Philadelphia Inquirer

Sunday, November 15, 2009

By David Patrick Stearns

NEW YORK — Among downtown New York composers, few stick so relentlessly to the cutting edge as Julia Wolfe.

Now 50, she recently wrote a piece for nine bagpipes that sent her two children running for cover in her SoHo loft. Even her husband, Michael Gordon, who with her cofounded the composer collective Bang on a Can, has been moving toward more mainstream music for opera and film. Back home in Blue Bell, Wolfe's mother supports her daughter's performances with a dignified stoicism.

Full Dark Ride, her new compact disc on the Cantaloupe label, is nothing but music for the oddest of ensembles - four drum sets, six pianists, or eight double basses - and it had no typical album-release party last week. Live Wolfe performances popped up in furniture showrooms and art galleries around Manhattan.

After her bagpipe piece, LAD, a group of Irish construction workers took a smoking break in front of the art gallery where the music blasted out onto Greene Street. Two were former bagpipers. Reviews were mixed.

"Not bad," said one.

"Still learning," said another.

In her native Philadelphia, the Kimmel Center's Fresh Ink series and Penn Presents at Zellerbach Hall periodically host her music. Public venues particularly appeal to her. In Bordeaux, France, last month, her Travel Music had musicians in bicycle cabs playing throughout the town's narrow streets. Though she has written string quartets and even a concerto for Kronos Quartet and orchestra, she hardly expects a conventional orchestra or opera commission anytime soon.

"I'm not drawn to the establishment per se, but I'm drawn to big and wonderful things. There's something beautiful about sound that's approaching in a massive body of players," she said Tuesday, walking between performances. An orchestral commission "would have to be in an ideal world; I don't think most orchestras move off their chairs too often."

In Dark Full Ride, Wolfe treats her ensembles like a giant super-instrument, with eight basses exploring a circumscribed range of sound in an exhaustively minimalist rumble writ so large as to feel apocalyptic. She talks about these pieces as her "journey to the center of the Earth" that concludes with her hitting the molten core.

Only now is Wolfe integrating her counterculture beginnings, the wild experiments of recent decades, and her musical maturity in a piece titled Steel Hammer, a full-evening work commissioned by Carnegie Hall, where it will be heard Saturday at the end of an East Coast tour. Besides employing folk instruments, the piece uses visual and video elements designed to make Carnegie's Zankel Hall feel like a gathering around a campfire.

"Every composition is a reaching to where you've never been and coming home . . . to the essence of who you are," she explained. "Lately, that essence is coming from folk instruments. Like bagpipes. I wrote an accordion concerto. The sound is very earthy."

You still have to wonder how an artist of her radical vision came out of remote, quiet Montgomeryville, where she grew up, and the art cinemas she frequented as a counterculture denizen of '70s South Street. She wonders about that, too, and can only explain that she somehow got the curiosity gene. Her eyes are perpetually wide. Her presence is ebullient. Her cherry-blond hair is untamed.

Wolfe was expected to follow her family into the medical field. She also considered sociology and psychology. But during her undergraduate years at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, she formed the still-functioning Wild Swan Theater Company and wrote and acted. And, ultimately, she fell deeper in love with the limitless possibilities of music.

"It's crazier," she said. "I want to make something new. Go somewhere. Express myself. That's not crazy, but you have to be a little crazy . . . to create things from the air."

Early influences were Gyorgy Ligeti, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, and Louis Andriessen. And a life that could support such vision fell easily into place.

After attending Yale, she went for her doctorate at Princeton University, which yielded a four-year stipend. She has always lucked into low-rent apartments in New York's Lower East Side and SoHo. Following a Fulbright year in Holland, she has had a steady stream of commissions, starting in 1989 with the Rotterdam Arts Council and most recently from percussion virtuoso Evelyn Glennie. Odd jobs included incidental music for books on tape.

Perhaps the most crucial event in her creative life was the 1987 formation of Bang on a Can with husband Gordon and recent Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lang. Their collective identity gave them strength in numbers, and their annual modern-music marathon concerts have become a major event in the New York season. That's partly what prompted pieces for large numbers of the same instruments, though such unorthodox groupings limit their dissemination.

"The last time I did something practical . . . was at Yale - I wrote a woodwind quintet, and two professional groups played it," she says. "But some of these really odd pieces get played at universities and festivals with an outdoor element. Some people are pretty open to these wacky ideas. I just follow my ears and my heart."

A key part of this unbridled artistic freedom is her husband, whom she met through mutual friends during her time in Ann Arbor. She's astounded that they've been married 25 years. Their professional relationship is as crucial as their personal one, and though their respective studios are at opposite ends of their SoHo loft, they're never apart for long.

Says Gordon, "You need advice, you don't have to go very far." The long-term confidence he has in Wolfe, as well as Lang, counteracts the natural tendency of composers to become more isolated as they grow older. Interestingly, their artistic critiques don't strain their marriage.

"There are many challenges in life. For some reason, marriage hasn't been one of them," says Wolfe. "Other things are harder, like how to be a good parents, making a living, various things like that. Getting along with Michael is natural. Sometimes, I'll have worked five days on a section, and he'll tell me it's not working." And he knows her work well enough to say so.

Meanwhile, as uninterested as she is in musical establishments, they're coming to her. She holds two teaching positions, at Manhattan School of Music and, just recently, at New York University, where she's a full-fledged faculty member. "Yeah," she says, "I'm shocked."

She didn't even think to apply for NYU until one of her children (Lev is 12, Yael 14) suggested it: "Their mom has her head in the clouds, but they have their feet on the ground, and are now starting to advise me."

But how do they like her music? "Some pieces, they tilt their heads and get a little uncomfortable," she admits. "They're not growing up in your average household. They'll probably rebel and become accountants."