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Dec. 7 | "Beyond words": oral tradition and the music of Julia Wolfe

  • Knox Hall Room 509, Columbia University 606 West 122nd Street New York, NY, 10027 United States (map)
Photography: Peter Serling 2009

Photography: Peter Serling 2009

WHEN: Thursday, December 7, 2017, 6:00 - 7:30 pm

WHERE: 606 W 122nd Street, Knox Hall 509, Columbia University

Watch the video of this workshop event here.

One of America’s most important composers, Julia Wolfe has often mined the past as inspiration for her contemporary music. Oral tradition, memory and oral history are central to two of her best-known works: Steel Hammer (2009), which has as its source more than 200 variations of the quintessential American folk ballad, the legendary “John Henry.” And the text for Anthracite Fields (2014), her choral oratorio about life and death in Pennsylvania coal country, was, in Wolfe’s words, “culled from oral histories and interviews, local rhymes, a coal advertisement, geological descriptions, a mining accident index, contemporary daily everyday activities that make use of coal power, and an impassioned political speech by John L. Lewis, the head of the United Mine Workers Union.”

Join us as Julia Wolfe discusses her multiple roles as composer, researcher and interviewer, and how her compositions, rooted in the past and focusing on workers, labor, and industrialization, have gained new relevance and audiences, in coal country, throughout the U.S. and beyond.


Julia Wolfe’s music is distinguished by an intense physicality and a relentless power that pushes performers to extremes and demands attention from the audience. She draws inspiration from folk, classical, and rock genres, bringing a modern sensibility to each while simultaneously tearing down the walls between them.

She is a 2016 MacArthur Fellow and won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music for Anthracite Fields. The New York Philharmonic recently announced her new evening-length commission for orchestra and women’s chorus that will premiere in the fall of 2018, continuing her interest in American labor history with the subject of women in New York’s garment industry at the turn of the century. In 2009, Wolfe joined the NYU Steinhardt School’s composition faculty. She is co-founder and co-artistic director of New York’s legendary music collective Bang on a Can.

Wolfe will be in conversation with Bud Kliment, a deputy administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes and a part-time student in OHMA. A native of Philadelphia and a graduate of Columbia College, he has also worked as a freelance writer, specializing in the performing arts.  His master's project for OHMA concerns American song collecting and the development of oral history.

This event is part of a yearlong series on Oral History and the Arts.

INFORMATION: For more information, please email Amy Starecheski at

This event is FREE and open to the public. Refreshments will be served.

No registration is required, but RSVPs on the event Facebook page are appreciated to gauge attendance.