Notes & Reviews:
Haunting, poignant and relentlessly physical, Julia Wolfe's Anthracite Fields is a lovingly detailed oratorio about turn-of-the-20th-century Pennsylvania coal miners, and a fitting recipient of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Music. Weaving together personal interviews that she conducted with miners and their families, along with oral histories, speeches, rhymes and local mining lore, Wolfe sought to honor the working lives of Pennsylvania's anthracite region. "It's not necessarily mainstream history," she told NPR shortly after she received word of winning the Pulitzer. "The politics are very fascinating - the issues about safety, and the consideration for the people who are working and what's involved in it. But I didn't want to say, 'Listen to this. This is a big political issue.' It really was, 'Here's what happened. Here's this life, and who are we in relationship to that?' We're them. They're us. And basically, these people, working underground, under very dangerous conditions, fueled the nation. That's very important to understand." Featuring the always adventurous Bang on a Can All-Stars and the renowned Choir of Trinity Wall Street, Anthracite Fields merges diverse musical styles with classical themes - from the deep, ambient sweep of the opening movement "Foundation" (with the All-Stars' Mark Stewart wrenching waves of keening sound from his electric guitar) to the high-energy rock mood of "Breaker Boys."
American Record Guide, March/April 2016
The first movement is a list of injured miners' names, full of deep pedals and eerie whistles. 'The Breaker Boys' has children's rhymes and vibrant energy, depicting the grim life of boys who worked in the mines. Ashley Bathgate is the lead voice here as well as the eloquent cellist in the Bang on a Can All Stars. The finale, 'Appliances', moves the piece into the present. It involves baking a cake, making a phone call - all the ways we use energy that still use coal, linking the listener to the story.
The purity of the Trinity Wall Street Choir is breathtaking; and Bang on a Can contributes beguiling, imaginative sounds.
Recording information: Water Music, Hoboken, NJ (09/2014).
Julia Wolfe's Anthracite Fields won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in music. Wolfe teaches in New York, but she grew up far from its music scene in the coal fields of western Pennsylvania that form the subject matter for this work. Wolfe's nearest ancestor is John Adams, the choral declamation of whose On the Transmigration of Souls will give you an idea of the kind of personal and tragic minimalist style you get here. Wolfe breaks up words and names into choral syllables with powerful effect, most of all in the opening "Foundation" movement, where the chorus intones the names of miners killed in accidents between 1869 and 1916 (you should by all means sample this generously). The mood lightens only in the fourth movement, "Flowers." Wolfe departs from Adams in the flexible treatment of her small ensemble writing, performed here by the Bang on a Can All-Stars, with whom she has been associated in the past. This sextet of players -- cello, bass, keyboards, percussion, guitar, and clarinets -- is capable of both somber background and aggressive disruption in a variety of styles, including rock & roll, and the contrast between the ensemble and the fully traditional sound of the Choir of Trinity Wall Street (ironically enough, given that the words of labor leader John L. Lewis form part of the work's text) is one of the keys to the work's appeal. The work is in five movements that might easily, it would seem, be performed separately; in whatever form, the work seems likely to have a lasting presence in American musical life. ~ James Manheim
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Works DetailsWolfe, Julia : Anthracite Fields, oratorio for chorus, clarinet, electric guitar, cello, double bass, piano & percu
- Conductor: Julian Wachner
- Ensemble: Bang on a Can All-Stars
- Running Time: 19 min. 35 sec.
- Period Time: Contemporary
- Form: Cantata/Oratorio
- Written: 2014