Tomorrow, Julia Wolfe's new work for orchestra and choir, Fire in my mouth, will have its world premiere at David Geffen Hall, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and performed by the Philharmonic, The Crossing, and the Young People's Chorus of New York City, directed by Anne Kauffman, and conducted by New York Philharmonic Music Director Jaap van Zweden. With Fire in my mouth, Wolfe seeks to recreate the world of the women who worked in New York City's garment industry in the early 20th century, with a focus on the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and its aftermath.
“I had been thinking about immigrant women in the workforce at the turn of the century,” Wolfe writes. “They fled their homelands to escape poverty and persecution. The garment workers arrived to these shores with sewing skills. Many of the women wound up working on these huge factory floors—hundreds of women sitting at sewing machines.Fire in my mouth tells the story of these women who persevered and endured challenging conditions, women who led the fight for reform in the workplace. I am thrilled to work with Jaap van Zweden and the huge incredible force of the New York Philharmonic to bringFire in my mouth to life.”
Fire in my mouth will feature visual accompaniment by Scenic, Lighting, Video and Production Designer Jeff Sugg, who previously collaborated with Wolfe on her 2015 work Anthracite Fields. “My goal is to create an environment in which the combination of the music and the visuals provide the audience with a deeper, more saturated experience of the piece as a whole,” Sugg writes. The resulting visuals are not strictly representative of the text or the music, but rather complement and at times counterpoint with the music, inducing emotional energy and illuminating hidden themes and perspectives the way a film score might without usurping the music’s narrative priority.
Fire in my mouth's production team includes Anne Kauffman (Director); Mary Grey (Sound Designer); Márion Talán (Costume Designer); Kenny Savelson (Project Manager); Molly Houlahan (Associate Director); and Jason Kaiser (Stage Manager). Fire in my mouth will also feature wardrobe provided by EILEEN FISHER, chosen for its dedication to fair labor practices.
In the lead-up to the premiere, Wolfe has led workshops with the New York Philharmonic's commissioning partners: Cal Performances at the University of California, Berkeley; the Krannert Center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; and the University Musical Society at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Campus-wide discussions about history, music, and creative writing have been an important part of Wolfe's writing process.
The premiere will be presented as the centerpiece of New York Stories: Threads of Our City, the New York Philharmonic’s examination of New York’s roots as a city of immigrants, and will be accompanied by a variety of events which explore this history. These events have included a performance and discussion at the Tenement Museum with musicians from the New York Philharmonic and The Crossing, which used a guided tour of three tenement apartments as a backdrop to connect Wolfe’s music to the stories of the immigrant garment workers of the time; and a free Insights at the Atrium panel discussion in the David Rubinstein Atrium, moderated by Philharmonic President and CEO Deborah Borda, featuring Wolfe, Forward archivist Chana Pollack, and Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition founder Ruth Sergel.
Fire in my mouth is the third in a series of compositions about the American worker. Wolfe’s first, 2009’s Steel Hammer, examined the folk-hero John Henry, reveling in the contradictions of over 200 different versions of his life to tell a story which transcends time and space. Her 2015 oratorio Anthracite Fields honored the workers of the Pennsylvania Anthracite coal region at a time when the industry fueled the nation. The piece consists of five movements, each based on a source text describing a way the coal industry affected life in America on a local and national scale. The Los Angeles Timeswrote that the work "captures not only the sadness of hard lives lost...but also of the sweetness and passion of a way of daily life now also lost. The music compels without overstatement. This is a major, profound work." Steel Hammer was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Music; Anthracite Fields won the award in 2015. A 2016 recording ofAnthracite Fields was also nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.