by Len Lear
Julia Fink Wolfe, a 1976 graduate of Germantown Academy, has just been named the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner for music. Wolfe, 57, who grew up in Montgomeryville, is a composer associated with the New York music collective Bang on a Can. She won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for her composition, “Anthracite Fields,” which the Pulitzer jury described as “a powerful oratorio for chorus and sextet evoking Pennsylvania coal-mining life around the turn of the 20th century.” The hour-long work was commissioned by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, which presented its world premiere on April 26, 2014, in center city. Here is an interview we conducted with Wolfe last week:
Were there any musicians in your family?
My parents loved music. They were always avid concert-goers. My brothers Marc and David also love listening to music. As kids we all took piano lessons. As far as I know, there are very few active musicians in my family, but I believe there was one cousin who sang and another who played the mountain dulcimer. My father and my brothers are doctors.
When you were at GA, did you know then that you wanted to be a composer?
I would never have guessed. I was playing piano and a bit of folk guitar. I had started to write songs, but my main interests while at GA were literature, creative writing and social sciences.
Did you have any teachers at GA who influenced your career path?
Definitely, in the sense that they inspired creative thinking. Dwight Peterson, who taught Latin, was a significant influence. He would often proof-read my papers for history class, offering his insight on how to write well. I remember his after-school art-film club also. He would take a small group of interested students on field trips in to Philadelphia to see great films. Peter Taubman, Betsy Voss and Virginia Day inspired interest in poetry, literature, politics and psychology. Stan Hoerr sparked my interest in math. In earlier years Roger Eastlake taught me the fundamentals of writing.
Where you a music major at the University of Michigan?
I attended the Residential College at the University of Michigan. In this program you could design your own major. I combined music and theater. I graduated in 1980.
How does one embark on a career as a composer after graduation?
One of my teachers at the Residential College, Hilary Cohen, invited me to form a theater company with her and two other women, Sandy Ryder and Raizel Weiss. This was my first collective creative team. We wrote scripts and acted, and I wrote the music for many of the productions. After college I also continued to work as an assistant to the teacher at the Residential College, Jane Heirich, who inspired me to become a composer. After a few more years of living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I returned to the east coast to study composition at the Yale School of Music. After graduating from Yale, I moved to New York City, where two fellow composers and I started the music collective Bang on a Can.
What is Bang on a Can?
Bang on a Can is a new music collective that I founded with composers Michael Gordon and David Lang. In the late 1980s we had all just finished studying composition at the Yale School of Music and moved to New York City. We would get together at coffee shops and talk about how the music world should be. One day we decided to actually do something about it. We put together a 12-hour festival of new music in an art gallery in Soho. That was the first annual Bang on a Can Marathon. About 400 people piled into the gallery. Almost 30 years later we are still going strong, and Bang on a Can has expanded into a multi-faceted music organization.
Who are the composers, living and/or dead, you admire the most?
Well, there are so many! Where to start? In the classical world — Perotin, Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Reich, Monk, Andriessen, Glass. But then there are the Beatles, Led Zepplin, James Brown, Joni Mitchell. The list goes on.
What non-classical music has had the most influence on your work?
I am influenced by music from many different worlds. I have a strong love of folk music — American, English and Scottish ballads. Then there is the blues, funk and rock and roll … I am interested in the rigor and architecture of musical form but also in the body energy, groove and physicality you find in popular music.
Since you did not grow up in a coal mining region, how is it that you came up with the idea to write an oratorio about that subject?
“Anthracite Fields” was my first commission from my home state of Pennsylvania. With support from the Pew Foundation, The Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia commissioned the work for large chorus and the Bang on a Can All-Stars. I wanted to write a work that connected to the region. I looked north to the anthracite coal mining communities. I had a terrific guide to coal country, theater artist Laurie McCants who lives in Bloomburg. We went to the local historical museums like the Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton, went into the mines, interviewed miners and children of miners. I gathered information from oral histories, newspapers, documentaries, etc.
How do you think the Pulitzer Prize will change your life, if at all?
Well, things have certainly been lively since I received the reward. I am excited for the interest in “Anthracite Fields.” It has been wonderful to hear from so many friends and family members — to share the celebration with them. Now back to work and on to the next project.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
What spare time? I love being with my family, spending time with friends. I enjoy riding my bike, especially on old rail trails. I love a good book.
Can you say what your current and future projects are?
I just finished a saxophone quartet for the Philadelphia-based Prism Quartet. They performed at the Curtis Institute on May 22. Upcoming projects include more pieces with a focus on labor history, turning my attention now to women in the workforce.
For more information, visit juliawolfemusic.com.