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Julia Wolfe  -  A short analysis of style

Paul Nelson - 12/6/2003

Background of the Composer

Julia Wolfe is a New York composer and a cofounder of the Bang on a Can Festival, with Michael Gordon and David Lang. Although she may be best known in this capacity, she has already had a distinguished compositional career.

Born in 1958 in Philadelphia, Wolfe received her MM from Yale (studying with Martin Bresnick) and her doctorate from Princeton. She has written for a wide variety of ensembles, from the American Composers Orchestra, Kronos Quartet, and San Francisco Symphony, to the Piano Circus and the Bang On A Can All-Stars. Her repertoire includes both instrumental works and music theater compositions.

General Style Traits

My analysis of Wolfe's style is based on just four of her compositions, namely:  Believing from the Renegade Heaven album performed by the Bang On A Can All-Stars, and her three string quartets:  Dig Deep (performed by Ethel), Four Marys (performed by the Cassatt Quartet), and Early That Summer (performed by the Lark Quartet).

The first word which quickly leaps to mind for all four works is relentless. Each work has a driving motoric force which pushes the listener through the composition, leaving one breathless and exhausted by the end (imagine how the performers must feel!). Even Four Marys, which starts out soft with long held notes, gradual crescendos, and bent singing glissandi, eventually reveals the fast underlying pulse which drives the motion (though there are many hints of it early on).

In fact, all four works sound as if they are driven by a fast, underlying 16th note tempo which underpins the motion and the rhythms of the work. This technique uses the additive African rhythm technique introduced by Steve Reich (a composer who has been a significant influence on all of the 'Bang on a Can' composers). Instruments are free to come in on any 16th note within the bar, or to group 16th notes into any number of values, but underneath it all the steady 16th note tempo can be felt throughout.

Wolfe's form has similarities to Reich's music as well. Her forms, while quite varied on the local level, tend to spin out over larger blocks of time. As the form of the work unfolds, she uses the introduction of new instruments, the passing of patterns among the instruments, and the addition and repetition of new pitches to distinguish the larger blocks in her form. The sum total of these changes and additions is to build excitement towards climactic moments of drama.

In terms of the sound world, Wolfe's music feels like a synthesis of genres, including: rock music percussion (in the offbeat and syncopated rhythmic patterns), rap music, electric guitar (from the Bang on a Can All-Stars), Hungarian folk music (ala Bartok), middle eastern muezzin calls, and Bulgarian choral music.

But through it all is a gritty urban sound:  energetic, hardworking -- occasionally sad or plaintive, but more typically optimistic and with attitude.

Rhythm and Meter

It is appropriate to talk about rhythm since Wolfe's rhythmic style is the feature most immediately apparent to the listener. In each of the four pieces represented here there appears to be a constant, fast 16th note tempo that underlies the work. These 16th notes appear to be grouped into 3's, 4's, or 2's as desired to create interest and variability (for example, see the opening of Early That Summer).

At times it takes a while before the 16th note pattern becomes apparent. In Dig Deep, the string quartet starts with a series of repeated strong chords alternating between two different (but clearly related) tempi. These strong chords are then interrupted by fast figurations in the violins. After a while the ear begins to understand that these figures are played as straight 16th notes (sometimes in groups of three, sometimes in groups of four) and the strong chords are also based on 16th notes: the faster chords are played every dotted eighth and the slower ones are played every quarter note.

What makes Wolfe's music continually interesting is that the patterns are forever changing. Again, in Dig Deep, the dotted-eighth note chords are repeated some number of times and then quarter note chords are repeated. These sets are all of differing sizes. For example, the first 53 chords in Dig Deep have the following rhythmic values: (de = dotted-eighth, q = quarter-note)

2de, 8q; 3de, 4q; 2de, 9q; 5de, 7q; 6de, 2q; 3de, 2q; etc.

Variety appears to be the overriding factor. This keeps the listener deliciously on edge and continuously surprised about when the next note will occur.

This technique of local variety also destroys any traditional sense of meter. For example, the pattern shown above has the following quantities of 16th notes:

6, 32; 9, 16; 6, 36; 15, 28; 18, 8; 9, 8; = 48; 25; 42; 43; 26; 17

Perhaps this can be translated into some fixed meter, but I doubt it.

The end result of this rhythmic variety is to provide a alternating feelings of interruption and anticipation. The ear is always listening for the next change in pattern. When that change is delayed, the listener feels a heightened intensity of anticipation. When the new pattern comes before it is expected, one gets a sense of interruption. Both sensations serve to heighten the sense of relentless urgency that one feels throughout the work. I feel the rhythmic patterns, more than any other aspect of her style, impart a jarring, urban feel to her music.

