January 24–26, the New York Philharmonic premiered Julia Wolfe’s Fire in my mouth, commissioned by the orchestra, 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.
Wolfe’s music focuses on the garment industry in New York City at the turn of the century — specifically the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 garment workers, most of them young, female immigrants. The immersive, multimedia performance features the Philharmonic debut of the 36 women of the chamber choir The Crossing, directed by Donald Nally, as well as the Philharmonic debut of Jeff Sugg as scenic, lighting, video, and projection designer.
Wolfe has previously explored American labor history with Steel Hammer, her reimagining of the John Henry legend, and Anthracite Fields, an oratorio about Pennsylvania coal miners. Anthracite Fields was presented by the Philharmonic and won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Music, while the recording with the Bang on a Can All Stars and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street was nominated for a 2016 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. Wolfe was awarded a MacArthur fellowship in 2016.
The title of Wolfe’s new work comes from labor activist Clara Lemlich Shavelson, who, when looking back on her radical youth said, “Ah, then I had fire in my mouth,” though the titular fire also refers to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Wolfe is using her signature intensive research methods, drawing on oral histories, speeches, interviews, and historical writings. The music will capture the roar of hundreds of sewing machines and the language of protest to recreate the world of women working in New York garment factories in the early 20th century. Throughout the current season, Wolfe has workshopped Fire in my mouth with the Philharmonic’s three commissioning partners. Campus-wide discussions about history, music, and creative writing have been an important part of Wolfe’s writing process.
Wolfe’s previous works on labor history have had extended lives beyond the premieres, with a Steel Hammer stage show and a performance of Anthracite Fields in coal country. The Steel Hammer stage show, which toured the country in the fall of 2015 before ending at BAM’s Next Wave Festival, incorporated the work of four American playwrights into the original art ballad. At the same time, Wolfe took the Bang on a Can All-Stars and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street to Pennsylvania coal country to share Anthracite Fields with the community who inspired her, in a benefit concert for the Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton. To date Anthracite Fields has also been performed in Philadelphia, PA; New York, NY; Los Angeles, CA; Berkeley, CA; Champaign-Urbana, IL; Trenton, NJ; Copenhagen, Denmark; Athens, Greece; Amsterdam, the Netherlands; and Prague, the Czech Republic. It will be performed at The Kennedy Center on March 13, 2018, and at Carnegie Hall on December 1, 2018.