Chapter One

We invited former Herb Alpert Award Music winners to pose questions to Julia.  I inevitably had some questions too.
– Irene Borger, Director, Herb Alpert Award
Inspiration + words + trajectory + labor
Derek Bermel, Herb Alpert Artist, 2008; panelist, 2012, 2015
Derek Bermel:
Would you discuss an aspect of your creative process that (a) has remained constant and (b) one that has evolved?   
Julia Wolfe: 
At the core, what has remained consistent is that I try to stay true to the initial inspiration for the piece - the idea, image, gestalt. My work almost always connects to extra-musical thoughts. Maybe this is because my first creative work was with words. I came to composing in college. (I thought I’d study social sciences or creative writing.) In a way I accidentally landed in a music class during my first year where I had an amazing teacher named Jane Heirich. A light bulb went off and I never looked back. Creating music was/is emotional, mathematical, physical, poetic, intellectual, spiritual, and seemed to answer everything for me. 
In recent pieces I have been particularly fascinated with looking at different kinds of labor and the issues surrounding that work. My most recent large-scale piece, “Anthracite Fields,” involved a year or more of research before writing a word or a note. For “Anthracite Fields” I went into the Pennsylvania coal mines, interviewed miners and children of miners, and talked to curators of local history museums. This idea of reflecting who we are as American workers in music and text has taken hold.
Irene Borger, Director, Herb Alpert Award
Irene Borger:
How does doing research influence/inspire/lead to the production of SOUND? 
Doing research leads to so many ideas and thoughts. In this case, the interviews revealed a lot about life in the mining communities: how community worked, how the people beautified a rather challenging environment, how they depended on one another, took pride in their work. How does this all translate into sound? If I knew I’d tell you. But there were certainly images that translated into sound, like the deep dark wells of the mines - strong bow pressure on lowest open string on the double bass, bottom register of the bass clarinet, low rumbling scrubbing of electric guitar, strange creaking echoes from the singers, and more.
Pamela Z, Herb Alpert Artist, 1998; panelist, 2003, 2015     
Pamela Z:
Can you talk about your actual physical process of creating new work? That is to say, what do you actually do when beginning to compose music or during the process of composing it?
I get a notebook. I start writing in words what the piece is about, what it sounds like, what the energy is. Sometimes these ideas are general and other times specific information is put down - like a specific sound or instrumental color. When the piece involves text and historical research then there are pages and pages of gathered information, book references, images, etc.
Do you sing or play parts and assemble them into scratch mock-ups using audio recordings and/or playback of MIDI files?
I sing a lot. I sing especially when working with text and singers, but also when the work is instrumental. I play the piano. I tap out rhythms on my desk. When the piece is really up and running then I am working in Sibelius and listening to midi playback. Of course midi playback can’t do everything - so I sing with the midi playback too, add my imagination
Or are you able to conceptualize the work in your head and on “paper” without physically hearing it until the ensemble you’re writing for plays it?
I like to hear it all the way through as much as possible - hear the scale, timing - even if it is rough. My favorite thing is to bring ideas to performers and try things out. I do this whenever possible. I love that collaborative way of developing a piece.
Do you sometimes play with harmonic and timbral possibilities by using your own voice to try them out?
Yes, singing is a great tool for me. I sing long tones, make scratchy sounds, reedy timbres, punchy rhythms - all with my voice
Titles + Incubation + Work
Anne LeBaron, Herb Alpert Artist, 1996     
Anne LeBaron:
The titles of your pieces are always so evocative and unusual. Do you generally choose them before you write a piece, when ideas are incubating, or do they emerge during composing or after the process?
I think of the title as a window into the piece. In recent works my titles are very directly related to narrative. “Steel Hammer” is based on the many versions of the John Henry ballad. In this work I wrote both text and music, drawing from the over 200 versions of the ballad that have circulated since the early 1800s. The piece embraces the conflicting facts and contradictions, becoming the story of the story. It also examines who we are as workers, in this case man against machine, human strength, obsession. For me the image Steel Hammer leaves it open - a blunt instrument - a metaphor that can allow anyone to identify with his plight. Often my titles are drawn from folk music - like “Cruel Sister,” “Four Marys,” “riSE and fLY,” and “With a blue dress on.” I have a strong love of folk ballads.
Another thing that drew me to this worker ballad was the idea of hard work. Am a bit of a workaholic myself. Lines like “gonna hammer my fool self to death” start to have a universal meaning whether you are doing physical labor or madly bowing a cello. It’s the idea of striving for something, pushing the limit.
The Documentary + Research
Irene Borger:
How about defining the term “documentary music."
There have been many works throughout the history of music that focus on historical events or address social issues. I have generally veered away from direct narrative - avoided following a dramatic plot. While the subject matter is generally clear and direct, the treatment is more of a meditation or study than a clear-cut story or history. In both “Steel Hammer” and “Anthracite Fields” I have looked at American culture, at American labor, in a very personal way, asking questions, trying to understand who we are and creating an experience through a musical lens. The research for these pieces has been fascinating - a great chance for me to read in depth about American labor history. When I begin the material seems so vast, at times overwhelming. But as I begin to delve deeper - reading, interviewing, going on site visits, etc - themes emerge that call out to be a part of the work and the piece begins to take shape. Why documentary - the issues are real. They are about human struggles and dreams. About tragedy and triumph, big things and small things. The historical themes do belong to time and place, but the issues are generally timeless. 
""My work almost always connects to extra-musical thoughts.""-Julia Wolfe

Steel Hammer


"Steel Hammer"
""How does this all translate into sound? If I knew I’d tell you.""-JW

Dark Full Ride


"Dark Full Ride," BLOW-UP percussion (Italy)

""My favorite thing is to bring ideas to performers and try things out. I do this whenever possible. I love that collaborative way of developing a piece.""

Big Beautiful Dark and Scary


""While the subject matter is generally clear and direct, the treatment is more of a meditation or study than a clear-cut story or history."" -JW


Ashley Bathgate, Cello | Robert Black, Bass | Vicky Chow, Piano | David Cossin, Drums and Percussion | Mark Stewart, Guitars | Ken Thomson, Clarinets

"Reeling", Bang on a Can All Stars, Julia Wolfe