Form and Growth

Continuous rhythmic patterns as described above might easily become tedious, if it were not for the clear sense of large-scale movement and growth that Wolfe achieves in her music. This large scale growth keeps us listening, interested to see what will come next and be added to the mix.

Specifically, large scale growth is achieved in a variety of ways:

Wolfe's process for growth, however, is not constant nor easily predictable. In all cases general trends are interrupted by somewhat extended returns to earlier material, interruptions by solo instruments, occasional duets, declamatory chords, etc. And yet, there is a clear, overall pattern of growth throughout each work which builds excitement and intensity throughout the work.

If such excitement and intensity merely built to a climax which ended the work, then I would say her forms would be clear, but ultimately unsatisfying. What makes her overall forms compelling is that they consistently build to a "breaking point" (often, it appears, near the 2/3 point of the work), at which point the work dramatically shifts to a completely different mood. In Believing this happens at 5:'21" (of a 9 minute work) where the mood suddenly becomes mysterious and exotic. In Dig Deep the break occurs at 10'56" (of a 14 minute work) where the thick textures turn into a solo violin cadenza. Four Marys contains a couple of major shifts, but I think the most dramatic is at 6'53" (of 10'48") where the 16th note fundamental pulse is abandoned and the entire character of the work shifts from driving and angular to searingly emotional and plaintive.

The least clear is Early That Summer where the shift appears to occur at the very end at 10'54" (of 12'03") where, after a series of declamatory chords, the instruments play a very long held chord where individual instruments warble around their pitches (similar to warbling you might hear in music performed by the Bulgarian Women's choir). While the character of this last long chord is clearly very different, it also feels like a very long cadential gesture -- and so it lacks the independence necessary to call it a new section.

Regardless, the idea of building a texture to a breaking point and then shifting to an entirely new, contrasting section or mood is a powerful dramatic device. I think the idea is borrowed from literature and movies, where a character in a story who labors under increasingly stressful situations tries in vain to maintain the status-quo. This continues until he or she reaches the breaking point at which time the character suddenly changes perspective (i.e. grows up or evolves) and learns to move in a brand new direction.

This is a much more dramatic strategy than works which simply grow more intense and then less intense (with no dramatic shift at the climax), or those which simply grow all the way to the end, and then just suddenly stop.

Finally, after the dramatic shift occurs and near the end of the work, Wolfe will sometimes round-out the form of the work by recalling the opening textures. This occurs in Believing and Dig Deep.

Harmonies

Wolfe does seem to favor certain intervals in her works. When the music is more consonant, the listener tends to hear minor thirds and perfect intervals. When the music is gritty and dissonant, one more often hear half-steps or even quartertones.

The favoring of minor-3rd intervals is apparent from the outset in all four works studied, except for Four Marys. Wolf appears to favor certain simple pitch class sets, such as (013) (Believing, Early That Summer), (014) (Dig Deep), or (015) (Four Marys). These pitch class sets are outlined in the pulsing rhythmic patterns and appear to become the cohesive harmonic glow for the entire work.

A second common characteristic is her use of drones. Sometimes this is done as a literal drone (i.e. a low held pitch) as in at the beginning of Four Marys, but more often it is just a pitch which is very frequently reiterated as part of the overall texture. For example, at the beginning of Believing the violoncello reiterates the reference pitch, sometimes leaving it to play the alternate figure, but always returning and reiterating it. This keeps the reference pitch always in one's ear, and allows the other pitches played to be heard clearly in relation to the reference (or drone) pitch.

This is not to say that Wolfe avoids all use of other pitches or harmonies. Instead, the fundamental pitch class set and the reference pitch serve as a harmonic foundation for the work. Once she has this foundation, she feels free to add any other note (including microtones) around the basic pitches, creating harsh dissonances, extended suspensions, or crashing appoggiaturas whenever she wants.

Overall, with her use of drones and minor-third orientation, one feels that the harmonic structure is warm and inviting. It is true that the half-step dissonances give it a gritty, urban sound, but this is not an "arms-length" icy harmonic plan that one might typically get from a modernist composer. Rather I find it to be a warm, woody, ethnic, and more humane harmonic world, with harmonies and reference pitches that are generally very clear to the ear.

