Voices from the Coal Mines in Julia Wolfe’s “Anthracite Fields”

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Julia Wolfe

Composer and Bang on a Can co-founder Julia Wolfe won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in music for “Anthracite Fields,” an hour-long oratorio for chorus and sextet, inspired by the lives of Pennsylvania coal miners a century ago. Wolfe was born in Philadelphia and grew up not far from Pennsylvania coal country. She says that the subject matter of “Anthracite Fields” might have been percolating for quite a while, albeit subconsciously. Until recent years, Wolfe’s work has been exploring sound, timbre, and instrumentation, not language. “The thing I love about music is it’s beyond words,” she says. “But somehow the words crept back in — big time.” 

“Anthracite Fields,” which has five movements, is full of words, with a libretto Wolfe wrote after nearly a year of research and interviews. The fourth movement, “Flowers,” is based on an interview she did with a woman who was a daughter and granddaughter of miners. “One thing she said was, ‘We lived in very simple houses, a kind of impoverished existence, but we all had flowers and we had gardens.’ And she started to name these flowers and I started scratching it down.” That list of flowers became the text for the movement. “This was the way the women particularly, and the families, found a way to beautify this existence,” she explains. “And I felt like the piece needed some flowers — after writing about the men deep down in the wells, this was a kind of moment of light.”

But “Anthracite Fields” isn’t just about the history of coal mining. Wolfe wanted to bring the piece into the present. The final movement, “Appliances,” nods to both the environmental costs of coal and to the extent to which we are still so dependent on it. The text of the movement includes a “list of all the things you do every day that use coal: bake a cake, drill a hole, call your girlfriend, send a message,” Wolfe says. “It gives the listener a chance to think, ‘How am I a part of this?’”

(Originally aired April 23, 2015)

Bonus Track: Kurt’s extended conversation with Julia Wolfe

 

Bonus Track: “Flowers,” from "Anthracite Fields"

 

Music Playlist

  1. Fuel I, II, III

    Artist: Julia Wolfe
    Album: Wolfe: Cruel Sister
    Label: Cantaloupe Music
  2. "Foundation" movement 1 of Anthracite Fields

    Artist: Julia Wolfe
    Album: Julia Wolfe: Anthracite Fields
    Label: Cantaloupe Music
  3. "Flowers," 2nd movemnet of Anthracite Fields

    Album: Anthracite Fields
    Label: Cantaloupe Music
  4. "Appliances" movement 5 of Anthracite Fields

    Artist: Julia Wolfe
    Album: Julia Wolfe: Anthracite Fields
    Label: Cantaloupe Music