Composer Portrait: Julia Wolfe

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Photo by Thomas Roma

Lily Icangelo was there!

I knew nothing about Julia Wolfe before attending her Composer Portrait at Miller Theatre Thursday night, but after just two brilliant pieces and a brief talk from Wolfe herself, I felt as if I had known her and her music for many years. Wolfe first gained recognition after taking part in the collaborative concert “Bang on a Can” as a graduate student at Yale University. She has since grown as a composer, creating works that drip with energy, drama, and sensuality. With such extraordinary music, it is no wonder that her 2009 piece “Steel Hammer” placed her as a finalist for the composer Pulitzer Prize that year.

The night began with a lovely discussion between Wolfe and WNYC’s John Schaefer. Wolfe discussed her inspiration for the evening’s pieces and shared the dark mythical story of the English ballad on which her piece of the same name, “Cruel Sister,” was based.  Luckily for the non-musically inclined, Wolfe spoke about her music in easily understandable, non-technical terms. Her charm set the tone, making the rest of the evening riveting and delightful.

The program began with her English ballad-inspired “Cruel Sister.” Although Wolfe’s piece does not include any traces of the original tune, it was written to musically recount the old English story. And what a creepy tale!  Two sisters court the same man, and one sister kills the other, only to have the dead sister’s body wash up on shore. The dead sister’s bones are then used to create a harp played during the murderous sister’s wedding. While this story’s images may be disturbing, its musical interpretation creates the greatest beauty during its most haunting moments.

The second and last piece of the evening was a collaboration between Wolfe and filmmaker Bill Morrison. As Wolfe explained in her opening discussion, while music is so often written for films, film is rarely created for music. Bill Morrison, however, is an expert on cutting film to music. In their collaboration, “Fuel,” Wolfe’s music erupts with energy accompanied by Morrison’s fabulously edited footage of New York City.  Unfortunately, I may have missed a great portion of the film, not because it was lacking in brilliance, but because my eyes were focused on the musicians. I have always found musicians’ movements compelling, but there was something about Wolfe’s work that made them even more entrancing. Their  relentless movements looked almost choreographed, as Julia Wolfe’s vigorous music rattled the theater.  It was the perfect end to a remarkable evening.

Miller Theater wants you! Tickets for all performances are reduced to $7 for students, and promotions are frequently available for free tickets through the Music Department.

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  1. anon  

    Bang on A Can is a presenting organization run by Julia, her husband, composer Michael Gordon, and their friend David Lang. http://bangonacan.org/ for more info.

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