Just in: Woman composer is named a genius

Just in: Woman composer is named a genius


norman lebrecht

September 22, 2016

press release:

The MacArthur Foundation announced the 2016 MacArthur Fellows today, commonly known as the “genius grants,” and this year’s class includes composer Julia Wolfe. Julia and 22 other Fellows will receive a no-strings-attached $625,000 grant for their exceptional creativity and potential for future contributions to their fields.

Julia Wolfe is a composer reimagining American folk traditions and lore in large-scale narrative compositions that synthesize various musical styles, movement, and imagery. Wolfe is deeply interested in legendary narratives, and she uses oral histories and historical documents as a backbone for many of her pieces. She is also a leading arts entrepreneur and plays a key role in fostering the creation and production of contemporary classical music.


Julia Wolfe, 57 is Associate Professor of Music Composition, Department of Music and Performing Arts, Steinhardt School, New York University. She specialises in American labour and its history.


  • John Borstlap says:

    Sympathetic ‘Gebrauchsmusik’, not serious art music. It is music that only exists because of being subservient to something else that is not music. Investing in it, means investing in that something.

    • David Osborne says:

      John, you say some pretty wacky things sometimes, I was just thinking of some of the great works that by that measure you have just declared as ‘not being music’. Copland’s Appalachian Spring perhaps?

      • John Borstlap says:

        It seems clear to me that any musical work can be inspired by something else that is not music, but if the music has enough indepentent character, it has an identity of its own. Wolfe’s music gives the impression of accompaniment rather than something with its own identity, and then you have music for something else. Nothing wrong with it, but ‘genius’?

        • Cyril Blair says:

          The MacArthur Foundation never called any of these people geniuses. That label came from the press, who need to sensationalize everything. The Foundation calls them “fellows.”

    • MWnyc says:

      Gebrauchsmusik? I don’t understand, John – what’s the Gebrauch? Julia Wolfe writes concert music. She may have written particular occasional music at some point, but I don’t know of it.

  • May says:

    The fact that they chose Julia Wolfe says more about the foundation’s lack of enthusiastic research for candidates. But then again, this is the same foundation that in 2003 considered Osvaldo Golijov also worthy of the “genius” epithet. I guess in New York, it’s all about who your friends are, as her music and her research seem pretty run of the mill.

  • Ann Nomynous says:

    Someone being called a genius is, well, sort of news. But why mention the person’s gender, Norman? Roughly half of us are male, half female.

    • MWnyc says:

      Because women are still underrepresented among the ranks of classical composers (and conductors) taken seriously by the arts establishment.

      Because of that fact, headlines with the phrase “woman composer” and “woman conductor” get a lot more clicks from social media and news feeds than do similar headlines without the word “woman”.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Indeed. As long as female composers are a small minority, they should be given extra chances. But then, the problem arises as to whether the small number is also partly result of free choice. And then, whether ‘free choice’ is in fact the result of pressures. It is very hard to get factual evidence, so one should take the positive risk.

    • Bruce says:

      It will stop being news when it stops being news. (Have you noticed that gay marriages are no longer a “thing”?)

  • David Osborne says:

    I wouldn’t judge her entire oeuvre on that one clip, but can’t say I feel inspired to explore further but what is there. If modernism is your thing and you want to hear a woman composer streets ahead of 95% of the men, check out the work of Australian Liza Lim.

    • Michael Endres says:

      …or Unsuk Chin.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Yes, Chin is brilliant, alas – she restricts herself to sonicism.

        • Michael Endres says:

          ‘ sonicism’…such labels are of no interest to me.

          My favorites are: violin concerto ( unforgettable live performance with Christian Tetzlaff, Rattle and the BPO ), these truly wicked Etudes for piano and her magical opera ‘Alice in Wonderland’.
          Intoxicating, highly complex music ( without an attached fashionable bandwagon.)

  • HM says:

    I still don’t understand why the caption has to read “Woman composer”. Why not just, “Composer”? Successful women in the composition world stopped being a novelty decades ago.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Successful women in the compositional world who are called ‘genius’ are still quite rare. With a bit of more lowering the linguistic treshold, there should be many more in the future.

      • HM says:

        Keep in mind “genius grant” is not part of the title, nor is found anywhere in the MacArthur Foundation’s language regarding the fellowship. This is cheap marketing language that media outlets are fond of.
        The award is described as an “investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential.” There have been enough female American composers over the past 40 years who one could argue fit this description for it not to be a by-line in an article.

  • MC says:

    Another victory for PC over anything resembling artistic ability. Although it is a rather hollow victory