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Essay on Avant Garde Music by Julia Wolfe

Avant-garde music can be unusual in that in tries to push the limits of mainstream ideals. These experimental pieces are important for broadening the scope of accepted musical performances. This sample paper provides an example of the features and benefits that come from working with a professional writer at Ultius.

Avant Garde music

The term “Avant-Garde,” in it’s simplest definition, refers to any form of art that is experimental or innovative, challenging the status quo’s definition of what art truly means. In terms of classical music, this often refers to the Musique Concrete movement, as well as other forms that challenge the boundaries of classical music.

At the forefront of the American Avant Garde is Julia Wolfe, a female composer whose work brings to mind numerous drone, psychedelic, Celtic, and noise influences. Despite her Avant Garde tendencies, however, Wolfe remains an artist whose compositions have the potential to entrance the masses, her music bridging the gap between what’s commercially acceptable and the Avant-Garde experimentation.

Julia Wolfe and the modern Avant-Garde genre

Julia Wolfe received her B.A from the Residential College at the University of Michigan. She later received a Master’s in music composition from the Yale School of Music and held a doctoral fellowship at Princeton University ( Her work has been commissioned and performed around the world:

  • The Brooklyn Academy of Music
  • The Sydney Olympic Arts Festival
  • Settembre Musica
  • Theatre de la Ville
  • Carnegie Hall

By educating younger students and helping the explore various musical genres, Wolfe brought the Avant-Grande style of music to students and stimulated the college students musical growth. She is a founder/co-artistic director of the international music collective “Bang on a Can,” and has given master classes and seminars at Cal Arts, Duke University, Peabody Conservatory, Yale School of Music, Columbia University, University of Illinois, University of Indiana, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin at River Falls and the Juilliard School (

Wolfe’s musical style

Wolfe has a unique compositional style that is droning, somewhat primal and minimalistic. In his concisely detailed review of Wolfe’s “Cruel Sister,” Anthony Tommasini recounts:

“it begins with the lower strings laying down a hypnotic pattern of insistent eighth-notes. Other strings enter with sustained tones that build into elemental chords, pierced by eerie, high lines on the violins. When the music erupts with frenzied chords, tremors, and sirenlike screeching, you know that the sister’s jealousy has turned murderous. An extended passage of calm harmonies hovering over a drone bass depicts the body of her victim floating on the water” (Tommasini, NY Times).

As Tommasini illustrates, Julia Wolfe’s compositions certainly intend to tell a story, one that is often dark in nature. In her own words, she draws on an inspiration that ranges from “Native American, funk, hip-hop, Appalachian folk music, Led Zeppelin, Beethoven” (Krasnow, BOMB), and this wide range of influences is evident in her composition. In Wolfe’s case, it’s almost as if her classical training is merely the solid foundation for which her compositions to be built upon, and the rest is floating in the air.

It is more appropriate to say that her music is merely classical in its depth and composition, and the actual sounds the compositions create fall more in the realm of sonic experimentation. That’s not to say, however, her music is simply ambiance or a cacophony of sounds and tones. Her music intends to tell a story in the most classical sense, yet does so through an experimental structure, dynamic, and melody.

Story in the music

In the somber and moody piece “Stronghold,” Wolfe portrays a story of possession and murkiness through the tonnes of eight double basses. Her choice of composing the piece for eight double basses is experimental within itself, utilizing the darkest, lowest instrument to achieve her mood. There is something undeniably unsettling about the piece, the relentless pounding of the basses whirring against one another sounds like anxiety embodied, the song touching upon the fringes of cacophonous noise, yet never straying too far from the main tones.

The frenzied bases shortly give way, allowing the anxious feeling to linger, like stepping towards the edge of a cliff. The minor chords formed by the simultaneous playing of the basses give way to a melodious crescendo, rising higher and higher into the upper register. The sounds are visceral, tremulous and simple when focused on individually, but when played together, they form a cohesive emotional ballad.

The basses descend and descend, spiraling into atonal darkness, finally turning into comfortable swells that shift from ear to ear. The listener feels like they are being pulled into dark swirling waters, yet the feeling isn’t totally uncomfortable. Much like drowning must feel, it is altogether calm and confusing. You want to fall into the swells, but you’re being pulled in eight different directions.

Mixing of sounds in Wolfe’s Avant-Garde songs

As the swells begin to congeal, you move from the ocean to the roar of traffic, the industrial sounds of steel pulsating through your ears. The basses sound mechanistic, the acoustic nature of their design transformed into an industrial and modern drone. Just when you feel like you’ve had enough, the music stops, an abrupt ending to a piece that altogether challenges, comforts and induces anxiety.

So how is it then, that the music of Julia Wolfe could be the Avant Garde for everyone? Staying true to her word regarding her influences, “Stronghold” not only sounds like an experimental composition for eight double basses, but a rock song as well. If one listens carefully, you can here remnants of Led Zeppelin’s black magic oriented riffs, which in turn were influenced by Celtic music.

Her seamless mesh of contemporary, classical genres and Avant Garde influences are really what make her music universal, as well as the emotions they conjure. Although her music certainly wouldn’t be for everyone, the themes she is trying to evoke certainly are. Terror, panic, complacency and morbidity are universal themes in the sense that we’ve all felt them before, albeit maybe never through such a filter as Wolfe’s, but we’ve felt them nonetheless.

What is particularly special about Wolfe’s compositions are that they utilize the Avant Garde without falling victim to it. Meaning, they are wary of previous movements progressions (the experiments of John Cale for example), and forge their own progression. The music is too pretty to be considered noise, too unsettling to be considered symphonic, and without a doubt, relies on this straddling of genres to make it stand out. Wolfe is working in the realm of vague particulars, picking certain things from various movements and combining them into a sound all her own.


Is her music commercially viable? As evidenced by her success, yes. The world of classical music has expanded within the century, and now encompasses such a wide variety of genres and styles, the walls are literally caving in. Wolfe walks above the walls however, floating and grabbing bits and pieces from the rubble, creating music that just may be, the Avant Garde for everyone.

Works Cited

“Julia Wolfe – Faculty Bio.” NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 June 2013.

Krasnow, David. “Julia Wolfe by David Krasnow.” BOMB Magazine. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 June 2013.

Tommasini, Anthony. “The Tale Those Strings Can Tell.” The New York Times. N.p., 4 Feb. 2011. Web. 19 June 2013.

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