NY Phil focuses on immigrant women in new piece ‘Fire in my mouth’

Women's History Month

Volume 119, No. 3March, 2019

Photo: Chris Lee

The New York Philharmonic recently presented “New York Stories: Threads of Our City,” two weeks of concerts and events that examined New York City’s roots as a city of immigrants. The project included the world premiere of Julia Wolfe’s “Fire in my mouth” (photographed above), co-commissioned by the Philharmonic and three universities. The piece reflects on the New York garment industry at the turn of the 20th century, as well as the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 garment workers, most of them young immigrants.

Composer Julia Wolfe said, “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.”

Wolfe added, “‘Fire in my mouth’ tells the story of these women who persevered and endured challenging conditions, women who led the fight for reform in the workplace. I was thrilled to work with music director Jaap van Zweden and the huge incredible force of the New York Philharmonic to bring ‘Fire in my mouth’ to life.”

The immersive, multimedia performance featured the Grammy-winning chamber choir The Crossing, and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City.

The work’s title refers not only to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, but also to Ukrainian immigrant and labor activist Clara Lemlich Shavelson, who, when looking back on her radical youth said, “Ah, then I had fire in my mouth.” The music of ‘Fire in my mouth’ evokes 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, the majority of whom were Jewish and Italian immigrants. Wolfe workshopped the piece with the three universities that co-commissioned the piece along with the Philharmonic, a process that included campus-wide discussions about history, music and creative writing.

Click here for information on this year’s commemoration of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.