Julia Wolfe’s music is distinguished by an intense physicality and a relentless power that pushes performers to extremes and demands 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.

The 2019 world premiere of Fire in my mouth, a large-scale work for orchestra and women’s chorus, by the New York Philharmonic with The Crossing and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, received extensive acclaim — one reviewer called the work “a monumental achievement in high musical drama, among the most commandingly imaginative and emotively potent works of any kind that I’ve ever experienced.” (The Nation Magazine) The work is the third in a series of compositions about the American worker: 2009’s Steel Hammer examines the folk-hero John Henry, and the 2015 Pulitzer prize-winning work, Anthracite Fields, a concert-length oratorio for chorus and instruments, draws on oral histories, interviews, speeches, and more to honor the people who persevered and endured in the Pennsylvania Anthracite coal region. Mark Swed of the LA Times wrote, Anthracite Fields “captures not only the sadness of hard lives lost…but also of the sweetness and passion of a way of daily life now also lost. The music compels without overstatement. This is a major, profound work.”

In addition to receiving the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music, Wolfe was a 2016 MacArthur Fellow. She received the 2015 Herb Alpert Award in Music, and was named Musical America’s 2019 Composer of the Year. Julia Wolfe is co-founder/co-artistic director of New York’s legendary music collective Bang on a Can, and she is Artistic Director of NYU Steinhardt Music Composition. Her music is published by Ricordi New York (ASCAP).




Fire in my mouth

Fire in my mouth is based on the garment industry in New York City at the turn of the century, with a focus on the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and its aftermath. Drawing upon contemporary accounts of immigration, labor, and activism amongst the garment workers of the Lower East Side, Fire in my mouth brings the world and words of the garment workers to the forefront. The work features 146 vocalists — a number commemorating the total who perished in the fire. The piece also incorporates elements derived from protest chants, courtroom testimonials, Yiddish and Italian folk songs, and an elegiac recitation of all 146 victims’ names. For Wolfe, Fire in my mouth was an opportunity to recast the women not as voiceless victims, but as protagonists whose actions and sacrifices had a profound effect on United States history.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory building is now owned by NYU, and is an active part of the NYU campus. The disaster is commemorated on the site each year by the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition. Read more about the fire from this NYU’s Grey Art Gallery special exhibition mounted around the 100th anniversary, and this NYU news story about the history and aftermath.



“I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania – Montgomeryville. When we first moved there the road was dirt and the woods surrounding the house offered an endless playground of natural forts and ice skating trails. At the end of the long country road you’d reach the highway — route 309. A right turn (which was the way we almost always turned) led to the city, Philadelphia. A left turn on route 309 (which we hardly ever took) led to coal country, the anthracite field region. I remember hearing the names of the towns, and though my grandmother grew up in Scranton, everything in that direction, north of my small town, seemed like the wild west. When the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia commissioned me to write a new work for choir and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, I looked to the anthracite region. Anthracite is the diamond of coal — the purest form. At the turn of the century the anthracite fields of Pennsylvania became the power source for everything from railroads to industry to heating homes. But the life of the miner was difficult and dangerous. … My aim with Anthracite Fields is to honor the people who persevered and endured in the Pennsylvania Anthracite coal region during a time when the industry fueled the nation, and to reveal a bit about who we are as American workers.”



Julia Wolfe is co-founder and co-artistic director of Bang on a Can, an organization dedicated to making music new. Since its first Marathon concert in 1987, Bang on a Can has been creating an international community dedicated to innovative music, wherever it is found.  With adventurous programs, it commissions new composers, performs, presents, and records new work, develops new audiences, and educates the musicians of the future.  Bang on a Can is building a world in which powerful new musical ideas flow freely across all genres and borders. Bang on a Can plays “a central role in fostering a new kind of audience that doesn’t concern itself with boundaries.  If music is made with originality and integrity, these listeners will come.” (The New York Times)


In 2018, the Bang on a Can Marathon took place at NYU Skirball, a “10-hour marathon concert of radical creativity … returning to downtown NYC, home first of Charles Ives and Edgard Varese and Elliott Carter and then Steve Reich and Meredith Monk and Thelonious Monk and Philip Glass and Henry Threadgill and La Monte Young and Ornette Coleman and Laurie Anderson – where American experimental music was born. It happened right here. And it’s still happening here.” (Bang on a Can co-founders Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe)

Check out our Prep School guide from the event for more readings, playlists, and an Office Hours conversation between Julia Wolfe and Kwami Coleman.


On March 25, 1911, 146 people, mostly young women from Jewish and Italian immigrant families, perished in a tragic and avoidable fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which was located on the top three floors of the Asch Building (now NYU’s Brown Building), on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street. The fire broke out on the 8th floor and quickly spread to the 9th and 10th floors. With many of the stairways blocked, only some of the workers managed to escape; others climbed out the windows, leaping to their deaths, or perished on the factory floor. Although it was extinguished in less than half an hour, the Triangle Fire was New York City’s largest workplace disaster before 9/11.” Read more from NYU’s Grey Art Gallery.

The disaster is commemorated on the site each year by the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition. Read more in this NYU news story about the history and aftermath.

The Paradigm Shifters series is brought to you by NYU Center for the Humanities & NYU Skirball.

Hosted by Uli Baer, PhD, Director of NYU Center for the Humanities.