Julia Wolfe Fire in my mouth
The Crossing, Young People’s Chorus of New York City,
New York Philharmonic, conducted by Jaap zan Zweden Decca Gold; CD, DL
At around 4:40pm on March 25, 1911, a scrap bin caught fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, near Washington Square in New York City. Within minutes, all three floors that the factory occupied were ablaze, most of the young, immigrant workforce still inside. Heat from the fire quickly melted not only the elevator cables, but also the external fire escape. The factory doors were locked to keep the workers from taking unauthorized breaks. With no other way out, many of the workers jumped out the windows to the pavement eight, nine, or ten stories below. They did not survive the landing. By the time the fire was extinguished half an hour later, 146 people were dead.
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. (I’m pretty sure this is where the famous scissors are deployed, but the liner notes don’t say, and it’s hard to hear for certain in the multi-layered texture.) It takes a long time for the voices to enter: half of them singing a mournful Yiddish tune, the other half breaking out into a rowdy Italian ditty. Juxtaposed with the mechanical backdrop, the result feels at once like a cry of despair and a defiant embrace of life in the face of a brutal inhumanity.
That spirit of 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. These declamations are set more with grim determination than fiery passion, but an electric thread of tension runs through them and ultimately unfurls in a plaintive exhalation — “Ah — then I had fire in my mouth” — trailed by a fading patter of echoes.
The actual fire starts slowly, almost unnoticeably. There are moments of frenzy, to be sure, but also islands of eerie calm, where time seems to stop, split-second memories telescoped into eternities by adrenaline and trauma. But then time comes crashing back in a cataclysmic rush as the singers describe seeing bodies fall through the air. A nauseating conclusive snick marks the end of the fire, and the work finishes, after a gaunt excerpt from a searing speech from one of the survivors, with a melancholy recitation of the names of the dead.
When the piece was premiered in January, it featured visual and spatial elements that are obviously missing in the recording. Even in this purely audio version, though, Fire in my mouth is an intense listen. The performances are uniformly strong throughout, and the recording quality is clean and crisp.
The Triangle Factory owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were acquitted of all charges and would ultimately win an insurance payout of around $400 per victim. (Some have suggested that the fire was deliberately set for the purposes of insurance fraud.) Two years later, Blanck would be convicted of locking the doors of his new factory and fined the legal minimum of $20. The 123 women and 23 men who died that day in 1911 may never have had the chance to “dream,” “stand,” “laugh,” or “dance like an American,” but they certainly died like too many Americans do: painfully, before their time, at the hands of a callous wealthy class who can knowingly create murderous conditions for profit and never see justice.
Fire in my mouth is haunted by mourning, both for the workers who died and also, to me at least, for how little things have changed. The gig economy forces workers into erratic shifts of uncertain pay and zero benefits. People die for lack of insulin, while health insurance executives get bonuses in the millions. Jeff Bezos makes $150,000 a minute on the backs of workers tracked every second of every day, lest they take unauthorized breaks. We may not be literally locked in the top three floors of a flammable building, but we still live and die at the whims of the rich. And this time, it’s not a factory that’s burning; it’s the planet. One hundred and forty-six dead was barely the beginning.
Brin Solomon writes words and music in several genres and is doing their best to queer all of them. Solomon majored in composition at Yale University before earning their MFA in Musical Theatre Writing at NYU/Tisch. Their full-length musical Window Full of Moths has been hailed for its “extraordinary songs” that “add magic to otherwise ordinary lives”, and their latest one-act, Have You Tried Not Being A Monster, has been described as “agitprop for Julia Serrano.” Their writing has appeared in VAN, New Classic LA, and National Sawdust Log, and they recently won runner-up at the 2018 Rubin Institute for Music Criticism.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.