in the Wolfe canon?

JW There are a lot of answers to that. I don’t like to overstay my welcome, but that’s changing. Girlfriend is 20 minutes, not so long but almost twice as long as some older pieces. I’m doing it consciously, deciding, This is going to be an evening-length piece. It’s not necessarily related to a symphonic experience, but I’m feeling the need to live in something for longer. Doing our arrangements of Music for Airports had a big effect on Girlfriend. I like the frenetic energy of some of my earlier pieces, but they are … frenetic.

DK Bang on a Can is known for edgy, gritty music. When you three decided to undertake Eno’s soothing ambient music, were you casting against type?

JW No, it felt natural. Music for Airports is innovative, and that’s really the main thing.

DK Within the classical tradition, what are your inspirations?

JW We’ll have to go back to the 13th century. I love the composers of the Notre Dame school, Leonin and Perotin, both of whom wrote male vocal music.

DK You scored a piece for a vocal group that sings early music.

JW Just recently, for the group Lionheart. They are amazing. I’m also totally into Beethoven. The symphonies, and the late string quartets. People say that those quartets are so weird because he couldn’t hear anymore but that’s obviously not it. The late quartets are about maximal hearing. When I first started writing music I was very into George Crumb and György Ligeti. Ligeti was a very big influence because his music is so inventive and beautiful.

DK I think of your group of composers as bringing Beethoven’s sense of power back into classical form, whereas with the serialists that sense of power had gone out of the equation.

JW Not consciously. Art happens in waves. The serialists were really of their time period. The world was devastated by the two world wars, and nobody wanted to have any kind of sentimentality in the music or anything expressive. Although some people think that Schoenberg is romantic. But composers wanted stark, scientific music. I love a lot of Webern and Schoenberg works, they’re beautiful, but of that time period. Everything is sped up now, and our culture is so full of different musics. Walk down a New York street and you’re hearing salsa, Chinese rock-and-roll; it’s just part of your ears. That’s very different from Beethoven hearing exotic Turkish music and putting that sound in his music.

DK When your sound world is so rich, and you’re hearing so much music while organizing the festival, how do you maintain your unique voice and identity?

JW I’m not a very good copier, and maybe that’s helpful in some way. I think there are people who have a talent for copying music, and still are individual. But I don’t have a natural inclination for it. So I have to just do what I do, be who I am.

DK Also you’re in an unusual situation of being married to another composer, Michael Gordon. How much do you talk about your work?

JW All the time. It’s not so unusual, with both partners working it’s natural to meet someone in a similar profession. Bouncing ideas off of somebody reminds you of what it is you’re trying to do. We’re very hard on each other, there’s not a lot of pussyfooting around. It’s great to get feedback. And I do that not just with Michael, but with David Lang, and other friends, friends who are writers. I’ll hold the phone up to the speakers.

DK Why with writers?

JW It’s not that far away, what they’re thinking and what I’m thinking. And it’s nice to get a non-musical perspective. You don’t really want someone to say, Oh, I don’t think the oboe sounds good in that range. Writers tell me what kind of image that sound makes for them.

DK You’ve worked with writers on pieces, like The Carbon Copy Building with Ben Katchor or your piece for Lionheart, which weaves a vocal line in with recorded conversations.

JW Ben is brilliant to work with. His words have amazing clarity. In the Lionheart project I just loved the way the group sounded and wanted to work with them. Then I thought about how they are six men, totally relying on one another, so I made it about them. A friend of mine, writer Deborah Artman, interviewed the singers. She asked them about issues of friendship, about relationships working and not working. Then we had them read biblical quotes about relying on others. This section’s called Keeper, based on “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

DK Is this the first work in which you use text in that way?

JW I started that with the playwright Anna Deveare Smith. She interviews people and then makes pieces out of the interviews. They’re very political. The last piece I worked on with her was House Arrest, which had actual politicians, Ann Richards, George Stephanopoulos, somehow she got in to interview Bill Clinton. I was asked to do the music, but I would use bits of her interviews in the music. Ann Richards was amazing, she said, “All people want to do something big or be a part of something greater than they are.”

DK Do you consider Keeper political?

JW It’s political, and also spiritual, which aren’t necessarily unrelated.

DK Some of your works without text appear to be political. Early That Summer, as you’ve explained it, was inspired by a book about World War II. And Window of Vulnerability andArsenal of Democracy are both from the political rhetoric of the war machine.

JW I think you can apply metaphor as much as you want. Window of Vulnerability was a term Reagan used to argue for military buildup. On one hand, that’s nation to nation, but on the other hand, it can be person to person. If you look at the score, you see this massive bunch of instruments playing, and then just this thin skin of strings. The human frailty underneath is a kind of hum, warm, not necessarily consonant. And then there are these big attacks.

DK As a composer and a festival organizer, you’re going to get wrapped up in a certain kind of politics. Your aesthetic is becoming a style; a writer in the Times made a quip about “Bang on a Can-ism.”

