[The following is a transcript of a thread I did on Twitter this evening. I’ve kept things as intact as possible, besides some minor punctuation changes to make it make sense when it’s not delivered 280 characters at a time. Additional thoughts added for this version are in brackets.]
So I’m listening to Julia Wolfe’s Fire in my mouth, and first of all, the writing is very good and the recording is very good, but second of all, I have thoughts. Apparently I’m threading these on Twitter again, so buckle up, folks. A couple things: one, this is my first listen, so there is undoubtedly stuff I’m missing. Two, my thoughts on this are shaped especially by what’s going on in publishing right now.
First, the text setting is good. Nothing revolutionary (though I’m not to the end yet), but good. I get that it’s an oratorio and there’s formal guidelines being followed. I’m more of a scary-noises-and-extended-techniques person, but given the sound palette, it all makes sense. The string writing is probably my favorite part of the composing itself. It’s compelling. The percussion choices are good ones, too. Honestly, though, that’s probably all I’ve got to say about the composing part f this, because the circumstances around the work catch me. [I was running out of characters, but what I meant here is that the circumstances are the thing that piques my interest.]
Because here’s the thing: this oratorio is about poor women dying in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, and it centers on immigrants. It’s a powerful story worth telling, and the music is good, but… where are the other people telling this stories? [and stories like it?]
To explain: Wolfe (as far as I can tell from light internet stalking) is not an immigrant. And while, again, this is a cool piece of music, it’s very lopsided that this is the immigration story that is making it big in classical music. Look across at literature, one of our sister disciplines: there’s currently entirely-justified uproar because a book by a white woman called American Dirt does an arguably bad, racist job of framing Mexican culture and current immigration problems. [This is an oversimplification.] But it gets major press. American Dirt got its author an advance in the millions of dollars. Its marketing is active and high-powered—the kind that costs a lot of money. And they gave it all to a white, American woman to screw up stories that weren’t her own. THAT isn’t what I see here, BUT—
—what I DO see that’s similar is the uplifting and widespread publicizing of a work by a white woman about a subject that is realistically only tangentially related to her own lived experience. More importantly, what I DON’T see is equivalent funds/attention/effort being focused on immigrant composers who are writing works about this subject and others that they have direct, lived experience with. I don’t see immigrant composers getting Grammy noms for this. I don’t see immigrant composers getting NYPhil commissions to tell stories they are connected to.
Yes, Fire in my mouth is an excellent piece of music, written by someone who’s a great composer. But if you have to have already won a Pulitzer to be given the space, time, and opportunity to tell a story like this, how often will we see one from a composer of color? Further, how comfortable are we with the fact that the only people with the commissioning money for a work that [literally, in the libretto] says “I want to look/talk/learn like an American” (framed by a white non-immigrant and likely mostly performed by the same) are major gatekeepers in our industry? How comfortable are we that most of the musical institutions that have the money and reach to put out something like this are either behind the arc of social justice or outright perpetuating white supremacist patriarchal structures?
Because if we are going to argue (and we should!) that stories centering people other than allocishet men have a place in our canon (and they do!), we need to stop treating those stories like they’re only worth putting forth when they’re flashy and make an org look good.
I don’t want to argue that Fire in my mouth shouldn’t exist, because right now I don’t believe that. I want to see the NYPhil and classical organizations across the country giving a shit (and their money) when that same kind of work is done by someone who doesn’t look like them. I want orgs with money to facilitate performances of works like this that feature immigrants and people of color and are made available and affordable to immigrants and people of color. I want composers writing about specific marginalizations (like me!) to be able to point toward other folks with other marginalizations doing the same kind of work. [More on this in the coming weeks.] I want works like this to not be single moments for big ensembles; I want them to plug themselves into entire communities of composers making those kinds of works.
Lots of Orchestra Kids™ get into music and performance comp through symphony orchestras. A hell of a lot more of them would give a shit about living, marginalized composers and musicians if the big groups made their works and stories [and voices and styles] a staple of the repertoire. And those of us starting our careers from the relative privilege of “I’ll probably find a way to make it all work” need to be fierce advocates for our more marginalized and differently marginalized counterparts. We need to find their work and fall in love with it over and over.
And then we need to never shut up about it, because that’s how we get shit done.
Thanks for coming to my TED Talk. Now I gotta go put all this on my blog. ♦
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