Julia Wolfe

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Years: 1958-

Place of birth: United States

Julia Wolfe was born in 1958 in Philadelphia. She is an American composer whose music is frequently related to post-minimalism, and whose works most often reflect historical and social themes of the United States.
We suggest listening to the antiphon "Reeling" while you continue reading:

She began studying music at the university Of Michigan, studying a degree in music and theater at the same time. Later, she obtained a master’s degree at Yale University with Martin Bresnick. Wolfe has worked with numerous artists throughout her career, including professionals from the theater or choreographers, among others, since her works imply an interdisciplinary vision. Currently, she works on different projects as well as teaching first at the Manhattan Conservatory and later, at New York University as a professor of composition. In 2001, with composers Michael Gordon and David Lang, they founded the Cantaloupe label.
Background stories
Fire in my mouth

The artist Julia Wolfe uses different historical and social backgrounds in many of her works. Thus, Fire in my mouth (2019), is a large-scale work for orchestra and women's choir, in which interest is given to American labor history with the theme of women in the New York garment industry at the turn of the century.

The piece focuses on the protests of women and immigrants that took place over the fire caused at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

It is divided into four movements:

1 - Inmigration: It contains a fragment of the story of a survivor named Mollie Wexlet, who remembers the restlessness and excitement of starting a new life in New York.

2 - Factory: The strings imitates the sound of a Geiger counter. Two songs enrich the texture of the movement. The first one, a Yiddish folk about sewing with a needle and the other an Italian tarantella.

3 - Protest: Wolfe uses the contrast of the words coming from the women who dream of becoming Americans, but at the same time are aware of the inequality work conditions.

4 - Fire: The piece concludes with an overlay of victims screaming in panic, a reporter phoning his story and finally, a recitation of all the victims who died in the fire as a reminder of lives and dreams lost.

“I became fascinated by the young women who led the fight for reform: Clara Lemlich, Rose Schneiderman, and others, who persevered against extreme obstacles. After being beaten by hired thugs, and having six ribs broken, Lemlich quickly bounced back into action. Years later, in an interview, when asked about her activism, she declared, “Ah, then I had fire in my mouth.” In Fire in my mouth, I weave fragments of oral history, the clatter of factory sounds, Yiddish and Italian folk songs, words of protest, and stories of loss and grief. With my collaborators, projection artist Je Sugg and director Anne Kau man, I follow the story of these women who rose up to demand a more human existence. This piece is dedicated to their memory.” (1)

Similar backgrounds

Steel Hammer

In her work Steel Hammer (2009), she focuses on the American labor history with John Henry legend, a railroad man who challenged the machine. This legend has existed in many variations and forms, from folk song to tale. Julia Wolfe explores the theme of this legend, namely, human versus machine and the price of hard work on the human body and soul. The result is a story about the original story on the work Steel Hammer, with the collaboration of Bang on a Can All-Stars and Mediaeval Trio. It explores new boundaries and incorporate lyrics by four American playwrights (Kia Corthon, Will Power, Carl Hanckock Rux and Regina Taylor). Directed by Anne Bogart, collaborating artists take on wooden bones, mountain dulcimer, and dance as they explore the human impulse of telling stories.

To know more about John Henry legend, go to discover more…

Anthracite Fields

A final example is Anthracite Fields (2014). It is a concert oratorio for choir and instruments. It is based on oral histories, interviews, speeches, and more to honor the people who persevered and endured in the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania.
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Julia Wolfe’s music is distinguished by an intense physicality and a relentless power that pushes performers to extreme and demand attention from the audience. She draws inspiration from folk, classical, and rock genres, bringing a modern sensibility to each while simultaneously tearing down the walls between them. (2)

“Writing music for me is a constant evolution. I go through an intense search process at the beginning of each piece to figure out just what the piece is about. I work up a kind of maniacal focus. My music has been described as “breathless" or “relentless." I always try to tap into an urgency and intensity of expression.” (3)

Her music tries to make sense of an idea that someone wants to convey and the fruitful result obtained by putting both parts together (transmitter and music). One of the biggest influences for Julia Wolfe has been American folk, Appalachian music. But, for her, the power of music has much more weight than its context or genre. In her music she combines the rigor of the classical teaching she has received and how to make a composition joined with the energy of the human body that folk or rock gives off.

