Last Thursday night at Lincoln Center, David Geffen Hall simply buzzed. The occasion: the world premiere of composer Julia Wolfe’s Fire in My Mouth, an oratorio commemorating the victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in NYC. The full New York Philharmonic joined the professional chamber choir, The Crossing, and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City for a moving multimedia experience that told the story of garment workers — for the most part young immigrant women — who found the doors of their factory locked to prevent “unnecessary break-taking” and either died in the flames or leapt to their deaths.
The site of the factory still stands today. Called the Brown Building, it’s owned by New York University. Wolfe, a faculty member, walks past it every day. She is a tour de force in new music and co-founded the eclectic performance collective Bang On a Can All-Stars. Drawing on her coal-country roots, Fire in My Mouth is the third in her series of major works on the theme of American labor. This includes Steel Hammer, about the folk hero and steel-driver John Henry, and Anthracite Fields, which honors coal workers of Appalachian Pennsylvania and won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music. The Philharmonic commissioned Wolfe to continue her exploration by focusing on the Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy, which is both a story of New York and of women in the workforce.
The result is a massive, 60-minute piece, with music that swelled from a twinkling, ethereal beginning to a full-blown journey. Projections of heaving waves accompanied sounds that evoked dizzying, youthful hope and the terror of ten days on a boat. This first of four movements (“Immigration,” “Factory,” “Protest,” “Fire”) confronted us with the nauseating reality of the voyage of immigrants more than a century ago. The journey ended with a titillating swell as the choir ventured:
God knows what kind of future it was going to be.
Beautiful cacophony is a phrase I associate with Wolfe’s music, and it’s what she used to build the soundscape of “Factory,” the second movement. Yiddish and Italian folk songs — each representing the heritages of the young women who came to America and came to work in the factory — simultaneously competed with the “nearly pitchless roar” of the factory floor as it was brought to life by the orchestra. A New York Times reporter had accompanied Wolfe across the garment district on a hunt for scissors with the perfect cutting sound. It was worth the scavenge: as choristers held them aloft, the hefty shears made a long, crisp ssshhhhhhippp that pierced to the back of the Hall. (I delighted in watching the Phil’s new music director, Jaap van Zweden, conduct scissors.)
Projected photographs of so many, many young women, smiling and chatting or bent over endless rows of sewing machines, plodding through 12-hour work days, added a ghostly intimacy to Wolfe’s wall of sound. When “Protest” began, the anthem of those earnest faces hit us with full force:
I want to laugh like an American
I want to dance like an American
Have a chance like an American
I want to feel like an American
I want to shout like an American
I want to scream like an American
I want to cry like an American
I want to try like an American
Hurt like an American
Bleed like an American
Burn like, burn like, burn like, burn
The refrain — “I want to [live] like an American” — took us back to the opening movement. I asked myself what, exactly, I ever did to earn my status in this country, in contrast to these brave women and to the future they sought.
In 1909, Triangle Shirtwaist employees led a strike to demand better working conditions. Some 20,000 women took to the streets, but their cries went unheeded. Now, in “Protest,” 110 young women streamed down the aisles of the Hall to join the 36 women onstage — a total of 146 voices to signify each woman who perished in the fire. (The disaster ultimately galvanized the push to improve safety standards and the development of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.)
“Fire,” the final movement, interspersed hysterical high notes from the choir with photos of police officers and bystanders looking up to witness the infamous end of a famous disaster. Fire in My Mouth had told, insistently, the story of the workers, but it seemed to implicate us in the audience, and it demanded a response. Before the conclusion of the work, with all 146 names sung to a harrowing accompaniment of chimes, the last text heard came from a 1911 speech by one of the tragedy’s few survivors, Rose Schneiderman:
I would be a traitor
to those poor burned bodies
if I were to speak of good fellowship.
I have tried you good people of the public,
and I have found you wanting.
Both the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and Fire in My Mouth urgently and unavoidably connect to 2019. At a Jan. 15 panel discussion with Wolfe at the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center, Deborah Borda, the New York Philharmonic’s President and CEO, spoke directly to America’s current immigration debate. “The thing about New York is, you don’t have to be from New York to be a New Yorker,” she said. “If you love the city, you’re a New Yorker.” So true.
Fire in My Mouth was emotional and overwhelming and what going to the symphony should be like, with a packed hall raring to hear a bold new work — by a woman — and to share in a story that needs telling. Having this dialogue is something we owe to our democracy. We also owe it to those who strove, and still strive, toward “God knows what kind of future.”