‘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.”
‘Voices of Light’ and Joan of Arc illuminate mystery of faith
How did a nice Jewish boy from Short Hills, N.J., come to compose an oratorio to accompany Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent-film masterpiece “The Passion of Joan of Arc”? According to Richard Einhorn, his score “Voices of Light,” came into being by “sheer accident.”
“I wanted to do a piece about a religious subject,” Einhorn said from his home in New York. “Dreyer’s film wasn’t well known at the time, though there had been corrupted copies floating around. Then, in 1988, I saw a restored print. It blew my mind. On my way home, I already had the idea to use voices and Medieval texts to enhance themes in the film.”
“The Passion of Joan of Arc,” Dreyer’s enduring portrayal of religious persecution and the mystery of faith, considered one of the greatest films of all time, will be screened at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Oct. 19, with Grant Gershon, Los Angeles Master Chorale artistic director, leading a full orchestra and 115 singers, with a vocal quintet including two sopranos. The film will be projected in two locations and visible from every seat in the hall.
Based on Joan’s trial records from the 15th century — she was burned at the stake in 1431 at age 19 — the film conveys an uncanny documentary-like quality. Jean Cocteau said it “seems like an historical document from an era in which the cinema didn’t exist.” Italian actress Maria Falconetti, who portrays Joan, was reportedly nearly destroyed psychologically by the arduous demands Dreyer made on her during filming. After giving an indelible performance, she never made another film.
“This is a film about a woman confronting men,” said Einhorn, who in researching the piece read thousands of pages of writings, including Medieval mystics Hildegard von Bingen and Christine de Pizan. “I arranged the texts as commentary on the trial going on, but I’m not exactly underscoring the action. I tried to deepen and enhance the story.”
“Voices of Light,” which has also been performed as a stand-alone concert piece, met with international success after its 1994 premiere accompanying Dreyer’s film. Since then, Einhorn’s score and the film have been presented some 250 times around the world.
“There’s nothing else that I know of that combines choir, soloists, orchestra and film in such an organic way,” Gershon said of Einhorn’s oratorio, calling the experience “overwhelmingly immersive and cathartic.”
He added: “Einhorn has compiled a tremendously compelling libretto. He’s also captured and even amplified the spirit of this remarkable film through a score influenced by plainchant, Medieval troubadours and minimalism.”
One of the challenges Gershon will face is timing the flow of Einhorn’s music precisely to the film.
“With modern film scores, this syncing is usually done with a `click track,’ a kind of high-tech metronome,” Gershon said, “but that would kill the sense of freedom and musical line that’s so integral to a live performance.”
Luckily, Gershon said he knows the film well enough to “shape the music to it and make all necessary adjustments in real time.”
Einhorn was raised in a Reform Jewish family, and said his heritage is not really the focus of his art.
“It’s about the music, though there is a Jewish way of looking at things,” he said. “Each religion has traditions specific to them. The question is, can you honor them in your work?”
Once a record producer for CBS Masterworks (he has good memories of sessions with pianist Glenn Gould), Einhorn, born in 1952, grew up playing drums in a rock band, then became fascinated with experimental arts. As a young film composer, Einhorn used electronic music to score films like “Shock Waves,” a 1977 cult classic — “best Nazi zombie picture ever,” a reviewer once raved on the Rotten Tomatoes website. That film, starring John Carradine, Peter Cushing and Brooke Adams, is due out on Blu-ray next month.
It may seem a long road from zombies to Joan of Arc, the armor-clad French girl martyred so young, but for Einhorn, as for so many of us, the fascination of her story endures.
“She heard voices and was true to them to the end,” Einhorn said. “Was she schizophrenic? She was grounded in reality, leading armies as a teenager. She breaks every mold. Wherever you go in this story, there’s a contradiction, and Dreyer and Falconetti captured that ambiguity perfectly.”
Einhorn said he’s seen Dreyer’s film at least 100 times. “There’s always something new to see. It’s a joyful experience to watch, for its artistry, acting, mise-en-scène, beautiful cinematography, editing. Yes, it’s a tragedy, but so [are] `Hamlet’ and `Macbeth,’ and we love these plays.”