JW Someone was telling me they were on a panel reviewing scores for commissions, and people would say “That’s a Bang on a Can kind of piece.” I have no idea what that means, because I think we present a pretty broad range, but I guess that means something to somebody. You don’t necessarily like something that sounds like what you do.

DK The Renegade Heaven CD, on Bang on a Can’s new label, features works by you and Michael Gordon and three other composers. There are definitely ideas in common—it’s an extremely cohesive record. Is that something you are agitating against?

JW No, no. Hearing you describe it that way clears it up for me. When we started the festival there was an idea of getting rid of leaning towards one aesthetic or another, but what emerged out of that was a kind of home for a younger generation of downtown New Yorkers. They would not have been performed in a more formal setting, and they wouldn’t fit into the club scene, or even at the Knitting Factory at that time. We’ve, in a way, made a home for them.

DK Sort of explains “renegade.” How about “heaven”? That’s a strong word. How does it relate to the pieces?

JW There’s a long history, all Western music at one time was used in spiritual practice. The association of spiritual music now is with something very ethereal, very pure. Like chant, or Henryk Gorecki, or New Age approaches to spirituality. I mean, why can’t Glenn Branca write his spiritual music? Why not have a struggling relationship with heaven? My own piece on that record is “Believing.” Belief is not a simple thing, you know, whether it’s religious belief, or personal belief. It’s not necessarily that you believe and just float up to heaven. It’s very optimistic, but it’s not simple.

DK Is that coming out of your observance of Judaism?

JW For me, definitely. But I imagine Glenn Branca was raised Catholic.

DK Do you think a Jewish perspective informs other works?

JW It’s never come out so literally, except in a recent project that Michael Gordon, David Lang, Deborah Artman and I did together, called Lost Objects, commissioned by the Dresden Festival. They wanted it to be more about creation. I’m like, “It can’t be about Adam and Eve.” I remember initially talking to Michael and David about a section in the Talmud that concerns your obligation to something that’s lost. It asks what marks are on it, is it initialed? If you find apples scattered on the ground, the owner would have given up hope, you could keep those apples. But if they came in a sack that was embroidered, you would have to find the owner. There’s one section where the vocal line is, “I lost my sock, I lost my earring, I lost my shoe,” and little by little is interwoven “I lost my faith, I lost my father.” Little by little things add in.

DK So there too, like with Keeper, it was about your sense of responsibility. How much responsibility do you feel in terms of the new music community, in terms of which music you program? Bang on a Can draws a lot of attention, how careful do you have to be with your role as an impresario?

JW I don’t think about that. The selection process is very open; we have a call for scores where anybody can send anything in. People schmooze me at parties but it has zero effectiveness, because we listen blindly. We’ve tried to stay very, very true to that. There’s a two-week session where we’ll just listen to stuff all day long. That process is very hard for me because if we didn’t pick a person, and afterwards I know them, I feel terrible. I’m the real sap of the group. Especially someone for whom it could be a good opportunity. I’m in the same situation; I send my stuff someplace, I want them to program it. I’ve just gotten used to feeling bad.

DK Bang on a Can is also moving from concerts into recording with its label, Cantaloupe. You’ve recorded for major labels, with some success. Music for Airports was pretty successful for a new classical CD. Why start your own?

JW Polygram’s response was “That sold well. What’s going to sell even better?” It’s a wild ride with the corporate music industry. We learned quickly that there was no pretense to art, and it was very confusing to talk to one person and the next day they wouldn’t have their job anymore. Our first record contract was with Sony Classical. They hired a young guy from London to be a curator for their new line of records, and he signed us. We got spoiled, because we recorded in George Martin’s studio.

DK The Beatles’ George Martin? In London?

JW They picked us up in a limo, they made us incredible gourmet meals, it was really like being a superstar. They shipped in some kind of special recording equipment from Germany, and Steve Schick was recording David Lang’s Anvil Chorus, he’s hitting junk metal. And the recording equipment was state of the art. It was hilarious. There were bottles of champagne. And in the end, it didn’t really serve the record. The marketing people decided the music wouldn’t sell and they stopped it in its tracks. It exists, but it was so far from what it could have been. Sony could have saved some money on the champagne and put it into marketing.

DK Your CD, Arsenal of Democracy, is on Point Music, Philip Glass’s old label.

JW I had met Philip at a festival called Other Minds in California. Afterward I would run into him on the street in the East Village, and he’d say, “Are you recording with anybody?” And I’d say, “Bang on a Can got signed to such and such.” Finally Michael said, “I think he’s talking to you, he means you.” So I did my first record with Point, with five of my pieces, all different groups playing. It was in a great studio, with a great producer.

DK What’s the role of the producer on a classical record? Is it like a pop record, where the producer picks repertoire and arranges the music?

