Half-sung, half-screamed, the sound coming from the female voices starts at a high C-sharp and tumbles in slow motion into endless depths of tragedy.
Never yell “fire” in a theater, but in the new oratorio Fire in my mouth by Montgomery County native Julia Wolfe, the performers will sing it while characterizing the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster.
One hundred forty-six employees died there, locked inside as the notorious sweatshop burned, many of them recently immigrated women ages 14 to 23. The big moment, as conceived by composer Wolfe, goes beyond words and into blood-chilling sound.
“Those massive deaths ... had to be treated in a very direct way,” said Wolfe, growing quiet while explaining that key moment in her piece.
Fire in my mouth will have its premiere Thursday at Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic orchestra, 36 women from the Philadelphia-based chorus The Crossing, and girls from the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. The New York Philharmonic’s new music director, Jaap van Zweden, conducts.
The Crossing was in rehearsal all day Saturday at Philadelphia’s St. Clement’s Church, just off the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, with Wolfe and the production’s directors — who are creating an immersive environment involving physical gestures, video, costumes, and jumbo-sized scissors.
The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill has also hosted Fire in my mouth rehearsals.
It’s mostly up to the women of The Crossing to make the whole immersive effort work. “We are the women at first,” said Becky Oehlers, longtime singer in the Grammy-awarded new-music choir, “but then the lens pulls back and we become the storytellers and let the audience experience the emotion.”
The documentary-minded Wolfe employed newspaper clippings from 1911 and speeches made in the fire’s aftermath, along with references to the workers who died in the fire. As staging director Anne Kauffman puts it, Wolfe is “having a conversation with her ancestors.”
One moment touches a particularly contemporary nerve: According to newspaper accounts, a man in the flaming building was seen kissing his sweetheart goodbye as she climbed out of a ninth-story window, no doubt to her death — recalling those who jumped from the World Trade Center on 9/11.
Wolfe, now 60, says she never consciously thought about 9/11 when writing the piece, though she personally witnessed the tragedy from her downtown Manhattan home and whisked her two children off to her native Montgomery County, where her mother lived in Blue Bell.
Beyond that, listeners will no doubt be reminded of the escalating immigrant crisis in the U.S. government.
Throughout, Wolfe isn’t out to tell people what to think, though she has her own political and moral convictions that dictated how she configured the piece’s four movements. Their subtitles — “Immigration,” “Factory,” “Protest,” and “Fire” — collectively attempt to describe a social system that allowed the tragedy to happen.
How listeners perceive it is up to them. “I’m interested in asking the questions,” said Donald Nally, director of The Crossing, “and the great thing about music is that it gives us context, a background point of view.”
"The immigrant situation was bad then and it's bad now," said Wolfe, "We look to history to learn how to not screw up again. And then we screw up again."
In all fairness, many safety regulations were instituted as a result of the fire. But Wolfe also noted that there were also any number of efforts to limit the influx of immigrants.
Wolfe is one of the founders of pathbreaking New York composer collective Bang on a Can, along with her husband, Michael Gordon, and fellow-Pulitzer winner David Lang.
But having written extreme, super-energized works for multiple bagpipes (among other things), Wolfe has recently turned toward more traditional large-scale pieces involving texts and voices. In doing so, she strengthened ties with the state where she grew up.
In 2014, she drew on the Pennsylvania coal mining culture for the choral/orchestral work Anthracite Fields, which was premiered by Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia and won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for music.
Though relatively new to the uptown environs of the New York Philharmonic (which co-commissioned the piece), she pushed the production budget with the visual elements she wanted in her portrayal of 1911 sweatshops.
As the extra-musical elements such as costumes and benches evolved, sponsors were found. Musical demands also escalated. With so much visual traffic, singers are memorizing one of the movements.
Effects that she’s after are both symbolic and visceral. “Halfway through, 110 girls [from the Young People’s Chorus of New York City] will come down the aisle. And when you add the 36 women of The Crossing, you have the exact number of people who died in the fire,” Wolfe said.
“It became more theater than I thought. Then, when I was writing, I added the scissors, which is very theatrical.”
That last decision was made so intuitively that Wolfe can’t really explain it, though staging director Kauffman ran with the idea.
Scissors were a tool of the trade, but also a blade used by these tough, high-spirited Jewish and Italian women who arrived in America with few prospects but aspired to be the women who were buying the clothes they made. Philadelphia video designer Jeff Sugg will have expanses of ocean across which the women traveled to get there.
Other Wolfe-ian tendencies fell into line. As a minimalist-based composer, she repeats everyday words obsessively until they take on greater meaning. Her taste for rhythmic repetition handily conveys the mechanization of the factories.
Rhythms also echo pop and folk music. The score employs electric guitar.
Wolfe “seems to know exactly what she wants, and at the same time she’s also very flexible and has a big heart for what is possible and, maybe, what is impossible," said the New York Philharmonic’s van Zweden. "“I cannot wait to hear the first notes in real life.”