Sound World

Wolfe's music appears to be string dominated. Obviously, this statement probably comes from the fact that this paper is based on the four pieces that I am using for my analysis (three string quartets and one using the Bang on a Can All-Stars). But also it may be a necessary outgrowth of her style: specifically, a large quantity of fast repeated notes is ideal for a stringed instrument, and is much more difficult for almost every other instrument in the standard repertoire.

Her string writing is not your typical lush romantic string writing, however. Nor is it merely the choppy, marginalized, and effects-laden writing that you might find in Stravinsky. Instead, the strings serve as the underpinning for the entire work -- providing the propulsive force. This reminds me most of the string writing of Bartok.

This is not to say that the strings are never lyrical. At the end of Four Marys there's a lyrical string section which is also plaintive and aching, like music that Shostakovich might have written. But on the whole, the strings play repeated notes or fast musical figures, often alternating between two notes an octave or a minor-third apart.

Right alongside the strings is the electric guitar (an instrument that can also play the long sequences of repeated notes) which gives Believing a more rock-oriented sound.

Other aspects of her sound world appear more as ornamentation:  Frenetic squealing clarinet runs, tremolando in the strings, percussive pizzicato, use of percussion -- all of these effects serve to comment on and ornament the basic motion and textures.

Finally, I hear many touches of middle eastern sound in Wolfe's music. There are parts, for instance, which sound like a muezzin call to prayer. This is helped by the use of microtonal bending and her choice of percussion instruments (e.g., tambourine and cymbals).

Textures

In trying to find a single description that characterizes all of Wolfe's textures, I might say that her textures "embrace the exception". Rhetorical techniques which might normally be considered to be exceptions in standard musical rhetoric are used as part of the larger-scale fabric in Wolfe's textures. These techniques include interruptions, delays, gaps, and punctuations.

It's this "exceptional style" (as in a "style of exceptions") which I find to be the single most defining characteristic of Wolfe's style. She is not content to let a texture continue for large stretches of time (as Reich might do). Instead, her patterns are being constantly interrupted with other patterns. And when it is not interrupted, the ear is always on edge, waiting in expectation for the delayed interruption.

For example, at the beginning of Believing the violoncello sets down a basic pattern of 16th notes which is being constantly interrupted (punctuated) with accented 8th notes. The pattern is not consistent, except that overall there is some notion of an average amount of time spent on the 16th note pattern and the 8th note interruptions.

This same idea of "texture by exception" can be found throughout all of these works. In Dig Deep there are two layers of interruption. First, repeated chords come in two different tempi - with the faster tempi chords serving to interrupt the slower chords. And then the chords themselves are also interrupted by higher, fast string figures, which then begin to overlap and become more in control of the texture (later on, it's the chords which act as the interruption to the faster, more lyrical string figures).

Exceptions can also include gaps and drop-outs, as is especially evident in Early That Summer.

Finally, the other primary characteristic of Wolfe's textures is the layers. This is not universal, and some works use layers more than others. For example, in Believing the primary method used to build interest is through layering. It starts with cello and tambourine, then adds bass pizzicato, then bass tremolo (punctuations), then guitar, then clarinet punctuations, and so on. These layers build up to make the overall texture more varied and rich.

Melody

I would say that the foundations of the four pieces of Julia Wolfe's music that I've studied are based on the rhythmic over the melodic. However, this does not mean that melody is completely absent. Indeed, her works are littered with melodic fragments. These melodic fragments include scalar fragments, fragments which outline the overriding pitch-class set, and various suspensions and appoggiaturas.

Sometimes, however, the fragments will coalesce into a repeated melodic line which serves as the highpoint of a section. This occurs in Believing, right before the pattern shifts into the 'B' section.

This is not to say that there are no extended melodic sections in Wolfe's music . Four Marys provides an extended lyrical section at 6'53" within the work that contain some almost painfully beautiful melodic lines.


Conclusions

When I first heard Julia Wolfe's music during my "Music Now" class at the Peabody Conservatory, I was intrigued. It had an appealing gritty, urban sound, and so I was interested in hearing more. Now that I've become more familiar with her style, I find it to be quite arresting, assertive, and driving. In the same way that some recent advertisements show Tiger Woods golfing through an urban environment, it seems to me that Julia Wolfe has done the same for chamber music.

This is not esoteric, academic music. Instead, this is music which is fully aware of it's environment and time and place. It mixes elements of pop music (in sound and attitude), minimalism, rap, classical, and world music into a cohesive blend which uniquely Wolfe's own style.