Julia Wolfe: Anthracite Fields
Cantaloupe Music

Bang on a Can co-founder and co-artistic director Julia Wolfe follows her lauded Steel Hammer with another project rooted in the story of the American worker, Anthracite Fields. Performed by the Choir of Trinity Wall Street (conducted by Julian Wachner) and the Bang on a Can All-Stars (cellist Ashley Bathgate, bassist Robert Black, pianist Vicky Chow, clarinetist Ken Thomson, drummer/percussionist David Cossin, guitarist Mark Stewart), the five-part oratorio, which brought Wolfe the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Music, is grounded in the songs and stories of the turn-of-the-twentieth-century miners who toiled in the Pennsylvania Anthracite coal region.

Wolfe's one of the leading composers of the post-minimalist generation, artists schooled in the traditions of minimalism who've advanced beyond its restrictive practices by integrating it with rock, jazz, and electronica. In fact, no trace of Glass or Reich is present in Anthracite Fields; as far as style and sensibility are concerned, it's telling that the jagged interjections that repeatedly shatter the brooding pedal-point drone in “Foundation” evoke Louis Andriessen more than anyone else. If any trace of minimalism is present, it arises during the beautiful closing section of “Appliances,” which sounds vaguely like an inversion of the opening to John Adams' Nixon in China. Wolfe's music is often characterized by strong physicality and rhythmic drive, and such qualities obviously lend themselves well to the topic at hand.

She developed the text using multiple sources, among them oral histories, speeches, rhymes, and historical documents, the intent being to honour the lives of people who, working in often dangerous conditions, contributed to the building of a nation; more than a history lesson, the text also draws a firm connecting line from the past to the present in “Appliances.” Such historical and sociological aspects never come across as heavy-handed, however, when the musical content, often raw and earthy, is so rich in imagination and invention.

In the opening “Foundation,” part of the arresting sound design involves the sober vocal recitation of names, those with the first name John and a one-syllable surname in this case, that function as a microcosm of the many workers injured or killed in mining accidents. But in contrast to the ponderousness of that epic opener, the second, “Breaker Boys,” exudes a more playful quality in its buoyant blend of tick-tock rhythms and sing-song rhymes; here and elsewhere, Wolfe styles her writing to match the topic at hand, in this case one focusing on young boys tasked with separating coal from rocks. In another surprise, “Speech,” drawing on the words of labor leader John L. Lewis, features an impassioned lead vocal by guitarist Mark Stewart as opposed to one of the choir members.

Some works immediately declare themselves as ripe for an onstage presentation, and certainly Wolfe's is one of them. In fact, when the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia (which commissioned it) premiered Anthracite Fields in April 2014, it did so elaborately: the singers often swayed in accordance with the words, plus a film component was included that showed historical footage and photos. Stylistically, it's wide-ranging, with the musical character of all five parts contrasting and everything from elegiac classical to aggressive rock'n'roll surfacing, yet coherence is retained through the unifying presence of the coal mining theme. Certainly Anthracite Fields succeeds on a purely sonic level—the absence of a visual complement hardly undermines its many strengths—yet it's hard to deny that the fullest experience of the work would come from seeing it presented on stage.

January 2016