Thursday, October 10, 2019

Wolfe’s Latest “Song With Social Significance”

from the Web page for the recording being discussed

Composer Julia Wolfe, one of the creators of Bang on a Can, seems to have had a longstanding interest in the history of the American laborer. I first encountered that interest when I was writing for and ran an article about her one-hour song cycle Steel Hammer. This amounted to a study of workers in the coal-mining industry viewed through the lens of the fictitious coal miner John Henry. The recording of Steel Hammer was released in 2014. The following year Wolfe escalated her resources to an oratorio for chorus and instruments. The result was Anthracite Fields, which was awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

At the beginning of this month, Decca Gold released a recording of the world premiere performance of Wolfe’s latest venture into this domain. Fire in my mouth shifts the venue from the rural coal fields to the urban sweatshop in lower Manhattan, a major source of employment for young immigrants around the turn of the twentieth century. Once again she has composed an oratorio, this time about a sweatshop that was involved in one of the darkest moments of American labor, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

Triangle became the emblem of negligent working conditions serving as a disaster waiting to happen. The building caught fire on March 25, 1911, leading to the death of 146 garment workers, 123 women and girls and 23 men. Deaths were caused by the fire itself, smoke inhalation, and victims that either fell or jumped to their deaths.

I learned about the Triangle fire as a result of a bar mitzvah present, a copy of Only in America. This was Harry Golden’s first compilation of essays he had first published in his own newspaper, The Carolina Israelite. Through his perspective I came to appreciate that immigration was a two-sided coin, the “land of opportunity” could also be the “land of catastrophe,” particularly when financial matters took precedence over human affairs. Ironically, a similar tragedy took place in Bangladesh in 2012, again at a garment factory, in Dhaka. When that news broke, I experienced the shock of realizing that no one talking about it seemed to have even the slightest awareness of what had happened in our own country in 1911.

If anything good came out of the Triangle fire, it was an increase in consciousness of the efforts of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). Recognizing that one of the best ways to get a message across is through entertainment, Max Danish, editor of the ILGWU newspaper, conceived a musical review about working conditions. The result, Pins and Needles, ran on Broadway from 1937 to 1940. I still remember seeing a performance of the opening chorus, “Sing Me A Song With Social Significance” on television back when I was still in high school.

Sadly, there seems to be little sense of “social significance” in Fire in my mouth. Instead, the priorities seem to be directed towards spectacle, enabled through the vehicle of decibels. The world premiere was given by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Jaap van Zweden, along with the 36 women of The Crossing and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. The Fire in my mouth album was created from recordings of that premiere occasion.

All of this makes for no end of sound and fury. However, the sounds are so overwhelming that one is unlikely to “get the message” without the assistance of a printed text sheet. With that assistance, however, one will probably be more aware of the insistent repetitions of phrases, suggesting that Wolfe had doubts as to whether or not listeners would “get the message.”

For that matter, it is unclear just what Wolfe intended her message to be. Golden’s essay remains a powerfully terse account of what happened. However, over the course of the 50-minute performance of Fire in my mouth, one may get a sense of catastrophe and dread without necessarily grasping any of the relevant context. Yes, there is emotional intensity in Wolfe’s score and the interpretation of that score by the performers; but the signification of the content is embedded in a complex network of context. Such a network is beyond the expressiveness of music, leaving signification hanging in a limbo of “sound and fury.”

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