Julia Wolfe

On writing for bagpipes and body percussion

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American composer Julia Wolfe has been been at the forefront of contemporary music both in her own right and as a member of the ground-breaking Bang on a Can collective. Now the BBC Concert Orchestra is dedicating a whole concert to her music – complete with bagpipers and body percussion. We spoke to her about where she gets her ideas from.

Julia Wolfe

Next Thursday your new piece riSE and fLY, a concerto for body and street percussion will be premiered by the BBC Concert Orchestra. Can you tell us a bit about the piece?
A lot of my work recently has been inspired by American folk music and there are several different folk traditions where you’re just making a sound with your body. Let’s say you’re somewhere and everyone wants to dance but you don’t have a fiddle or a banjo or a piano – what do you do? You just have your body and you can play a tuneful rhythm on your chest, on your hands – you can really develop an orchestra just with you. Colin Currie is going to be performing riSE and fLY and the way he’s hitting and clapping and snapping his fingers it’s really like a drum set. When he hits his hand on his chest it’s a bass drum and when he claps his hands it’s a snare, when he snaps his fingers it’s a high hat.

The piece is also for ‘street percussion’ – can you explain what that means?
So he begins with this very intimate sound of body percussion and then he moves to street percussion – and that’s inspired by the great street percussion drummers who live and play in New York city – there’s music everywhere here, especially on the subway platforms. You’re going along 42nd street and there are thousands of people rushing to this and that subway and you’re underground and all of a sudden there’s this incredible drummer playing these amazing beats on plastic tubs or metal racks. Colin and I figured out some instruments together – he’s playing an oven rack which doesn’t sound so different from a tambourine, he’s got tubs for a drum kit, a metal pot and a tatty cymbal.

But the piece that opens the concert is Cruel Sister – something quite different and substantially darker…
It was inspired by an old English ballad which I first heard sung by a folk-rock band called Pentangle from the early ’70s (Spotify link here). The story is that there are two sisters – one fair and one dark-haired – and they’re both wooed by the same suitor. In the end he falls in love with the fair-haired sister and the two of them are walking along the strand and the dark-haired one pushes her sister into the sea and she eventually dies. Her body is washed up on the shore and two minstrels come by and see this beautiful maiden lying there. They take her breast-bone and make a harp out of it – they string it with her yellow hair. Then they take the harp to the wedding of the other sister who’s now marrying the suitor. I don’t quote any text but the basic arc of the story is still there in the music, which was something I’d never done before.

There’s also a piece for nine bagpipes – LAD – being performed. I guess that doesn’t get performed very often…
It’s only been done live with all nine players once – though it’s been performed with one player and the other parts pre-recorded. It’s going to be very loud, I hope everyone’s ready for that! It was written as a memorial piece for this wonderful violist I knew who lived in New York, and one of his close friends, Matt Welch, is a bagpiper. He guided me through the instrument and the piece has lots of unconventional bagpipe sounds, like this long crying glissando which creates a crazy siren-like sound. I’m ecstatic it’s going to be done live again.

The BBC Concert Orchestra and conductor Keith Lockhart perform works by Julia Wolfe in 'Wolfe: Adventures in Sound' on 11 October at 7.30pm as part of the the Southbank Centre's Ether 2012 festival