Title - 'Fire in my Mouth'
Artist - Julia Wolfe / New York Philharmonic
For those not in the know, the New York Philharmonic has just-released the live recording of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Julia Wolfe's oratorio Fire in my Mouth, an elegy to the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire conducted by Jaap van Zweden.
Premiered as part of New York Stories: Threads of Our City, the Philharmonic's two-week examination of New York City's roots as a city of immigrants, Fire in my Mouth is a reflection on the New York garment industry at the turn of the 20th century through a focus on the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire; which killed 146 garment workers, most of them young immigrants.
Called a monumental achievement in high musical drama (The Nation), Fire in my Mouth is the latest recording in the New York Philharmonic's partnership with Decca Gold.
Wolfe once again tackles an important historical social situation by oratorio. Her previous Anthracite Fields about coal mining accidents lead to a Pulitzer Prize, and she is a MacArthur Fellow as well.
Here, she portrays The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, in the era before OSHA and fire department workplace regulations.
That said, 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.
A sense of ultimate 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.
The immigrant workers had no rights and no protections, but one who fought to gain those rights was Clara Lemlich, a labor organizer.
It is also within this very same section that the orchestra pulses and swirls around a quote from an interview Lemlich gave — referring to her impassioned public speeches — with the chorus in full cry, singing, "Then I had fire in my mouth".
The actual fire starts slowly, almost unnoticeably as we enter the last section of the quartet here, and as much as there are moments of frenzy, the calm that transcends it as eerie as unto itself.
A few months after the fire, New York passed important factory-safety laws. Once again, it took a tragedy to force change, but listening to the words spoken and sung within this masterpiece; recounting a most horrid time in our history, it seems that maybe we still haven't learnt our lessons.
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