Fire in my mouth, the third of Julia Wolfe’s compositions inspired by American labor history, has a markedly different genesis from the others. Before, she had to spend time bonding with her subjects. “I’m not a muscle-y black man,” she says, referring to John Henry, the focus of her 2009 piece Steel Hammer. Having gone through 200 versions of the ballad, she says the folk hero’s physical description was about all they agreed upon. Nor in writing her 2015 Pulitzer Prize–winning Anthracite Fields (first presented in New York by the Philharmonic) did she have much prior experience with coal miners, despite having grown up in northeast Pennsylvania mining country.
But in writing her new work—commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and inspired by the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which claimed the lives of 146 garment workers—Wolfe found the terrain already familiar. A former resident of a Lower East Side housing complex sponsored by former Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union President Sidney Hillman, she now walks past the factory site on Washington Place daily on the way to her office at New York University (where she has taught since 2009).
Beyond physical spaces, Wolfe connected with her subjects immediately. “My earlier ‘labor’ works were pretty guy-heavy,” she says. “The first thing I realized is that the garment workers who perished were young women—young immigrant women. When I started working on the piece, immigration wasn’t as much on the table as it is now, but I became very aware of their vulnerability, their lack of voice. My grandmother moved to this country—not me—so my story isn’t as immediate, but it’s really not that far removed. This is a country of immigrants, and many people today forget that their families were in the same position.”
The New York Philharmonic has not forgotten. Befitting an organization originally formed by and for immigrants, the Philharmonic has woven a programmatic tapestry around the World Premiere of Wolfe’s piece. New York Stories: Threads of Our City, one of the Philharmonic’s foundational pillars this season, devotes two weeks of ancillary events to exploring the city’s legacy of immigration. The Orchestra’s contributions are enhanced by collaborations with the Tenement Museum, the monthly magazine The Forward, the Museum of the City of New York, and the National Archives at New York City.
Archival memory has directly shaped the work itself. Fire in my mouth, which includes electric guitar and bass and amplified female voices (from the Grammy-winning vocal ensemble The Crossing and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City), also reunites Wolfe with Jeff Sugg, the video and projection designer for Anthracite Fields. But unlike that earlier piece, for which Wolfe spent time with former coal minors, no survivors of the 1911 fire—or even their immediate families— offer their direct impressions. Most of her preparation was spent in the library, poring over news clippings and oral history.
The process, though, was much the same: examining texts until “things jump out and you say, ‘this has to be in the piece,’” she explains. “I wanted the women to speak for themselves, and what they often talked about was all the ways they wanted to shed the Old Country and be American.” Another movement pits “factory” sounds in the orchestra with two antiphonal choral passages—one a Yiddish folk tune about needlework, the other a southern Italian tarantella—reflecting the factory’s two most prominent ethnic communities.
“I’m looking forward to hearing how the Philharmonic musicians handle such ‘crunchy’ sounds,” Wolfe says of her non-pitched playing techniques. “I was blown away by what Jaap van Zweden did with Louis Andriessen’s Agamemnon earlier this season, and Louis’s musical values have inspired mine.”
Wolfe’s focus, though, lay mostly with these “truly remarkable” women. “Some were still teenagers,” she says. “Their [labor] leaders were only in their early 20s, but they often came to America with a history of fighting persecution.” One such leader, the Ukrainian-born activist Clara Lemlich, later reflected on her impassioned youth by saying, “Ah, then I had fire in my mouth”—the phrase that inspired the work’s title.
“When I first looked through the names of the women who died, I thought, ‘Maybe I don’t need to set all of them, maybe just a few representatives,’” says Wolfe. “But every so often I’d come across a name I recognized. At one point I said, ‘I can’t leave out Fannie Lansner—she’s related to a friend of mine.’ And if I couldn’t leave out Fannie, I couldn’t leave out anyone.”
Ken Smith, who has covered music on five continents for a broad variety of media, divides his time between New York and Hong Kong, where he writes about music for the Financial Times and other publications.