‘Anthracite Fields’ composer Julia Wolfe says MacArthur grant will bring ‘time and space’

American composer Julia Wolfe photographed in Los Angeles last year.
American composer Julia Wolfe photographed in Los Angeles last year.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

After receiving the Pulitzer Prize for music last year, a Grammy Award nomination and other praise for her coal-mining-themed choral work “Anthracite Fields,” composer Julia Wolfe can add another accolade to her professional mantel: a MacArthur Fellowship, a five-year grant that comes with an unrestricted $625,000 stipend.

Wolfe was told about the fellowship earlier this month but could not reveal the news until the official MacArthur announcement Wednesday night, she said.

“It’s a long time to be quietly excited,” Wolfe said by phone from New York. The composer said she has no concrete plans about what she will do with the fellowship money.

“If I had a plan, that’d be really good! Even though I’ve known for about two weeks now, I’m not sure. It would give me time and space — what that’ll translate that into, I don’t know,” she said.


Wolfe is working on another labor-themed project: an orchestral and choral work that explores women’s labor issues in factories, with a focus on New York’s garment industry.

“I just spent last week at Cornell. I had these wonderful few hours to talk to the archivist, so I did a lot of hunting and gathering,” she said.

Wolfe resides in TriBeCa and is an associate professor of music composition at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. She is is one of the founders of Bang on a Can, the New York group known worldwide for its innovative performances and embrace of new music.

Her piece about female garment workers is a New York Philharmonic commission for orchestra and women’s chorus that is set to premiere in fall 2018.

“I’m taking the moment to sit back and think about it and give the time for a project to be built,” she said. “You don’t always have that. You’re always rushing around and managing your life and work … so maybe that’s what this award will give me — time and space.”