“Voices of Light”/”The Passion of Joan of Arc,” with Grant Gershon conducting the Los Angeles Master Chorale, chorale orchestra and soloists, will be performed at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Oct. 19 at 7 p.m. For ticket information, call (213) 972-7282 or visit www.lamc.org.
Symphony to Debut Fiery ‘Soul’ Music
Wayne Hinton is a Methodist, and he understands what Jewish audiences will feel when they hear a performance by the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony.
“It’s like when you hear a Frenchman conducting French music,” said Hinton, the symphony’s executive director. “It’s akin to their soul.”
The soul, or more specifically the soul aflame, will anchor the symphony’s Dec. 19 performance at Temple Israel of Hollywood, where the shul’s Nimoy Concert Series will host the West Coast premiere of “Souls on Fire,” an oratorio based on Elie Wiesel’s book on centuries of Chasidic leaders.
The concert series’ namesake, actor and philanthropist Leonard Nimoy, will narrate the piece. He will be joined on stage by almost 100 performers, including four soloists, actress Laraine Newman and the 45-member choir of Valley Beth Shalom, plus the 45-member Jewish Symphony and its artistic director, Noreen Green. Before the “Souls” piece begins, violinist Lindsay Deutsch will open the concert by performing Ernst Block’s “Baal Shem” suite.
The concert will be a classic merging of Jewish sensibilities and irony: a Reform shul hosting a Conservative choir singing a piece about Chasidim that no Chasidic man would see, because the choir includes women.
“Unfortunately, that’s absolutely right,” Nimoy said. “There’s a loss in there somewhere.”
Nimoy said that when he first narrated the “Souls” musical piece a few years ago in a studio isolation booth, “I had a sense even then it was a very powerful and inspiring piece of work. It humanizes the major leaders of the Chasidic movement, and it takes some of the mystery out of some of them. Some were great mystics, others were great organizers.”
While the concert will be the piece’s West Coast premiere, Nimoy has narrated “Souls” in Detroit, Philadelphia, New York’s Lincoln Center and Boston.
“That’s my hometown, and there was a homecoming feeling,” Nimoy told The Journal. “The theater where we played in Boston was within walking distance to what had been my home.”
Nimoy’s 3-year-old Temple Israel concert series (the shul’s Rabbi John Rosove is the cousin of Nimoy’s wife) has twice as many subscribers now as a year ago.
“This concert will by far be the largest,” he said, adding that the series in February will host Michigan’s Envision orchestra of young musicians, then an Arab-Israel orchestra in June, plus Chicago’s Sephardic cantor Alberto Mizrahi next fall.
Green, the Jewish Symphony conductor and artistic director, as well as Valley Beth Shalom’s choral director, said the post-Chanukah, Dec. 19 date gave event organizers some unusual freedom for a Jewish event in December.
“This really has nothing to do with Chanukah; it’s around Chanukah time,” Green said. “If you do the concert during the eight days of Chanukah, you’re kind of locked into doing a Chanukah program, but Leonard has been championing this particular piece of music. How do you say no to Leonard Nimoy?”
The 70-minute “Souls on Fire” stands out because it is based on a book by a writer so heavily identified with his Nobel Prize-winning Holocaust writings. But here, Green said, “I don’t relate this work to him as a survivor.”
“When you use music to highlight text, it brings another dimension to the word,” she said, “Music gives it an emotional impact that you wouldn’t have without the music.”
Green also believes the 12-year-old L.A. Jewish Symphony has earned Jewish communal respect and also the respect of its classical music peers.
“People now trust my selection of music,” the conductor said. “I try to make it fun; I’m entertaining up there. We started this off not really knowing where it was going to lead or what we wanted to perform.”
The “Soul on Fire” concert will be Sunday, Dec. 19, at 3 p.m. at Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd. For tickets, contact the Nimoy Concert Series , (213) 805-4261 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.