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A MacArthur for the composer Julia Wolfe '86MM

Julia Wolfe

"I know the music I write isn’t for everyone,” a talking wolf remarks in a 2014 episode of the beloved PBS cartoon "Arthur." The wolf holds up a page of sheet music, points to her head, and explains to another character what it means to be a composer: “Everything that goes on up here winds up in the score.” The show’s cohort of animated creatures has just emerged from a raucous performance: a rendition of the amplified chamber work Big Beautiful Dark and Scary written by the real-life composer Julia Wolfe, who voiced the cartoon character.

Such explanations may no longer be necessary, as today Wolfe was selected as a 2016 MacArthur Fellow. She is the first full-time classical composer to receive a MacArthur since Osvaldo Golijov, in 2003. At fifty-seven, Wolfe is known equally as a composer and as a co-founder of the new-music collective Bang on a Can. Though Wolfe and Bang on a Can often position themselves as outside the mainstream—“I think of myself as a renegade,” she told NPR, in 2015—both the MacArthur award and the “Arthur” appearance testify to the centrality that they occupy in the world of composition today.

For much of her career, Wolfe was overshadowed by her Bang on a Can compatriots David Lang and Michael Gordon—outspoken and prolific composers in a male-dominated field. “There was definitely a stepwise building,” she told me in an interview earlier this year, in the Tribeca loft that she has shared with Gordon, her husband, since the mid-nineties. “Until you felt like, Now it’s time to make a bigger statement.” That time for broader canvasses has arrived, in the form of two recent and celebrated large-scale works: the 2009 Steel Hammer and the 2014 Anthracite Fields, which won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in music. ...