October 17, 2018

‘Anthracite Fields’: an oratorio in a miner key

Composers seldom find themselves underground looking for inspiration, but for “Anthracite Fields,” an oratorio for chorus and sextet about miners around the turn of the 20th century, Julia Wolfe literally immersed herself in the feel and history of coal miners’ lives.

“My obliviousness helped me through, because I was so taken up with the moment,” Wolfe said by phone from Manhattan. “I’m, like, 300 feet underground, and there’s a lot of black stuff around. The guide took a moment to turn all the exit lights off, and it was complete darkness. I found that fascinating. Wow, we’re in a black hole, and it’s kind of mysterious. For them, of course, it was life.”

On March 6, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, led by artistic director Grant Gershon, and the New York contemporary music collective Bang on a Can All-Stars, will give the West Coast premiere in Walt Disney Concert Hall of “Anthracite Fields,” which won the Pulitzer Prize last year. Projections by visual artist Jeff Sugg promise to add another dimension to the event.  

In addition, the first half of the Master Chorale’s program, “Music of the Coal Miner,” includes selections from the Sacred Harp Anthology and American spirituals.

Discovered in 1790, anthracite became a chief source of clean-burning fuel, driving the Industrial Revolution. “The miners were grossly underpaid at many stages of the industry,” said Wolfe, who has an interest in issues relating to American workers. “I was also studying this population and trying to understand their lives and how it affected our history. But I had to find a way to relate this story, because I didn’t want a piece that was heavy-handed.”

The five-movement, 45-minute score presents a vocal and musical tapestry of what miners’ lives were like, employing oral histories, interviews and accident reports. Wolfe even adapts an excerpt of a speech by John L. Lewis, who served as president of the United Mine Workers of America. The last movement, “Appliances,” connects past and present — coal is still a major source powering electricity around the world.

For Wolfe, performing “Anthracite Fields” in Disney Hall offers exciting possibilities. “It may be the ideal hall for this piece,” Wolfe said. “We’re going to play around with the physical setup — where to place the singers. They will still be behind the band, but we’re trying to maximize our relationship to the sound, allowing a little more distance between the singers and the band, and where they are in relationship to the projections.”

Gershon said the singers will be amplified with vocal effects including whistles that would not otherwise be audible. “The main challenge for all the performers,” he said, “is to sustain the molten level of intensity, precision and honesty that Julia and the subject matter demands.”

Wolfe said she can’t imagine the piece without the multimedia backdrop. Even the “Anthracite Fields” album on the Cantaloupe Music label comes with carefully selected and arranged photos. In Disney Hall, Wolfe said, video projections will create a larger-than-life environment, with the faces of the miners filling the stage’s entire backdrop as one face morphs into another. 

“There’s found footage, maps and diagrams,” Wolfe added. “There are funny little animations [Sugg] has found — things that go directly with what’s going on in the piece. Words from the text morph [on screen] and bend like a river.” 

Wolfe, along with composers Michael Gordon (who is also her husband) and David Lang, founded Bang on a Can All-Stars in 1987. She grew up in Montgomeryville, a small Pennsylvania town, where her father was an obstetrician. “We went to a small synagogue,” she said. “My Hebrew class was probably six kids, including my twin brother, who is [now] also an obstetrician. My parents were not observant. I’m more connected to the tradition than my parents. I’ve gone back to embrace that part of me.

“Someone wouldn’t say I’m a Jewish composer in the sense that all my work is concerned with that part of my life,” she said. “Especially in some of my thematic pieces, I’m very interested in personal history as well as the larger national history. That consideration for each other, trying to keep that thoughtfulness in our lives as well as we can, it comes through in the synagogue and community context, and also in music.”

Wolfe said she didn’t start composing seriously until her first year of college at the University of Michigan. Minimalists Steve Reich and Louis Andriessen were important influences, as was rock music. Both genres combine in her work in fascinating ways, such as in “Speech,” the third movement of “Anthracite Fields,” where Wolfe adapts words of Lewis, the miners’ leader. 

Wolfe, who teaches composition at New York University, said she never worried about falling into a minimalist mode of composing. “I’m actually a bad imitator,” she said. “It’s one of my lucky things. I never thought I could ever be them. It would have been amazing if I could have written [Steve Reich’s] ‘Different Trains,’ or something like that. It’s an incredible piece. I’m a lot messier. My music is more hectic and hyper and noisy, more distorted and grainy.”

Wolfe’s latest, a work-in-progress commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, is an hourlong score for orchestra and women’s choir based on the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan in 1911. 

“After writing two guy-heavy pieces,” Wolfe said, referring to “Anthracite Fields” and her 2009 Pulitzer finalist, “Steel Hammer,” based on the ballad of John Henry, “I thought it was time to take a look at the community of women — garment workers at the turn of the century. 

“The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory building is a block away from where I teach,” she said. “Like ‘Anthracite Fields,’ the subject also relates to labor and labor history. I don’t know what I’ll find. I’m hoping it all comes to me the same way other pieces do.” 

For tickets or information about the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s performance of “Anthracite Fields,”