Julia Wolfe’s large-scale work for choir and orchestra Fire in my mouth is released digitally today (August 30) on Decca Gold. It was recorded live at the world premiere in January 2019 by the New York Philharmonic, The Crossing and The Young People’s Chorus of New York City. The physical album will be available October 4.
Fire in my mouth is based on the garment industry in New York City at the turn of the century, with a focus on the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and its aftermath. Drawing upon contemporary accounts of immigration, labor, and activism amongst the garment workers of the Lower East Side, Fire in my mouth brings the world and words of the garment workers to the forefront.
The recording features 36 women from The Crossing, directed by Donald Nally, and 110 young women from the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, directed by Francisco J. Núñez, for a total of 146 vocalists — a number commemorating the total who perished in the fire.
For Wolfe, Fire in my mouth was an opportunity to recast the women not as voiceless victims, but as protagonists whose actions and sacrifices had a profound effect on United States history. Wolfe writes:
I had been thinking about immigrant women in the workforce at the turn of the century. 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 the women who persevered and endured challenging conditions, women who led the fight for reform in the workplace.
The piece also incorporates elements derived from protest chants, courtroom testimonials, Yiddish and Italian folk songs, and an elegiac recitation of all 146 victims’ names.
Upon its premiere, critics noted Fire in my mouth for its sensitivity to the subject matter, as well as its emotional impact and inventiveness. David Hajdu of The Nation called Fire in my mouth “a monumental achievement in high musical drama, among the most commandingly imaginative and emotively potent works of any kind that I’ve ever experienced.” Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times noted that Wolfe’s “choice of choral texts, mostly drawn from oral histories and speeches, shows great sensitivity.” In reference to Wolfe’s incorporation of folk song into the sonic factory sound of the orchestra Tommasini writes, “The way these songs are embedded in Ms. Wolfe’s agitated, heaving orchestra, they seem like alternative coping mechanisms for the oppressed.”
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 that 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 Times wrote 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 of Anthracite Fields was also nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.