Julia Wolfe, the Philadelphia-born New York composer whose throbbing, adrenaline-laced works are often joined with a historical or social narrative, is one of 23 newly named MacArthur Fellows. The award, announced Thursday, comes with a stipend of $625,000 paid in quarterly installments over five years.
"I'm a little stunned, and still catching my breath," said Wolfe, adding that she hopes the award will bring the gift of "time and space. I definitely want to take this moment and have it support the next dream project, whatever that means."
In fact, it can mean whatever she wants. The MacArthur Foundation does not stipulate how the money can be spent. Fellows cannot apply, but are nominated through an anonymous process. Awards are given in the arts, sciences, and other areas for "exceptional creativity" in previous accomplishments, to "individuals on the precipice of great discovery or a game-changing idea," according to a foundation statement on its criteria.
Along with Wolfe, among this year's fellows are playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, financial services innovator José A. Quiñonez, human-rights lawyer Ahilan Arulanantham, video artist Mary Reid Kelley, sculptor Vincent Fecteau, and graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang. (A complete list of fellows can be found at www.macfound.org.) Wolfe joins a list of musical fellows from previous years that includes saxophonist/composer Ornette Coleman, conductor Marin Alsop, pianist Jeremy Denk, composers George E. Lewis and George Perle, and soprano Dawn Upshaw. Hamilton composer Lin-Manuel Miranda was a 2015 fellow.
Wolfe, 57, lives in lower Manhattan, but was born in Philadelphia and raised in Montgomeryville (her mother lives in Blue Bell, and her twin brother in Wilmington). Her career received a boost not long ago after the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia commissioned her to write Anthracite Fields, an ambitious oratorio that gave voice to coal mining communities not far from where she grew up.
"I think she has something unique – how she uses rock and folk music, and a certain kind of minimalism, which is pretty maximal for minimalism," said Alan Harler, now Mendelssohn Club's conductor laureate.
Wolfe describes her music as rhythmic and propulsive."At the same time, there is definitely a relationship to American folk music – string players who play more like a fiddle at times, and some of the instruments from that world as well," she says. "There is a rigor of classical composition, but a lot of the sensibility is coming from folk music and rock music."
Wolfe – who holds degrees from the University of Michigan, Yale, and Princeton – says one aspect of her work has come full circle. "I've gotten heavily into narrative, where in the beginning I was avoiding it. I had worked a lot in theater, and I wanted to get deeper into music and sound and expressing something beyond words. But somehow I made it back to story-telling and history."
So it was with Anthracite Fields. Wolfe didn't settle for existing text. She drew on oral histories, conducted interviews with coal miners, participated in tours of the Lackawanna Coal Mine, and took all that material back to her composition studio to roll out a piece that incorporated an eight-part chorus, instrumental ensemble, and theatrical and visual elements. "A stroke of genius," wrote Inquirer critic David Patrick Stearns of one aspect of the piece at its April 2014 premiere in West Philadelphia. "Audience response was a bit muted and stunned. But then, it takes a while to come back from an alternative universe," he wrote.
That project stands as a template, Wolfe says, for other pieces she would like to do. It started as a standard commission offer from Mendelssohn Club for a 15-minute work. And then it grew and grew. Mendelssohn Club had to go out and raise more money to realize the larger project.
The luxuries of time and money can make a big difference in how a piece turns out, she says, "especially with large subject pieces. I really immersed myself in the community, and that takes time. Anthracite Fields turned into what it is by me thinking with Alan Harler, when I went back to him, [that] maybe it's not necessarily just a 15-minute piece. I want Bang on a Can All-Stars [the music group she co-founded], evening-long, and I think a visual element would be good. That turned into a year of research – even the choir getting involved, it became almost like a cultural experience for me and everyone. So it wasn't what the initial request was.
"I certainly turned it into something I dreamed up."