Julia Wolfe and Fire in My Mouth
by Arlene Stolnitz
Who would think the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911 could be the inspiration for a choral cantata? Fire in My Mouth is an oratorio for girl’s and women’s choir by the American composer Julia Wolfe. Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, it was completed in August 2018. Inspired by the infamous Triangle Factory fire which claimed the lives of 146 New York City garment workers, its world premier, under the direction of Jaap Van Zweden , was given by the Philadelphia-based chamber choir, The Crossing, the Young People’s Chorus of New York, and the New York Philharmonic on January 24, 2019. The narrative tells of the young factory workers as they immigrate to the United States, start to work in the factories, protest the unfair conditions, and finally perish in the tragic fire. Wolfe has used extended techniques to imitate the sounds of sewing machines, scissors, and fire.
Here is an excerpt from a quote by Ms.Wolfe which tells of her anguish upon learning of the history of a building she walked past daily her way to work.
“For years I have been walking by the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on Washington Place in downtown New York. The building, originally named the Asch building, later renamed the Brown Building, is around the corner from where I teach at New York University. There are three small plaques on the outer wall that inform the public of the tragic fire that took the lives of 146 garment workers on March 25, 1911. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and the protests that came both before and after, ignited a public outcry for change.
The majority of the victims of the Triangle fire were young immigrant women, Eastern Euro-
pean Jews and Southern Italians, who had fled their homelands to escape persecution and poverty. They arrived to these shores with sewing skills and were eager to work on the large factory floors. They sat at long tables, working long hours, amidst the roar of hundreds of sewing machines. The garment workers had no recourse against intolerable conditions, no worker protections. They began to organize. 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, I follow the story of these women who rose up to demand a more human existence. This piece is dedicated to their memory.”
How did I find out about this amazing and timely piece?
This summer I had the pleasure of attending a concert at Maverick, which claims to be America’s oldest chamber music festival. Known as Music in the Woods, Maverick is located in Woodstock, NY. in the iconic woodland Woodland Chapel, listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The Sunday afternoon concert we attended was called From Maverick to Woodstock: In the Spirit of the 60’s ,featuring the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival. Paying honor to the musical spirit of the 60’s, we heard the beautiful harmonies of the Jasper String Quartet. After the intermission we were treated to Julia Wolfe’s Four Marys. Wolfe, a MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer prize winning composer, is one of the founders of New York’s legendary Bang on a Can collective, a contemporary classical music organization whose members are encouraged to maintain a “jeans and tee-shirt” mentality. Interested in American labor history, Wolfe’s oratorio Anthracite Fields won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016.
Later, looking through the program, I noticed that in addition to other pieces, she had written a cantata commemorating the Triangle Shirt Factory tragedy. That really sparked my interest and has resulted in this writing. Interested readers can check out Fire in my Mouth on YouTube for additional information .