The New Yorker | By William Robin
“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. MORE