2.02.2011

Julia Wolfe Looks to Her Composer Portrait at Miller

But her schedule has also included dropping in on recording sessions for “Big, Beautiful, Dark and Scary” (2002), with the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and listening to test pressings of “Cruel Sister,” a new album of her work due out in March on Cantaloupe, Bang on a Can’s house label. In fact, Ms. Wolfe’s professional juggling act involves keeping a third ball in the air: along with Michael Gordon, who is her husband, and David Lang, she is a founder of Bang on a Can, the composers group that presents an annual new-music marathon, fields a touring band (the All-Stars) and runs a summer institute in North Adams, Mass., known informally as Banglewood.

Ms. Wolfe’s early “Believing” (1997) will be on the program at Bang on a Can’s annual People’s Commissioning Fund Concert, at Merkin Concert Hall on Feb. 10. But at the moment she is focused mostly on a Composer Portraits program on Thursday night at the Miller Theater, in which Brad Lubman will conduct Signal in the first New York performances of the two string orchestra works on Ms. Wolfe’s new recording: “Cruel Sister” (2004) and “Fuel” (2007).

“I’ve been waiting to have these pieces done here for so long,” Ms. Wolfe, 52, said. The scores were commissioned by two German groups, the Munich Chamber Orchestra and Ensemble Resonanz.

“Fuel,” a collaboration with the filmmaker Bill Morrison, is “less about the politics of fuel,” Ms. Wolfe said, “than about the fact that everything is dependent on it.” And “Cruel Sister” is an almost programmatic piece — something unusual in Ms. Wolfe’s catalog — based on an old British ballad about two sisters, one of whom murders the other to win the love of a suitor. Though it quotes the ballad in neither melody nor text, it follows the story’s contours with a painterly precision.

“I often think of extramusical things,” Ms. Wolfe said of her approach to composing, “but I rarely think so much about narrative. Part of the reason I got interested in music is because it was beyond words. When I got this commission from the Munich Chamber Orchestra, I thought, ‘Great — it’s the next step after the string quartets.’ And a few weeks later, they called and said, ‘Could you make this go with a folk tale or a fairy tale?’ It was a foreign concept for me, so I said, ‘Let me think about it.’

“I was going to be open-minded, but I didn’t want to be boxed in. And while I was thinking about it, I remembered this song that I heard in college, a track from a Pentangle album. And I wound up, to my surprise, not just using the gestalt of the song, but really following the emotions and the arc of the story.”

Both “Cruel Sister” and “Fuel” are couched in the rhythmically propulsive post-Minimalist style that drives most of Ms. Wolfe’s music, though both also have haunting dramatic touches. It is easy to hear the influence of Steve Reich in her work, as she happily admits. Mr. Reich suggests that these days the influence goes both ways.

“I get a general feeling that what she and Michael and David have done was certainly influenced by what I did earlier on,” Mr. Reich said of Ms. Wolfe and her Bang on a Can colleagues, Mr. Gordon and Mr. Lang. “But what’s interesting is that they’ve come up with techniques I haven’t thought of, and which I sometime may steal from them. I was listening to ‘Cruel Sister’ and admiring her use of the open strings of the fiddle, which give the piece a kind of folk feeling. And when that open-fifths sound is replaced by extreme clusters, it’s very effective. I wouldn’t do that. I mean, I haven’t done it. But you know what? I’ll put it away for a rainy day.”

Since “Cruel Sister,” Ms. Wolfe has looked to other folk songs for inspiration. In “Steel Hammer” (2009), composed for the Bang on a Can players and the Trio Mediaeval, the (mostly) early-music vocal group, she drew on dozens of variants of “John Henry” and included some of the instruments she played during her years as a college folk singer in the scoring: a mountain dulcimer, for example. This time she quoted from the melody’s refrain but only obliquely. “With a Blue Dress On” (2010), for a singing violinist and eight recorded fiddle tracks, is also based on a folk tune, and she said that the piece she is writing for Ethel will have folk roots too.

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