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Bang on a Can composer Julia Wolfe ignites the New York Philharmonic

History would seem to be in the re-making at the New York Philharmonic. 

The new Julia Wolfe multi-media oratorio Fire in my mouth, premiered Jan. 24-26 at Lincoln Center, commemorated the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in a spirit that can make critics cringe preemptively. How many socially responsible pieces have implored us to weep, pray and feel guilty to what amounts to a pathos-laden film score? Instead, this piece was a breakthrough, something perfectly in step with 2019 with smartly-channeled passion that carries the promise of speaking to listeners well beyond our time.

Though Wolfe’s music isn’t unknown to Philharmonic audiences, Fire in my mouth, significantly, was co-commissioned by the orchestra, with key participation from the Philadelphia new-music chamber choir The Crossing and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, all under Jaap van Zweden. Such circumstances made their own statement, showing an institution that was throwing all of its weight and resources wholeheartedly into a major new piece.

Composer Wolfe’s history of fearless experimentation owes more to the minimalism of Dutch composer Louis Andreissen than to Philip Glass, but has given way to something more maximal, consolidated in Anthracite Fields that won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for its quasi-documentary exploration of Pennsylvania coal mining culture. 

Documentary? When Wolfe seizes upon an idea that speaks to her, she researches it, often conducting first-hand interviews. Oral histories sit well with her. The paradox of the Bang on a Can composers, of which she is a founding member, is that the exclusionary severity of their minimalism – in which the tiniest kernel of music is exploded with atom-splitting intensity – leaves plenty of room for extraordinary inclusiveness. Texts can be prose, and especially lists in which small collections of commonplace words are repeated with a single mutation that escalates meaning.

That singularity of compositional vision was perhaps a safeguard against the kind of pitfalls that come with socially responsible music, in which huge performing resources are employed for matters better discussed in the New York Review of Books. Worse yet, tragedy can be commemorated in ways that don’t encourage anybody to turn the page, effectively continuing a victim mentality. I’m not naming names. That’s an invitation to be tarred and feathered. But Fire in my mouth is emphatically not that.

The basic Triangle fire facts are these: Employees were routinely locked into their sweatshops during their long working hours to prevent theft and absence. When fire broke out, most were trapped on the 9th floor. Some jumped into the crude, firefighter trampolines below, but with such a force that they broke through and died anyway. We know about that kind of desperation, having seen it first hand in the World Trade Center disaster. So the visceral aspects of the Triangle fire are anything but distant.

With the narrative freedom that comes with the oratorio medium, Wolfe’s four movements were configured in ways that created a solid musical arc. The movement subtitles were “Immigration,” “Factory,” “Protest” and “Fire,” detailing where the women came from, where they went to work, the social issues at hand (discussed before and after the fire) and then, obviously, the fire itself.

The mostly-female workforce – Jewish, Italian in their early 20s – come off like a fun, high-spirited bunch embarking on a new adventure in a new world, arriving without passports and but ready to remake themselves into whatever they wanted. And what they wanted, in Wolfe’s libretto, was to join the club, to be American. That’s something that seems to get lost in current immigrant discussions: They want to be us – in their own ways. Though these 1911 girls knew these sweatshop jobs were what stood between them and starvation, it seems that laughter and love were also possible. One newspaper account of the fire quoted in Wolfe’s libretto has a woman kissing goodbye her boyfriend before jumping out a window to her death – and then him jumping after her. At the end, names of the victims were sung, which could’ve been a manipulative touch, but wasn’t. I wanted to hear their names, because what they were called – especially after going through the filter of Ellis Island – had much to do with who they were.

The fact that you felt close to the names had to do with the cumulative effects of the music. Key elements included a subtle, ongoing sense of dread. Other critics have used that word, and with good reason. Even when the girls are characterized as optimistically arriving in America. there’s always something in the orchestral texture that telegraphs the disaster ahead, though not in a scary movie way. Sometimes, dread was heard in a pedal point – a relatively quiet one. The real-life randomness of the factory atmosphere came from quoting Yiddish and Italian folk songs in ways that didn’t clash or cohere but just co-existed.

The dozens of scissors held up by the female choristers – dressed in pre-World War I factory garb – was novel and effective. The blades opening and closing to created a collective rhythm that also conveyed the sharpness of their inner and outer worlds. Elsewhere, the power of Wolfe’s music came not from anything on the surface, but the near-subliminal morphing that comes with accomplished minimalism. Schubert dramatically altered his emotional landscapes by adding and subtracting one or two notes – in contrast to Wolfe’s brand of development that arrives through the side door. Changes have a before-you-know-it quality that have such an interior effect that you feel like you’re part of the narrative, if only because you feel it in your gut more than in your head. You’re in the middle of the landscape and are never quite sure if it’s changed or if you’ve just noticed something different about it.

The cool, unsentimental clarity of Wolfe’s minimalism plus its rhythmic drive also characterized both the beat of factor life and the hearts of the women who had the ambition to immigrate. What Wolfe has revealed in recent years is that her music can also be graphically descriptive. As powerful as the previously three movements were, the fourth, “Fire,” was an occasion for fastening your seat belt, with musical effects such as a high c-sharp sung with all the vocal tension such a note requires, and then descending in a slow-motion downward glissando, conveying those nano-seconds before an accident when you realize what is about to happen and time slows down. Frenetic rhythm elsewhere also captured human hysteria as well as quick-consuming quality of fire.

The Jeff Sugg videos were a major contribution. I have long thought that Wolfe’s pieces don’t need a video element, and they probably don’t, but Sugg far toward bringing the inner lives of these women into the inner lives of the listeners. Yes, you saw the black and white factory-worker faces in archival photos, lined up and formally posed, as in a class photo, but with a smirk starting at the corners of one mouth or an extra sparkle in the eyes of another. 

The best video moment – a stroke of genius – was an archival film of the girls turning in their time cards at the end of the day. This was seen early in the piece. Later, in the “Fire” movement, that film was reversed so that they’re going back in.  Knowing how the girls were trapped and doomed, the impact was immense. Every element of the production contributed to the total impact, whether the movements from director Anne Kauffman or the procession of female singers from the back of the hall and onto the stage midway through the piece.

No wonder the audience stayed rather than running for their buses and subway trains. No wonder people couldn’t stop talking about it on the way out. This kind of success isn’t bound to happen often. But the message is clear: If orchestras are to galvanize new, passionate support, new music has to be more than an overture or a concerto. Going all the way – with the right composer and right collaborators – is the way to go.

For a short documentary, click Fire in my mouth.

The above photo is by Chris Lee for the New York Philharmonic.

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  1. […] The new Julia Wolfe multi-media oratorio Fire in my mouth commemorates the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in a spirit that can make critics cringe preemptively. How many socially responsible pieces have implored us to weep, pray and feel guilty to what amounts to a pathos-laden film score? Instead, this piece was a breakthrough, something perfectly in step with 2019, with smartly-channeled passion that carries the promise of speaking to listeners well beyond our time. — David Patrick Stearns […]

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