JW It’s different in different cases. Michael Reisman got a great sound for that record. Classical recordings are usually done in a hall, they hang the mics and they make the record from the sound in the hall. This was a studio sound. He miked everything really closely, the string players were a little bit frightened at first. People are like, “Gosh, you can hear the bow on the string, it’s messy.” But I love that, where you hear everything. Michael was brilliant about balancing, he has a very, very sharp ear. He would splice things together, bump pitches up a little bit if they were flat.

DK When people talk about your work having a rock ‘n’ roll impact, or feel, are they responding as much to the recording as to the score?

JW I think so. It’s definitely a visceral sound quality that’s different from a classical recording. But Point got folded into Universal and then cut, ultimately. There’s huge upheaval in classical music, and no one’s doing anything that’s remotely risky. Even a classical record is risky. Yo Yo Ma has to be playing Appalachian folk music. Everything’s a crossover, which could be interesting except it’s totally market driven. So we came back down to earth and decided to take it into our own hands.

DK The All-Stars play amplified, all the instruments. Was it because of the electric guitar, that everyone had to bump up?

JW Actually, we could have given the guitarist an amp and had everyone acoustic. It was more the power of the sound. Not just the volume, it’s also an aesthetic—the quality of the sound, and this energy you’re just not going to get from more intimate acoustic sound. You can use effects like distortion. When everything’s amplified, the cello can be as loud as the drums. Move the lever up, and there it is.

DK I heard this secondhand from a player who worked in the Spit Orchestra, a pick-up group that’s performed your works. He said that playing your music was an enormous amount of effort for an effect that wasn’t that different from playing rock and roll. I gather he was somewhat aggrieved.

JW That’s okay. He just didn’t get it. If he thought Tell Me Everything was hard, he should see the string quartet Early That Summer! I didn’t know how intense that was going to be live. It’s a feat, and I didn’t set out to do that. It’s almost like a stutter, it has this interrupted feeling where all these patterns fight against each other, and then finally they get to a place where they rip. That goes on for a long time and it’s physically strenuous. The first time I saw people play it, I thought, Oh, my God, their arms are going to fall off. I did wonder, How over the top is this? Not every group’s going to want to play it, but there’s an effect from it, a reason to do it. It must have been a string player who said that?

DK Yes.

JW I gave a talk at Julliard, there were some very enthusiastic students, and some really smart-ass students who were digging into me. I didn’t mind, I’m old enough to deal with that. I played Lick and one young guy said, “I don’t understand why you’re rewriting James Brown.” I’d love to be James Brown, but I can’t be. Well, I don’t know if I really want to be James Brown, because his life is a little intense … But I talked about James Brown’s rhythm and his timing. When he grunts, you know, it’s off the beat, or almost on the beat. It’s always pulling and tugging at the beat. And that’s what Lick is about, pulling and tugging at a beat. But if you listen to James Brown, it’s funk, it’s a regular meter, more or less in song form with a refrain. This young guy could only hear the surface level where it resembles a funk sound.

DK Are those sorts of misunderstandings troubling?

JW Maybe when I was younger. But now I feel like, it’s not going to be for everybody. I try to be open to feedback. Some pieces I could have made easier—not significantly easier, but sometimes in the counting. Reading Tell Me Everything, the time signatures are like 9/16, 2/4, 3/4, 2/4, 4/4, 3/4, 5/4.

DK It changes in every measure?

JW Every measure. Then it’ll hit a spot where it stays in 3/4 for a while. But classical musicians are used to that, it’s not any more irregular than Bartók. That’s just to show how far it is from what a funk tune would be. So the surface, the harmony, the aesthetic has a funk reference, but musically, it’s a totally different zone. That’s what interests me. It isn’t that complicated is better than simple. That’s just what I like.

DK Do you think that’s still the future for classical music, drawing influences from other music?

JW I don’t know. When you say influences—for me, the boundaries between musics are all blurring. I carry on a living, natural fusion. Before, it was more of an appropriation, Stravinsky heard the local folk music and he made it great art. That kind of a high art/low art relationship has deteriorated. What about DJ Spooky? Is he high art? He’s not exactly top 10, but he has an audience. He has all these ideas from experimental music, but nobody in the classical world would think he’s part of their tradition. If you really keep your ears open, it gets blurry. Classical music has a great history, but it’s a museum piece. It’s hard for me to imagine—my music teachers would kill me—where the cherished continuity of classical composers would go. Maybe music notation will always be useful, an interesting way to make music, like the way I write, but maybe not. I don’t think that there’s a clear and direct path from the history of music into the music of the future. A lot of people don’t even know what classical music is today. I’ve been through customs at the airport, where the official asked what I do and I said “composer.” And he said, “I thought composers were all dead.” Well, here I am.

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Originally published in

BOMB 77, Fall 2001

Featuring interviews with James Casebere, Raimund Abraham, Julia Wolfe, Mary Robinson, Barry Hannah, Jonathan Franzen, and Barbet Schroeder. 

Read the issue
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