Julia Wolfe: Anthracite Fields

Julia Wolfe (photo by Peter Serling)

Julia Wolfe (photo by Peter Serling)

Anthracite Fields was awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Music, and was no doubt a contributing factor to Julia Wolfe’s being named a 2016 MacArthur Fellow. A graduate of the University of Michigan, Yale School of Music, and Princeton University, Wolfe was one of the founding members, along with Michael Gordon and David Lang, of the Bang on a Can music collective, which continues to thrive after thirty years of concerts, music, and educational activities. Along with collaborations with her Bang on a Can mates, Wolfe has worked with the likes of theater artist Anna Deavere Smith, filmmaker Bill Morrison, and choreographer Susan Marshall. Her compositions range from works for traditional instruments and ensembles like choir, orchestra and string quartet to pieces for the likes of nine bagpipes, four drum kits, and body percussion.

In the words of the Pulitzer Prize citation, Anthracite Fields is “a powerful oratorio for chorus and sextet evoking Pennsylvania coal-mining life around the turn of the 20th Century.” Wolfe grew up in Montgomeryville, a small town in Pennsylvania. A long country road led from there, Wolfe recalls, to Route 309. Turn right and south on 309 and you’d go to Philadelphia. Turn left and north, and you’d find yourself in coal country, the “anthracite field region.”

Anthracite is a pure type of coal that can be used for everything from heating homes to powering railroads. This was a key point for Wolfe when she decided on this subject for a new commission she’d received from the Mendelssohn Club, with contributions from New Music USA. Wolfe has written, “For over a year I read a lot, interviewed miners and children of miners, gathered information, and went down into the mines. It’s a vast subject to cover, but powerful themes emerged and called out to be in the piece. Anthracite Fields is about this industry and the life surrounding it. The piece is not directly narrative, but looks at the subject from different angles. My intention was to honor the people that lived and worked there, this dangerous work that fueled the nation.”

The first movement, “Foundation,” begins with an ominous low rumble. Intermittent outbursts from the piano, electric guitar, and other instruments add to the tension. Males slowly chant, alternating two notes, the names of coal miners who died — drawn from a list of Pennsylvania Mining Accidents from 1869-1916 — all of whose first names are John, and whose second names are a single syllable. The tempo quickens and the beat becomes even more unrelenting. Several minutes in, female voices join in with a mellifluous “geographic description” of coal formations. The spirits of Steve Reich and John Adams hover over this music, but Wolfe has her own distinct, stark voice. The voices eventually drop out, and long tones and cymbals provide a transition into a new section in which richly multi-syllabic miner names are sung, interweaving with one another, in the words of the text, “layer upon layer.” A dissonant climax leads to shouts of “Heat,” “Pressure,” and “Time.” More flowing multi-syllabic names climax in repetitions of “Ezekiel.” A long, mysterious whistle concludes the movement.

ca21111-anthracite_fields-front-coverA repeated ticking provides the backdrop for the rhythmic singing that opens the second movement, “Breaker Boys.” Those young boys worked long, painful hours removing foreign objects from the flow of coal with their bare hands. Some of the words were drawn from reminiscences of one of those breaker boys, Anthony “Shorty” Slick. Repetitive words and rhymes are drawn from children’s songs and chants. The powerful beat, very rock-like in parts, and dissonances of the accompaniment evoke the dangerous, wearying work they did. There is also a wearisome, almost a despairing quality to some of the sung memories. As the beat becomes propulsive, the interactions of the vocal phrases and sounds becomes increasingly complex. Once again, there is a long fade out, here a metallic rattling sound.

The poignant third movement, “Speech,” employs solo tenor (in the recording, Bang on a Can guitarist Mark Stewart) and male choir, intoning words taken from a speech John L. Lewis, the one-time president of the United Mine Workers of America, gave to a House of Representatives subcommittee. The text proclaims, with powerful repetitions of “That is what I believe,” how much mainstream America owed to the hard work of the miners.

In the fourth movement, “Flowers,” a tender guitar and long tones from the strings provides the background for lovely female voices singing the words of Barbara Powell, a descendant of generations of miners. She describes how all the mining families “had flowers” and “had gardens,” and then lists many of the varieties of flowers they grew. Vibraphone, piano, and flutters of woodwinds float amid the list of flowers, sung in rhythmic minimalist fashion.

Electric guitar strums, repeating piano notes, and percussive bursts provide the asymmetrical accompaniment for the opening words of the final movement, “Appliances.” All sorts of daily activities powered by the electricity generated by coal, from drying clothes to toasting bread to drying hair, are grimly chanted in regular rhythm over riotous accompaniment. Part of the inspiration here is Phoebe Snow, a fictitious New York socialite that was created to advertise the Lakawana coal-powered railroad. Over a gently rocking rhythm, in poignant, beautiful polyphony, the whiteness of her gown in the closing text is in implicit contrast to the blackened faces and clothes of the miners. Once again, mysterious whistling concludes the piece evocatively.

Anthracite Fields was given its premiere by Bang on a Can All-Stars and the Mendelssohn Club Chorus on April 26, 2014 in Philadelphia. An excellent recording by Bang on a Can All-Stars and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street has since come out on Canteloupe Music. Anthracite Fields wasn’t Wolfe’s first foray into the history of American labor – her Steel Hammer, a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist, employed texts from versions of the John Henry legend to explore the concept of humans versus machines. Nor will it be her last, as her next major work is expected to be an evening-length chorus-orchestra piece, written for the New York Philharmonic, dealing with the role of women in the American workforce.

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One thought on “Julia Wolfe: Anthracite Fields

  1. Pingback: Sunday Salon 1-8-17 | Thirty-Two Minutes

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