Krzysztof Penderecki

Krzysztof Penderecki
Krzysztof Penderecki (1933-2020) conducting his oratorio "Seven Gates of Jerusalem" at the Winter Palace, St Petersburg, in 2001. Photo by Dmitry Lovetsky

Monday, September 16, 2019

Julia Wolfe: Fire in my mouth – The Crossing, Young People's Chorus of New York City, New York Philharmonic, Jaap van Zweden (Audio video)

Photo by Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times

At around 4:40pm on March 25, 1911, a scrap bin caught fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, near Washington Square in New York City. Within minutes, all three floors that the factory occupied were ablaze, most of the young, immigrant workforce still inside. Heat from the fire quickly melted not only the elevator cables, but also the external fire escape. The factory doors were locked to keep the workers from taking unauthorized breaks. With no other way out, many of the workers jumped out the windows to the pavement eight, nine, or ten stories below. They did not survive the landing. By the time the fire was extinguished half an hour later, 146 people were dead.

These horrific events were the inspiration for Julia Wolfe's "Fire in my mouth", an hour-long oratorio for orchestra, high chorus, and children's chorus that was premiered this past January by the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia-based choral ensemble The Crossing, and the Young People's Chorus of New York City, all conducted by Jaap van Zweden. Now, those same forces have come together to issue a recording of this monumental work on the Decca Gold label.

Photo by Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times

Wolfe begins well before the fire, with immigrants crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Drawing fragments of text from an interview with an immigrant of the era, the first movement, "Immigration", is pensive and restless, rising to crash like a thunderous wave as the chorus ponders the uncertain future that awaits them in this country.

The second movement, "Factory", begins with the slow assembly of a percussive toccata. It's a sonic depiction of the factory itself, unsettling in its skittering mechanical energy. (I'm pretty sure this is where the famous scissors are deployed, but the liner notes don't say, and it's hard to hear for certain in the multi-layered texture.) It takes a long time for the voices to enter: half of them singing a mournful Yiddish tune, the other half breaking out into a rowdy Italian ditty. Juxtaposed with the mechanical backdrop, the result feels at once like a cry of despair and a defiant embrace of life in the face of a brutal inhumanity.

That spirit of defiance comes to the fore in "Protest", which features the adult chorus furiously chanting a list of desires – "I want to talk like an American / I want to look like an American / … / I want to dream like an American" – before the youth chorus delivers excerpts from labor activist speeches from 1909. These declamations are set more with grim determination than fiery passion, but an electric thread of tension runs through them and ultimately unfurls in a plaintive exhalation – "Ah – then I had fire in my mouth" – trailed by a fading patter of echoes.

The actual fire starts slowly, almost unnoticeably. There are moments of frenzy, to be sure, but also islands of eerie calm, where time seems to stop, split-second memories telescoped into eternities by adrenaline and trauma. But then time comes crashing back in a cataclysmic rush as the singers describe seeing bodies fall through the air. A nauseating conclusive snick marks the end of the fire, and the work finishes, after a gaunt excerpt from a searing speech from one of the survivors, with a melancholy recitation of the names of the dead.

When the piece was premiered in January, it featured visual and spatial elements that are obviously missing in the recording. Even in this purely audio version, though, "Fire in my mouth" is an intense listen. The performances are uniformly strong throughout, and the recording quality is clean and crisp.

Photo by Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times

The Triangle Factory owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were acquitted of all charges and would ultimately win an insurance payout of around $400 per victim. (Some have suggested that the fire was deliberately set for the purposes of insurance fraud.) Two years later, Blanck would be convicted of locking the doors of his new factory and fined the legal minimum of $20. The 123 women and 23 men who died that day in 1911 may never have had the chance to "dream", "stand", "laugh", or "dance like an American", but they certainly died like too many Americans do: painfully, before their time, at the hands of a callous wealthy class who can knowingly create murderous conditions for profit and never see justice.

"Fire in my mouth" is haunted by mourning, both for the workers who died and also, to me at least, for how little things have changed. The gig economy forces workers into erratic shifts of uncertain pay and zero benefits. People die for lack of insulin, while health insurance executives get bonuses in the millions. Jeff Bezos makes $150,000 a minute on the backs of workers tracked every second of every day, lest they take unauthorized breaks. We may not be literally locked in the top three floors of a flammable building, but we still live and die at the whims of the rich. And this time, it's not a factory that's burning; it's the planet. One hundred and forty-six dead was barely the beginning.

Brin Solomon writes words and music in several genres and is doing their best to queer all of them. Solomon majored in composition at Yale University before earning their MFA in Musical Theatre Writing at NYU/Tisch. Their full-length musical Window Full of Moths has been hailed for its "extraordinary songs" that "add magic to otherwise ordinary lives", and their latest one-act, Have You Tried Not Being A Monster, has been described as "agitprop for Julia Serrano". Their writing has appeared in VAN, New Classic LA, and National Sawdust Log, and they recently won runner-up at the 2018 Rubin Institute for Music Criticism.

Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.


Julia Wolfe (b. 1958, Philadelphia)

♪ Fire in my mouth (2019)

Words: Brin Solomon

The Crossing
Chorus Conductor: Donald Nally | Assistant Conductor: Kevin Vondrak

Young People's Chorus of New York City
Chorus Conductor: Francisco J. Núñez

New York Philharmonic
Conductor: Jaap van Zweden

Recorded Live at David Geffen Hall, New York City, on January 24, 2019
Released on August 30, 2019 by Decca Gold

(HD 1080p – Audio video)

I. Immigration

II. Factory

III. Protest

IV. Fire

With Protest and Fire, an Oratorio Mourns a Tragedy

By Anthony Tommasini

The New York Times — January 25, 2019

The composer Julia Wolfe's new multimedia oratorio concerns the 1911 Triangle shirtwaist factory fire. It was a prescient choice of subject. The fire – which took the lives of 146 garment workers, most of them young immigrant women – led to changes in workplace conditions and stirred debate over contentious issues of gender, labor and immigrants' rights.

But how much progress has been made over the past century? That question hovered over the New York Philharmonic's premiere of Ms. Wolfe's ambitious, heartfelt, often compelling "Fire in my mouth" on Thursday, a month into a partial government shutdown driven by bitterness over immigration policy.

Ms. Wolfe took risks in writing this work, conducted by the Philharmonic's music director, Jaap van Zweden, and directed by Anne Kauffman. (It anchors "Threads of Our City", a series in Mr. van Zweden's first season as music director exploring immigration.) How does a composer depict such a horrific story without melodrama? How to underscore the powerful old film footage and photos that this production projected over the orchestra – women dressed in ruffled shirts walking into factories; workers sitting at tables with sewing machines; the rubble of the decimated factory building – without the music coming across as mere soundtrack?

The big things are right in this tautly structured 60-minute piece in four parts: "Immigration", "Factory", "Protest" and "Fire". In an affecting touch, the chorus is made up of 146 women and girls, members of the excellent chamber choir the Crossing (Donald Nally, director) and the impressive Young People's Chorus of New York City (Francisco J. Núñez, director).

Ms. Wolfe's choice of choral texts, mostly drawn from oral histories and speeches, shows great sensitivity. In "Immigration" she sets the words of a survivor recalling her trip to America: "five of us girls" taking "a big beautiful boat" that "took about 10 days", everyone looking "to God knows what kind of future".

There is both heady optimism and a sense of dread in Ms. Wolfe's music here, whole stretches of which render the words in thick, blocky chords, over an orchestra grounded by droning tones yet run through with fidgety inner details. Often a single word is turned into a battering ram: "10, 10, 10", or "days, days, days". Longer choral lines unfold in overlapping phrases, which blend words and choral textures into a haunting muddle.

"Factory" begins with percussion evoking the clattering sounds of sewing machines. Most of the workers were Eastern European Jews and southern Italians. So Ms. Wolfe inventively juxtaposes a plaintive Yiddish folk song with a lively Italian tarantella-like piece. The way these songs are embedded in Ms. Wolfe's agitated, heaving orchestra, they seem like alternative coping mechanisms for the oppressed.

There are stretches in which the music of "Fire in my mouth" assumes its place in the multimedia whole a little too well. I liked it most when Ms. Wolfe went for something musically visceral or extreme, as in the climactic episode of "Protest". The women's choir sings relentless phrases espousing the determination of these immigrants to "talk like", "look like" and "sing like" Americans.

Then the girls' choir, entering the hall from the aisles, sang a stark passage from a speech by Clara Lemlich, an activist leading a strike. Here, the choral refrains and orchestra layers built into piercing harmonies, like clusters out of Ives or Varèse, yet driven by Ms. Wolfe's Minimalism-influenced rhythms.

In one of the most gripping moments, the choristers raised actual scissors (specially chosen by Ms. Wolfe) above their heads in an eerie gesture that also added metallic slicing sounds to the musical textures. During the harrowing climax of "Fire" the music turned raw, brassy and blazing, with fractured rhythms, choral plaints that border on screeching, and chanted repetitions: "Burn like, burn like, burn".

Mr. van Zweden led a commanding account of a score that requires close coordination between disparate forces, and which ends with an elegiac final chorus in which the names of all 146 victims are tenderly sung to create a fabric of music and memory.


A version of this article appears in print on January 26, 2019, Section C, Page 2 of the New York edition with the headline: A Horror Story Told Through "Protest" and "Fire".

Conductor Jaap Van Zweden leads the New York Philharmonic and choirs
in the world premiere of Julia Wolfe's "Fire in my mouth"
(Credit: Chris Lee/New York Philharmonic)

Julia Wolfe at the world premiere of her "Fire in my mouth"
(Credit: Chris Lee/New York Philharmonic)

More photos

See also

The best new classical albums: September 2019

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