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3 - Foundation for Contemporary Arts- Julia Wolfe

- Amber Waves if Grain (1988)
- The Vermeer Room (1989)
- Window of Vulnerability (1991)
- Four Marys (arr. For string orchestra) (1991)
- Tell me everything (1994)
- Big beautiful Dark and Scary (2002)
- My Beautiful Scream (2003)
- Cruel Sister (2004)
- Fuel (2007)
- Rise and Fly (2012)
- Wind in my hair (2018)
- Fountain of Youth (2019)
- Fire in my mouth (2019): It is a large-scale work by Wolfe for women’s orchestra and choir, continuing her inerest in American labor history with the theme of women in the New York garment industry at the turn of the century.
- Her Story (2020)
- Flower Power (2020

Large ensemble
- The Vermeer Room (1989)
- Arsenal of Democracy (1993)
- Tell me Everything (1994)
- Impatience (2005)
- True Love (2006)
- Thirst (2008)
- Traveling Music (2009)
- Combat de Boxe (2011)
- A wild Furze (2017)

Chambre ensemble

- On Seven-Star-Shoes (1985)
- Four Marys (1991)
- My lips form Speaking (1993)
- Early that summer (1993)
- Lick (1994)
- Steam (1995)
- Dig Deep (1995)
- Believing (1997)
- Girlfriend (1998)
- Dark Full Ride (2002)
- Big Beautiful Dark and Scary (2002)
- Lad (2007)
- Stronghold (2008)
- Singing in the dead of night (2008)
- Steel Hammer (2009)
- With a blue dress on (2010)
- Reeling (2012): It comes from a song by a Canadian singer who sings math music and has a very curious way of syllabic singing. This together with the dynamics of the live performers playing on top of the voice creates a surprising fusion of energy.
- Anthracite Fields (2014): it is a oratorio concert for choir and instruments. It draws an oral histories, interviews, speeches and more to honor the people who persevered and endured in the anthracite coal región of Pennsylvania.
- Cloud River Mountain (2015)
- Cha (2015)
- Blue Dress for String quartet (2015)
- Road Trip (2017)
- Forbidden Love (2019)


- East Broadway (1996)
- Mink Stole (1997)
- Earring (2000)
- Compassion (2001)
- Lad (2007)
- Stronghold (2008)
- My lips from speaking (arr. Piano duo) (2012)
- Lass (2014)
- Emunah (2015)
- Spinning Jenny (2016)
- Retrieve (2016)
- MUTED (2018)

Opera/Music Theater

- The Carbon Copy Building (1999)
- Lost Objects (2001)
- Shelter (2005)
- Water (2008)
- Steel Hammer (2009)

- Thirst (2008)
- Steel hammer (2009)
- Guard my tongue (2009)
- Anthracite Feilds (2014)
- Cloud River Mountain (2015)

- Music for Airports (1998)
Bibliography https:///pdfs/program-notes/Julia-Wolfe-Fire-in-my-mouth.pdf
Discover more
The legend of John Henry

John Henry, the railwayman
Book by Julius Lester (1994)

“John Henry was a black railroad construction worker. One day his boss threatened him and his colleagues with firing them because of the arrival of the machines. John Henry challenged his boss to a race: If he could get the nails on the tracks faster than the machine, the workers would stay. Finally, John beats the machine but dies instantly from the effort made. Since then, the legend of John Henry remains, the man who defeated the machine, the railwayman who sacrificed himself for his companions."

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire

"A girl and I," she told the doctors at the hospital, "were on the eighth floor, and when I ran for the elevator shaft my girlfriend started for the window on the Washington Street side. I looked around to call her but she had gone."

Article that may be of interest about the fire and some victims’s testimony here

Bang on a Can All-Star

Julia Wolfe regularly collaborates with Bang on a Can All-Star group. The music group is formed by:

Robert Black, bass
Vicky Chow, piano
David Cossin, percussion
Arlen Hlusko, cello
Mark Stewart, guitar
Ken Thomson, clarinet
Andrew Cotton, sonido