For Julia Wolfe GS ’12, composing music is more than just melodies, harmonies, and notes —it’s a mix of musical and nonmusical elements.
“In most pieces, I’m thinking about something extra-musical. While I’m thinking about notes, rhythms, and harmonies, I’m also creating an image, a narrative in my mind,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe was named as one of the 23 winners of this year's MacArthur Fellowship on Sept. 22. The Fellowship isa prize awarded annually by theJohn D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundationto between 20 and 30 U.S. citizens or residents who have shown "extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction" in any field, according to the award website.
Wolfe had been interested in music for a long time, but it wasn’t until her freshman year of college that she really found herself immersed in music.
“I’ve always responded to music in a very deep way … I just had this very visceral and emotional response to music, so that’s what it was in the beginning," she said.
She explained that in her freshman year, she accidentally walked into a musical composition class, in which she learned how to develop long compositions from shorter excerpts.
"I’d never done that before, and I really loved it because it was so challenging ... and very exciting at the same time," she added.
Wolfe said that for some pieces that cover a subject where there's text, she gathers the inspiration the text from different sources and writes it herself.
“Those pieces are the much more longer term projects, so I'll spend a good part of the year hunting and gathering and just reading and meeting with people and looking at things,” she explained.
One such piece that Wolfe has composed is Anthracite Fields, which premiered in 2014 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2015.
“[Anthracite Fields] takes life in Pennsylvania coal country and all the different parts of that. So it was really, really fun to expand into a different realm by looking and working with different archivists and museum people and gathering information and then making it into music,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe said that receiving the award was very exciting.
“They had trouble reaching me, because I saw this number call in about 20 times, but I didn’t recognize this number, so I didn’t pick up. It was quite common for me to not pick up my phone,” she said.
Instead, the foundation had to email her under some other pretense, claiming that it wanted to ask some questions.
“I thought ... I was helping them get the information for someone else to get the award. They wanted someone to comment or something like that," she explained. "So when I finally did, I said, ‘sure, let’s talk’ ... we finally found the time and it was ‘No, actually we're calling to tell you that you won an award.’ I was taken aback, but excited at the same time.”
For those who have worked with Wolfe, the award was no surprise.
“Julia's music is something really rare because she's ... a composer who speaks a very modern, contemporary, classical language. [For example,] Anthracite Fields ... was really about both the hardships of the mining communities in central Pennsylvania near where she grew [up], but also about the kind of ... lost culture that grew amid that hardship, so this is music that wasn’t kind of abstract, intellectual exercise,” WNYC radio host Jon Schaefer said.
He added that Anthracite Fields was rooted in the American experience, and the accessibility of her music allowed others who weren't a part of the "little contemporary music circle" to listen and appreciate it.
All fellows are awarded a stipend of $625,000 over five years' time. Wolfe said that she has no idea what she will do with the stipend.
“It’s more of a general idea than something specific, but just figuring out how to really take the time and space to develop a project or dream up something I’ve wanted to do and support that. I don’t know what that means, but, in general, it just means getting myself the freedom and time to think and breathe and write and create a new piece,” she said.