It’s been a while since the last “Composers You Should Know,” so let’s do another one. Recently Julia Wolfe’s piece Anthracite Fields won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize. I had been planning on including Wolfe in this series anyway, because she is a founder of one of the most important contemporary music collectives: Bang on a Can. If you don’t know about this, it came about in the late 80’s in New York to put on contemporary music concerts and remains an important source of new music concerts around the world.
Wolfe has written a large number of pieces for basically every ensemble, but for the purposes of this post, I’ll go through three pieces in chronological order. Recordings of these pieces can be found for free at her website if you want to follow along. Wolfe has a very clear minimalist strain, but it could be said that a change happened in 1994 with her piece “Lick.”
Once the piece gets going, it almost feels like John Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” with the style of minimalism it uses (as opposed to Reich, which is surprising considering the East coast/West coast divide in minimalism). But the important change is the introduction of pop culture elements, most prominently rock and funk.
The driving bass and drums simulate rock, and the guitar and sax introduce some funk riffs. All of this gets tied up in minimalism, but it isn’t that simple. Large sections of the piece lose all sense of time in a confusing mess. The work was groundbreaking and set the stage for how her style would progress in the following years.
In no way do I presume to speak for her or oversimplify anything, but we get a major change in the years after September 11, 2001. The next piece we will look at is “My Beautiful Scream,” which is a concerto for amplified string quartet. This piece is a direct response to the attacks and simulates a slow-motion scream. It almost completely throws off the driving rhythms in favor of building suspense through sustained dissonance.
It is a chilling and moving experience to listen to. The driving beat is part of her musical syntax, so it isn’t completely absent in this work. Here it feel more like pulses, quavers, and bouts of horror. Before, the technique was used to push the piece forward which made the listener feel light and floating along. Here we get a pulse that struggles, as if trapped, trying to stay above the dense sustained notes engulfing it.
In general, her music had been getting more complicated and dissonant, but after 2003 there is a sense that the tie to “Lick” is all but severed. The evolution happened little-by-little to arrive at darker, more severe, and emotionally rich pieces. That driving rhythm remained, but its purpose changed. Listen to “Cruel Sister,” “Fuel,” and “Thirst,” and then compare to earlier works like “Lick” and “Believing.”
This brings us to present day with “Anthracite Fields,” which is a study of the anthracite mines of Pennsylvania. It is a work for chorus and chamber ensemble. The choral parts are set to historical texts including lists of names of people who died mining. I’ve only heard the fourth movement in full from the website, but you can find pieces of other movements in the short documentary “The Making of Anthracite Fields.”
The piece is chilling at times and soaring and beautiful at others. There’s certainly some folk and Americana influence as well. I’m pretty excited to hear a recording. The work makes sense in her evolution as a composer and sounds like it is the most diverse and wide-ranging yet.
Overall, one of Julia Wolfe’s lasting achievements is her ability to blend and push the boundaries of rock and classical elements, but her finished products are so much more than that.