Julia Wolfe came to Columbia University to speak on December 7, 2017, and was interviewed live by Bud Kliment as part of the Workshop Series: Oral History and the Arts. Among other things, she spoke about her 2009 musical composition Steel Hammer that was based on the tale of John Henry and her 2014 musical composition Anthracite Fields that was a tribute to the Pennsylvania anthracite coal miners and their families.
Julia Wolfe is as much a storyteller with her musical compositions as Homer is with his prose. She has internalized, sound and is endowed with an innate sense of how ideas and emotions can be translated into music. Julia Wolfe’s musical compositions are as communicative of story and meaning as verbal or physical manifestations. When asked by interviewer Bud Kliment whether the theatrical adaptation of Steel Hammer made it easier for people to experience John Henry’s story, she responded that while it was interesting to add visual elements, “I think the story is in the music, in the strings.”
Her comment about the story being “in the strings” also illuminates the role words have played in her works. Words in Wolfe’s compositions are components. Rather than using words to convey the story in a literal, linear way, she uses words as an instrument. She employs them as she might an oboe to represent a bird’s singing, or, as in Anthracite Fields, where she uses slides to represent labor union leader John L. Lewis’ particular “tone or way of speaking,” in his impassioned speech.
She is a foremost avant-garde composer of the 21st century and yet, when I hear her speak about her work, I can’t help but think of my toddler’s Dalcroze music class where the ear, mind, and body are integrated through movement, singing, and improvisation. Wolfe shared that she always thought extra-musically when composing:
“I was always thinking extra-musically…. What I mean by extra-musically is not just thinking about notes and rhythm. I’m thinking about some image, some emotion, some idea that isn’t technically tied to music necessarily. That’s what fuels me. That came more and more to the fore as I went through writing music. But in the beginning, I was just charged up with music, but I would say almost every piece has some extra-musical thinking in it, narrative to a certain extent.”
As a result, visual images, emotions, and ideas are conveyed through Wolfe’s music without need for performers to dramatize, sets to reaffirm, or other artists to reinterpret the work itself. Tapping into that extra-musical aspect takes practice and work and has a relationship to deep listening in the field of oral history. Finding the underlying narrative, both through what is spoken and what exists as a silence in the oral history, unleashes the power of the work.
Like Dalcroze’s expansive approach to musical education, wherein the “body is the main instrument,” Wolfe facilitates an experience of music that is beyond listening, reaching into the stores of our memory, and engaging the totality of our senses. Julia Wolfe is in tune with both her senses, and our sensory world in a way that most people are not. Her music can be apprehended through a direct emotional and metaphysical experience without verbal processing.
When asked by an audience member if she had composed any autobiographical works, she mentions that “Lick,” a piece she composed for Bang on a Can, was a tribute to music she loves— funk and James Brown. In essence, her story lives in the amalgam of music she loves. Julia Wolfe shared that she got into music because you’re “sharing something beyond words. You’re saying something so profound through music… reflecting some aspect of who we are in this time period.” And she opined “being an artist is a political act.” I agree with those sentiments and wish that more people paid attention to artistic works that, like Julia Wolfe’s, lack “didacticism,” as she put it. She opens our eyes and ears to stories and voices that are not widely known— like the coal-mining stories she captured in Anthracite Fields. She gave the coal miners and their families a platform to be heard, like she did with the John Henry stories in Steel Hammer, without appropriating their stories. While passionate, neither Anthracite Fields nor Steel Hammer is a polemic. She encourages us to engage and awaken our senses and minds so that we can experience the full range of emotions and narratives that are written into her scores and come to our own conclusions, if any can be made.
The first word of The Odyssey by Homer is “sing” and the last word is “voice.” For thousands of years, we’ve gone back to Homer’s epic poems. We learn from Odysseus’ adventures and apply those lessons to our contemporary world. Through Steel Hammer, Julia Wolfe has given voice to the myriad myths and legends that developed around John Henry. His legacy has been defined by what we want and need it to be. Julia Wolfe described the last movement of Steel Hammer as a “prayerful movement” and “spiritual response” to John Henry’s story since “he’s still resonating in our minds and ears.” Like The Odyssey, Steel Hammer is a work of art, but it is also a timeless tale of humanity told through music.
Christina Barba is a lawyer and part-time student pursuing a Masters in Oral History at Columbia University. As a granddaughter of an Armenian Genocide survivor, Christina is interested in taking the oral histories of second-generation Armenian genocide survivors and exploring post-memory and the relationship between individual memory and collective memory.