Julia Wolfe’s Powerful Reflection on Those Who Labored and Died in Coal Mines

05/12/2018

Julia Wolfe, Anthracite Fields: Bang on a Can All-Stars, The Choir of Trinity Wall Street / Julian Wachner (conductor), Jeff Sugg (Scenography and Projection Design), Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, New York, 1.12.2018. (RP)

Anthracite Fields (Phoebe Snow on the train to Buffalo)
© Richard Termine

Julia Wolfe composed Anthracite Fields in 2014 on a commission from the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize the following year. Her goal was to honor those who labored and died mining coal in Northeast Pennsylvania at a time when the so-called black diamonds fueled the nation, as well as to reflect upon who we are as American workers.

To prepare, she visited the region, went into the mines, toured museums, interviewed miners and their descendants and pored over history books. The result is a text that combines lessons on geography and history into at a work of profound emotion and depth. The story she crafted incorporates nursery rhymes, personal recollections and a 1900 advertisement for efficient, clean train service fueled by anthracite, as well as a 1947 speech by John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers of America to the US House of Representatives Labor Committee.

It opens with the choir intoning the names of workers killed in mine accidents: Wolfe used one-syllable surnames, all with the first name ‘John’. It was a way of imposing rhythmic order and aural clarity, given that 61 percent of the work force came from Eastern Europe, Russia and Italy, few with easy-to-pronounce names. Some of those names came later. The third movement is an adaptation of Lewis’s speech which begins: ‘If we must grind up human flesh and bones in the industrial machine that we call modern America’.

In her own words, Wolfe strives for an intense physicality and relentless power in her music that pushes performers to extremes and demands attention from the audience. Soft, scintillating, repetitive layers of sound grew into massive, grating collisions of titanic proportions. Her orchestration is eclectic, heavy on percussion, with melodies mostly heard in the bass clarinet and cello. Her stylistic bent is even more so, spanning minimalism, jazz and rock. The coolest instruments were the three spinning bicycle wheels that emitted both a whirl and a click.

Wolfe composed the instrumental music for the New York music collective Bang on a Can All-Stars, which she co-founded in 1992 and for which she serves as co-artistic director. The six musicians are energized, versatile and athletic. Cellist Ashley Bathgate sang and played in the jaunty, almost maniacal second movement, ‘Breaker Boys’, spitting out tongue twisters like ‘Mickey Pick-Slate early and late’. Mark Stewart, with his long gray hair, was a whizz on the electric guitar and let it rip vocally.

The Choir of Trinity Wall Street is made up of singers who are equally versatile and brave. They were called to alternately emit noises, whisper the softest of sounds and practically roar. Their vocal virtuosity was stunning and their commitment to the piece indisputable, as was that of the conductor, Julian Wachner, who is the director of music at Trinity Wall Street. The construct of Anthracite Fields is almost as tight as that of a Bach trio sonata, and Wachner achieved a clarity of sound and texture that delineated both individual musical ideas and the intricate layering of sound.

In a pre-concert talk, Wolfe said that the music came first and Jeff Sugg’s images and videos followed. Undoubtedly the music stands on its own, but Sugg’s spare, powerful visuals contributed mightily to the emotional impact of this performance. A video of a bubbling, primeval ooze of sorts took us deep into the earth. Charts and diagrams detailed the topography and coal mining technology. The names were projected, as was the text of Lewis’s speech.

The movement entitled ‘Flowers’ is a long list of the blooms that brighten the lives of the miner’s mothers, wives and daughters. It begins: ‘We all had flowers. We all had gardens’. As the choir sang, sinuous pen and ink drawings of the plants and flowers were projected. Eventually, color started to appear, until the entire hall was awash in vivid pink. It was beautiful, as well as poignant, but it is the faces that haunt.

There were photos of miners, prematurely aged, with coal dust in every crease and wrinkle of their skin, each with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Their younger selves, sans cigarettes, were seen in the pictures of the gangs of Breaker Boys. The boys were usually between the ages of eight and twelve, but sometimes were as young as five or six; their job was to separate rocks and other debris from the coal with their bare hands, ten hours a day, six days a week. ‘You didn’t dare quit, because it was something to have a job at eight cents an hour’.

Lewis had declared that those who consume the coal and live in comfort have a duty to those who toil and risk their lives in supplying it. In the final movement, ‘Appliances’, there was again a long list, this one composed of the many things, all but essential to our modern-day existence, that are made possible by electricity. (Coal was the second largest energy source for the US in 2017, accounting for approximately 30 percent of the total.) The lovely likeness of Phoebe Snow from the ads, who exclaimed that her gown stayed white from morning to night on the train to Buffalo, faded into the faces of the Breaker Boys.

Little did Wolfe know that a few short years after its premiere, Anthracite Fields’ main themes would be at the center of national debates on climate change, the environment, immigration, the coal industry’s future and America’s labor force. Talk about ticking all of the boxes. It was an extraordinary musical, historical and dramatic experience.

Rick Perdian

For information on the January 2019 world premiere of Julia Wolfe’s Fire in my mouth by the New York Philharmonic with Jaap van Zweden conducting, click here.

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