Composer Julia Wolfe’s 2017 Commencement Address at Drew
True success, she says, is picking yourself up, persevering and breaking through.
May 2017 – Pulitzer Prize winning composer Julia Wolfe delivered the following address at Drew University’s 2017 Commencement on May 13.
Wow, you made it!
I want to do one extra cheer for the Class of 2017!
I have had the honor of being the Mellon Artist-in-Residence at Drew University this year. I’ve loved working with students and faculty. Being a part of the Drew community has allowed me to see the creativity and the tenacity of Drew University students. You came here to challenge yourselves, to explore new worlds. You leave here with friends, and with infinite possibilities.
I am a composer. To a lot of people, writing music is a mystery. People think composers sit around and drink a lot of coffee—or a lot of wine—and wait for inspiration to strike. But that just isn’t how it works. I don’t mean to erase any of the magic or glamour, but we are just regular people who have to not check email every five minutes and get down to work. In the midst of all of that work, like in any field, eventually a light bulb goes off—I get an idea. Then I dig in, focus, develop the idea, make it whole.
You, Drew University graduates, have worked hard to get to this day. You are smart, dedicated, educated. But the journey has just begun.
Many, many years ago when I walked onto a college campus I had no idea what I was going to do. I was political-minded and socially conscious. In my second semester of my freshman year, a friend pulled me into a music class. The professor, Jane Heirich, told us this was not going to be an easy class. If we were looking for a free ride, we were in the wrong place. We would learn to write a piece of music. I had no idea what that meant.
I was the most beginning person in the class. It didn’t matter, the professor explained, because what mattered was how far we developed from where we began. I was fascinated by this idea. Challenged by it.
Within a few weeks, I was hooked on writing music. I spent most of my free time at a piano, singing and scribbling down ideas. I stumbled my way through, tripping over my feet, fueled by inspiration and some kind of half crazy blind faith. It was a glorious feeling.
Many times the tasks that seem impossible, intimidating or overwhelming are the things that challenge us and change us most deeply. You don’t need to be the most knowledgeable person in the class. You don’t need to be the smartest person in the room. You don’t need to be the most talented person in the bunch. The ability to get up when you fall, to persevere when you feel inadequate, to experience the joy of breaking through to new territory—that allows for true learning and that allows for true success.
I went on to become an assistant for Jane’s class, waited some tables, started a theater company and eventually headed off to graduate school to delve deeper into composing. When I got out of graduate school, I moved to New York. I was entering a field that in some ways almost didn’t exist. And certainly women in this field were few and far between.
I would meet my two composer friends, Michael and David. We would meet in coffee shops and delis and complain about the state of classical music. We didn’t fit in. Opportunities were limited. So after a lot of complaining, we decided to do something about it.
We gathered our musician friends and put on a “happening”—a 12-hour concert of music in an art gallery in SoHo. Artists used to live in SoHo before it was all about shopping. We broke down the barriers, the divisions between different kinds of music. We did away with the tuxedos. When we were sweeping up at 2 a.m., we thought, “Let’s do it again next year!” We had no idea we were starting something.
That ragtag bunch of twenty-something-year-olds is now a multifaceted internationally celebrated music collective called Bang on a Can. I am sharing this story because while it has been a great privilege for you to learn from accomplished and dedicated professors, it is just possible that your peers—the person sitting next to you in class—will have the greatest influence on your life. You may partner with them. Start a business with them. Some late night conversation may spark a life direction. Your peers here at Drew are tremendous. Many of you will continue to connect and reconnect with your classmates for years to come.
I am from a small town in Pennsylvania. Most of you have probably never heard of it—Montgomeryville, Pa. My parents, who moved to this small town for work, in many little ways communicated to me that this was not a sophisticated town. We would drive south down Route 309 to go to Philadelphia, where there were good restaurants and culture.
At this point in my career I’ve worked in cities all over the world, been commissioned by ensembles and orchestras in Europe and beyond. But recently, for the first time, I received a commission from a chorus from my home state. I decided to look homeward for inspiration.
Just north of where I grew up is the anthracite coal region. We hardly ever headed in that direction on Route 309—maybe occasionally to go to a hardware store or a farmer’s market. I decided to look further north to towns like Scranton and Wilkes-Barre.
I went back to the choir and told them my dream was to create an hour-long work about the anthracite coal-mining region. They just wanted a 10-minute choral work . . . but you can have a conversation with your employer, your co-workers. You can share with them your vision and your dreams. Sometimes they actually say, “Yes.” And this conductor said, “Yes.”
After about a year of research, interviewing miners, talking with local historians, going down into coal mines and visiting patch towns, I wrote an hour-long musical composition called “Anthracite Fields.” My aim was to honor the people who worked in this region, to reflect something about the life there. I learned so much. I learned about community, how everyone depended on each other, about hard and dangerous work, about how that work allowed others to live in comfort, about how laws for worker safety were fought for and won.
This very earthy piece about coal went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 2015. But the real prize for me has been connecting to a very special community of people—people who were touched in some way by this vast industry that at one time fueled the nation.
Pretty much every week someone writes to me about the piece. They share their stories—their father worked in the mines and died of black lung, their grandfather narrowly escaped being buried in a cave-in. They tell me the music captured something about that life, remembering it in a different way than books and documentaries do.
Here at Drew I co-taught a class called Documentary Expression with Art Professor Rebecca Soderholm. In our class, students created their own documentary art/music projects. They covered subjects as wide-ranging as how young college women think about their appearance to how aging incapacitated elders interact with and gain comfort from a family pet. All of these projects reflected the thoughtfulness, the integrity and the willingness of the students to take a leap into examining and reflecting the world around us. They found a place where art intersects with life.
I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the Drew faculty involved with this residency. Thank you to Professor Kimberly Rhodes—who’s on this stage today—for her pursuit in bringing artists to the Drew campus; music chair, Professor Leslie Sprout, for her leadership through the residency; professor-composer Trevor Weston, for wonderful conversations about music; economics Professor Bernard Smith, for his guidance on the research for my next project; and last but not least, my terrific co-teacher, art Professor Rebecca Soderholm.
Many of you will travel far and wide in your careers—far from your local towns and cities, interfacing with communities of people all over the world. Because music is an international language, there are no barriers to conversing with people in pretty much any part of the world. It has been interesting in this recent project on Pennsylvania coal mining to find meaning and discovery in my own back yard. We can find meaning in all that we do, in our hometowns, in humble roots, in travel, in telling stories, in connecting with people who walk different roads from the roads we walk.
I wish for all of you great and inspiring adventures. No matter what field you pursue, I wish you work filled with meaning, work which even in small ways brings light to the world.