This spring, MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer-winner Julia Wolfe, professor and artistic director of Music Composition at NYU Steinhardt, completed her residency – titled “Unsung Histories” – at Carnegie Hall.
Steel Hammer, which is based on the many iterations of the legend of John Henry, was Wolfe’s first live performance at Carnegie Hall after COVID. This contemporary American folk music piece featured banjo, body percussion, and other folk instruments, as well as three female vocalists who filmed their parts from an old factory in Trenton, New Jersey.
While not a part of her residency, Wolfe’s Fire in My Mouth is another stalwart in her repertoire and a further example of her social commentary through composition. This choral piece, which was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic in 2019, tells the story of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 in Greenwich Village, in which 146 garment workers died.
The factory occurred in what is now known as the Brown Building at 23-29 Washington Place – practically across the street from NYU Steinhardt.
“During the concert at the New York Philharmonic, we had 146 women singing: thirty-six adults and the rest from the Young People’s Choir of New York,” says Wolfe. “Many of the workers who died were children as young as fourteen, and I wanted to have those voices represented.”
Other “Unsung Histories” presentations included Wolfe’s Cruel Sister, an instrumental string piece that follows the arc of an old Scottish ballad about jealousy and murder, and her Pulitzer Prize-winning Anthracite Fields, which is based on oral histories and interviews of Pennsylvania coal miners.
Wolfe also curated Ensemble Connect’s Up Close concert, which included commissions for composer Robert Honstein, program manager of Steinhardt’s Concert Composition, and Shelley Washington, adjunct faculty in Music Composition and alum of Steinhardt’s Master of Music in Theory and Composition (MM). The concert also featured the premiere of works by two Steinhardt undergraduate Composition alumni, Kyle Brenn (BM ’20) and Amanda Berlind (BM ’20).
It’s so exciting to have a platform like Carnegie Hall for my work, but it’s even more rewarding to share it. For some of the musicians and artists I worked with this year, it was their Carnegie Hall debut. There has been a very supportive, artist-friendly, incredible dialogue throughout my entire residency.
Award-winning composer Julia Wolfe has been appointed the Debs Chair composer-in-residence at Carnegie Hall. Wolfe is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and Pulitzer Prize for work that harnesses issues of social justice and labor history.