Composer Julia Wolfe, the 2015 Herb Alpert Award in the Arts winner for Music, was an artist-in-residence at CalArts from March 2-9, the same week her Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio, Anthracite Fields, had its West Coast Premiere at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
In his enthusiastic review of the piece and performance for the Los Angeles Times, classical music reporter Mark Swed wrote: “If you haven’t yet heard the news, this is a riveting, up-to-date oratorio concerning early 20th century mine workers that gives powerful expression to the consequences of labor and the American labor movement.”
During the Performer-Composer Forum at The Herb Alpert School of Music at CalArts on March 7, Wolfe conducted an extensive talk and Q&A with students about the origins of Anthracite Fields and her own beginnings as a composer.
“I didn’t go to college to study music,” she told the packed rehearsal hall. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, Wolfe was first drawn to the social sciences and psychology, but accidentally walked into a music composition class that changed her life. She is now an Associate Professor of Music Composition at New York University and a founder/co-artistic director of the internationally renowned music collective, Bang on a Can.
Wolfe said she wanted to challenge herself as a composer to create longer narratives. For Anthracite Fields, which was commissioned by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, she drew inspiration from folk music and the Pennsylvania coal region, located just north of where she grew up in Montgomeryville, a Philadelphia suburb.
The chorale piece examines the history, community and labor aspects of mining, and she spoke to the class about her research trips to small coal towns, where she found a rich abundance of information. Subsequently, Wolfe gleaned Anthracite Fields’ text from a number of sources, including oral histories and interviews, local rhymes, a mining accident index, as well as a passionate political speech by the head of the United Mine Workers Union John L. Lewis.
She told the class that at the Walt Disney Concert Hall premiere, held the night before, she was most thrilled to learn about how the music was “connecting to people in different ways.”
During her CalArts residency, Wolfe spent much of her time working one-on-one with students in private music lessons. On Tuesday, March 8, she conducted a master class with the Isaura String Quartet [CalArts Music alumnae Emily Call (MFA 13), Madeline Falcone (MFA 13), Betsy Rettig (MFA 12) and Melinda Rice (MFA 06)]. During the open class, Wolfe first listened to and then gave feedback on the quartet’s live performance of her composition, “Dig Deep” (1995).