Pulitzer Prize winning composer Julia Wolfe shares passion in the Forest

by Caitlin Shannon, Student Life & Arts Editor

It isn’t often that you get to take a class with a Pulitzer Prize winning composer.  It’s even less often that you get to hear a piece you composed being played by a world-renowned music collective before you even receive your undergraduate diploma. Well, Drew students were awarded these opportunities with the residence of Julia Wolfe, the Mellon Arts for the Common Good Artist in Residence this spring. Thanks to the Mellon Arts and the Common Good Grant, Drew has welcomed different artists over the past three years and Julia Wolfe will be the last. To celebrate her, this month has been filled with music making that crosses genre and disciplinary lines.  

The primary responsibilities of the Mellon Artists in Residence are to team teach a class, run a symposium, and be available to Drew students. In addition to this symposium and teaching her class, she has also made herself available to Drew students outside of the DOYO. Wolfe gave a lecture to Professor of Economics Jennifer Olmstead’s Social Entrepreneurship class about nonprofit work in the arts. Earlier this month she also participated in the Caspersen Graduate School’s Arts and Letters Salon lecture.  As if she hasn’t been busy enough here in the forest, it was recently announced that Wolfe will be the commencement speaker at graduation in May.  

The highlight of Wolfe’s time here at Drew came this past week with the residency of Bang on a Can All Stars. Bang on a Can is a contemporary classical music collective co-founded by Wolfe and two other American composers, David Lang and Michael Gordon. The group started as a marathon music festival and soon grew into the New York music scene staple that it is today. This week the traveling troupe of Bang on a Can, the Bang on a Can All Stars, took up residency in the DOYO.

Julia Wolfe and Bang on a Can’s interdisciplinary approach to music is a perfect match to Drew’s liberal arts approach to the performing and fine arts. Throughout this spring semester, Wolfe has been team teaching a class with Rebecca Soderholm, Associate Professor of Art, called Special Topics in Documentary Expression. This class brought digital art students together with music students to see the sort of creation that could be made when different artists team up and combine their strength into one piece. Both Wolfe and Soderholm’s personal work centers around American cultural identity, despite being in completely different mediums of music and photography. Soderholm described the pairing as “wonderfully natural, a partnership that was both truly interdisciplinary and connected through a common curiosity with our social landscape. The goal of the class, according to Soderholm, was to “develop [the students] skills as composers, visual image makers, and, most importantly as collaborators. Collaboration requires that you trust yourself and each other, and remain flexible and open to other people’s ideas.” The culmination of this class came with a final collaboration between artists and musicians to compose pieces for the Bang on a Can All Stars to perform.

Bang on a Can’s residency began on Monday, April 24, with a rehearsal of the student works created in Soderholm and Wolfe’s class. In this rehearsal, students got to hear their pieces played by real instruments for the first time and worked on the logistics of lining up the video with the music in real time.  

This was a unique experience for the student composers after going through the conception and brainstorming process and through the work of orchestrating their pieces for the group. Soderholm described this as her favorite moment in the class as “seeing their faces during rehearsal the first time the incredible Bang On a Can All-Stars played their compositions. They heard and saw the pieces come to life on stage in a way I don’t think that any of us, besides Wolfe, completely anticipated. It was magical!” Describing this experience, Brianna Vazquez-Smith (’19) said, “It sounds really, really cool when all the musicians are playing it. It feels realer because the instruments are live rather than just digital files.”

Monday night, Bang on a Can continued their marathon with a lecture about Wolfe’s 2009 composition Steel Hammer. Its mix of history, cultural studies, and arts were a perfect fit for the culmination of the Andrew Mellon Arts and the Common Good Grant.  

Julia Wolfe sat on the edge of the stage going through each movement of her piece explaining her process of composition, her inspiration for the piece in general and sharing some fun facts about each movement. As she explained each movement, members of the band sat behind her to add their own comments and to demonstrate different pieces of each movement.

Steel Hammer is inspired by the American folk tune The Ballad of John Henry and the corresponding legend of John Henry, and African American steel driver. Wolfe talked about her fascination with American folk music and how Steel Hammer came out of the want to create something that she was really interested in, rather than a commission idea that someone else gave her. As she explored American folk music, she continually stumbled upon The Ballad of John Henry and eventually settled on this as the main root of her work.

Wolfe explained how she blended the different lyrics from the ballad and origin stories of the myth of John Henry into the different movements of Steel Hammer while the Bang on a Can All Star gave demonstrations of the music from the work. Each artist explained the different techniques and unique instruments used in the piece such as mountain dulcimer, banjo, brake drum, ratchet, and body percussion. The musicians gave the audience the opportunity to participate by showing them how to perform the body percussion that can be found in one of the movements. Soon enough everyone in the audience was adding their own beat to the music. Later on, guitarist Mark Stewart taught the entire audience some basic seated clogging which is also featured in Steel Hammer. This informative and fun lecture had everyone in attendance leaving the Concert Hall with a smile and a few new musical skills.

  The culmination of this week’s festivities was the performance of Steel Hammer on Wednesday night in the Concert Hall. The excitement was palpable as the lights went down and the Bang on a Can All Stars and vocalists walked on stage.

The constant introduction of new elements, like a cymbal being played with a bow rather than a drumstick or the pianist plucking the piano’s strings rather than hitting the keys, kept the audience on their toes. The end of the work was met with roaring applause and a standing ovation. Following the performance there was a reception in the rotunda where guests were able to talk to the Bang on a Can musicians and Julia Wolfe herself. Students from the Documentary Expression class congratulated Wolfe on her captivating piece and reflected on their experiences throughout the semester. “I’m sad that it’s over,” Jillian Canal (‘19) commented, as she congratulated Wolfe and conversed with Soderholm about the concert and their successful semester in class.  

After hearing Steel Hammer, Drew students realized just how unique and exciting of an opportunity they had been afforded this semester in their work with Julia Wolfe.  Associate Professor of Music and Chair of the Music Department, Leslie Sprout, talked about the importance of bringing Wolfe to campus, saying, “[she’s] a successful woman who’s made her way primarily as a professional composer and secondarily as an academic [and that] has been something that students in many different departments have benefitted from being exposed to.” Ben Schneider (‘19), a Music major reflected on the “awesome experience [of] being able to interact with such a well-known and well-respected artist. Her piece left me awestruck, and she came across as very humble and welcoming.”

The interdisciplinary nature of Wolfe’s work made her a perfect candidate for the Residency and a spectacular way to close out the Mellon Arts for the Common Good Grant. Sprout talked about the impact of the grant speaking to the connections between the different arts departments and among the other departments on campus it has revealed. Speaking to the long term impact of the grant, Sprout said, “I think that the faculty connections made through the Mellon advisory board is one way that we’ll keep talking to each other and keep developing ideas even without the framework of the grant, so I think that’s been a real benefit to Drew.”

So, although the Bang on a Can residency and Mellon Arts for the Common Good Grant may be over, it’s quite obvious that the great ideas and art that they both sparked will continue. Both Wolfe’s residency and the Mellon grant have encouraged students and faculty alike to embrace the liberal arts mindset and apply it to their studies, both in and outside of the arts.