Wolfe has written a major body of work for strings, from quartets to full orchestra. Her quartets, as described by the New Yorker magazine "combine the violent forward drive of rock music with an aura of minimalist serenity [using] the four instruments as a big guitar, whipping psychedelic states of mind into frenzied and ecstatic climaxes." Wolfe's Cruel Sister for string orchestra, inspired by a traditional English ballad of a love rivalry between sisters, was commissioned by the Munich Chamber Orchestra, received its US premiere at the Spoleto Festival USA, and was released (along with her other string orchestra piece, Fuel) on Cantaloupe Music. Written shortly after September 11, 2001, her string quartet concerto My Beautiful Scream, written for Kronos Quartet and the Orchestre National de France (premiered in the US at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music under the direction of Marin Alsop), was inspired by the idea of a slow motion scream.The Vermeer Room, Girlfriend, and Window of Vulnerability show Wolfe's ability to create vivid sonic images. Girlfriend, for mixed chamber ensemble and recorded sound, uses a haunting audio landscape that consists of skidding cars and breaking glass. The Vermeer Room, inspired by the Vermeer painting "A Girl Asleep"—which when x-rayed reveals a hidden figure—received its orchestral premiere with the San Francisco Symphony. In Window of Vulnerability, written for the American Composers Orchestra and conducted by Dennis Russell Davies, Wolfe creates a massive sonic universe of dense textures and fragile windows.
The influence of pop culture can be heard in many of Wolfe's works, including Lick and Believing for the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Lick, based on fragments of funk, has become a manifesto for the new generation of pop-influenced composers. The raucous My Lips From Speaking for six pianos was inspired by the opening riff of the Aretha Franklin tune "Think". Wolfe's Dark Full Ride is an obsessive and relentless exploration of the drum set, beginning with an extended hi-hat spotlight, while Lad is a piece for nine bagpipes.
For the Pulitzer Prize-winning piece Anthracite Fields, which premiered in Philadelphia and performed at the New York Philharmonic Biennial in the spring of 2014, she drew on oral histories, interviews, geography, local rhymes, and coal advertisements to create an oratorio about the coal mining community of her native Pennsylvania. Following her folk interests and the tradition of body percussion in American folk music also led her to compose riSE and fLY, a concerto for body percussionist Colin Currie. The piece premiered in 2012 with the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Keith Lockhart, and will be premiered in the Netherlands with the Codarts Ensemble and the United States with the Albany Symphony Orchestra in the 2014-15 season.
Arsenal of Democracy (1993) - 9 minutes - 1(pic).00.ssx+asx+barsx.0/132+btbn.0/bgtr/pf
Girlfriend (1988) - 18 minutes - all instruments amplified: fl(afl,pic), cl(bcl), full-size MIDI kbd with Electric Organ sound, perc, twelve cheap wine glasses (to be stomped on, 2 per player), vn, vc, audio tape with click track
Soloist(s) and Large Ensemble (7 or more players)
Water (2008) - 76 minutes. Music and text by Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe. - SATB, 188.8.131.52(cbn)/184.108.40.206/2perc/pf/egtr/str(220.127.116.11.1) [all instruments and voices amplified]
Shelter (2005) - 65 minutes. Music by Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe. Text by Deborah Artman. - 3 Sop, fl, ob, cl, bn, hn, tpt, tbn, tba, pno, e gtr, e bgtr, perc, 2 vln, vla, vc, cb [all instruments and voices amplified]
Lost Objects (2001) - 62 minutes. Music by Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe. Text by Deborah Artman. - Sop, 2 countertenors, small chor, DJ, baroque orch, e gtr, e bgtr, perc, synth [all instruments and voices amplified]
The Carbon Copy Building (1999) - 72 minutes. Music by Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe. Text by Ben Katchor. - Cast: Ms, T, Bar, Bar/Ct, cl(bcl, cbcl, ssx)/perc/syn/egtr [all instruments and voices amplified]
New York Composers: Searching for a New Music (1997). Directed by Michael Blackwood. Produced by Michael Blackwood Productions, in association with Westdeutscher Rundfunk. New York, New York: Michael Blackwood Productions.