Arming a Chorus of Women with Scissors | Modern Society of USA

Arming a Chorus of Women with Scissors

Arming a Chorus of Women with Scissors

It wasn’t where you would expect to find the composer Julia Wolfe shopping for musical instruments.

The store she walked into one morning this fall, Steinlauf & Stoller, is one of New York’s garment district survivors. It’s a family business that has supplied the sewing industry since 1947 with pins and needles, buttons and snaps, threads and ribbons, and tools of the trade.

Including Ms. Wolfe’s object that day: scissors.

“The big thing is the sound,” she explained to the store’s manager, Sid Schwarzenberger. “I’m not really looking for how they cut.”

Ms. Wolfe was in the market for scissors to be wielded by the women of the chorus in her new oratorio, “Fire in my mouth.” The work, which will be given its premiere on Thursday by the New York Philharmonic, explores the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire of 1911, which killed 146 garment workers, mostly immigrant women, including many who were trapped by locked exit doors. Their deaths helped change the way New York and the nation thought about safety, the labor movement and the struggle for women’s equality.

She wrote string parts that recall sewing machines, and at several points in the score she included the sound of scissors opening and closing. She imagined the effect as more of a slow, resonant “swoosh” than a staccato, castanet-like “snip.” But she had to find the right ones for the job.

So she set out one morning in October on a scissor listening tour — starting out in the garment district, making a stop at a theatrical wardrobe supply store, and trying out the scissors at a West Village hair salon for good measure. She ended at a tailor’s shop in SoHo, just a short walk from the site of the Triangle fire: a building that still stands a block east of Washington Square Park and is now, like so much of the Village, part of New York University.

Along the way, she got an education. At Steinlauf & Stoller, Mr. Schwarzenberger showed her pocket scissors, thread snips, embroidery scissors, bent trimmers, pattern notchers and pinking shears. At one point he handed her a small pair, which would be easy for the chorus to hold.

But they were nearly silent.

“I was going to make a bad joke,” Ms. Wolfe said, hesitating before deciding to go for it anyway: “This doesn’t cut it.”

She soon fell in love with the sound of a heavy pair of 12-inch shears made by Wiss — a company, Mr. Schwarzenberger explained, that had once made its scissors in Newark but has since moved production overseas. “This is so big you could use two hands,” Ms. Wolfe said.

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