Americans at Work: Julia Wolfe’s Innovative Oratorio
“The thing I love about music is, it’s beyond words. But somehow the words crept back in — big time,” remarked Julia Wolfe in an interview on NPR’s Studio360 following the announcement that she had won last year’s Pulitzer Prize in Music for Anthracite Fields. Wolfe’s moving and innovative new oratorio fuses music with words to tell a story deeply rooted in American history — and one inextricably connected to how we live today.
By way of a prelude to Anthracite Fields, our program opens with musical selections that set the stage by pointing to the heritage and tradition of the coal miners who are the protagonists of Wolfe’s composition. Artistic Director Grant Gershon has curated a sequence of nine pieces exploring themes of homecoming and the journey toward redemption, toward a Promised Land. “These songs represent the heritage of the miners in a very immediate and soulful way,” explains Gershon. “Julia Wolfe’s music combines austerity with an incredible flamboyance and energy. I think this set of American music in plainspoken arrangements — as opposed to ones that seem somewhat ‘prettified’ — reflects the ethos of Anthracite Fields more closely.”
A pair of traditional spirituals (Keep Your Lamps and Wade in the Water) frames the concert’s first part to remind us of the African-American contribution to mining — a contribution often overlooked, Gershon points out, in comparison with the crucial role played by European immigrants.
Six of the songs come from The Sacred Harp — the hugely influential anthology, first issued in Georgia in 1844 and subsequently revised and expanded many times, that helped pass America’s shape-note tradition down across generations who would gather for community “sings.” Gershon explains that “the simplicity and rawness” of Anthracite Fields “led me to look again at some of the hymns that resonated most with me in this context. I started gravitating toward the ones that talk the most eloquently about our journey to a better place. They talk about death in a very real way but a very joyous way.”
The Sacred Harp began as an effort to codify an oral tradition that had sprung into being during the Second Great Awakening of the early decades of the 19th century. The celebrated ethnomusicologist pioneer Alan Lomax made influential field recordings of The Sacred Harp phenomenon in action. For him, this robust, joyfully austere form of music-making represented “a choral style ready-made for a nation of individualists.”
Growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania (Montgomeryville), Julia Wolfe recalls that coal country lay relatively nearby, geographically speaking, by following the highway northward, toward Scranton. Yet it was a world vastly different from the one she knew and “seemed like the Wild West.” By then the heyday of the anthracite mining operations, once employing nearly 175,000 laborers at its peak, had long since passed, though this chapter has left indelible social and cultural marks on the region.
The boom in mining operations of the anthracite fields — the purer, high-carbon-content form of coal (aka “black diamonds”) resulting from Appalachian geology and discovered in the 18th century — coincided with the massive waves of immigration that profoundly shaped America. It also went hand-in-hand with some of the most oppressive labor abuses associated with the Industrial Revolution that transformed the upstart, breakaway young Republic into a powerful nation ready to enter the global stage.
All of these aspects are pertinent to Wolfe’s project. Indeed, Anthracite Fields could be said to represent another kind of homecoming: to the composer’s long-abiding interest in social history and labor issues. That was her focus during Wolfe’s college years at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, when, she adds, “I was writing songs occasionally but never thought I would become a composer. So this is a return to that early interest and to my interest in art as telling history — with an art documentary attention to the facts, as a poetic history.”
Wolfe of course did end up becoming a composer, in the American maverick tradition of a pathbreaker for whom setting new precedents is naturally part of the job description. Wolfe began to make her name through an intriguing stylistic mixture of post-Minimalist idioms with various pop-culture influences, including funk and the exuberantly unbridled energy of rock. She also became known for her gift for crafting arresting soundscapes and aural images. These traits imbue her score for Anthracite Fields.
Together with fellow Yale Music School alums David Lang and Michael Gordon (who became her husband), in 1987 she founded Bang on a Can, a juggernaut for contemporary music, which in turn spawned the amplified sextet Bang on a Can All-Stars (in their debut collaboration with the Master Chorale tonight). Wolfe’s Pulitzer in 2015 marked the second time that distinction had been nabbed by the Bang on a Can triumvirate: in 2008 David Lang won for the little match girl passion (recorded by LAMC in January for release this summer, and most recently performed by Gershon and the Master Chorale in April, 2014).
Anthracite Fields also continues a line of development in Wolfe’s work that involves large-scale thematic pieces with a narrative dimension (whether using words explicitly or not). While much of her earlier composition was focused on investigating novel sonorities through instruments alone, in 2004 she wrote a piece for string orchestra alluding to the old English ballad Cruel Sister, which incorporated an implicit narrative by following “the dramatic arc of the ballad,” as Wolfe explains. “I was fascinated and horrified by the overwhelming greed and jealousy of the tale.”
A few years later she collaborated with filmmaker Bill Morrison to create Fuel (2007), a multi-media performance piece reflecting on “the mystery and economy of how things run” and on “the controversy and necessity of fuel,” for which she drew inspiration from the “sounds of transport and harbors … large ships, creaking docks, whistling sounds, and a relentless energy” emanating from New York and Hamburg.
Along the way Wolfe had also taken part in creating collaborative performance projects with her Bang on a Can colleagues Lang and Gordon: works built around such themes as the polyphony of memory (Lost Objects) or our dependence on water (Thirst and Water). An important turning point came with Steel Hammer (2009), which reconfigures the legend and lore of the folk hero John Henry into what critic Daniel Stephen Johnson termed “a passion play for a sort of ordinary Christ figure.”
“Steel Hammer is connected to my interest in American folk music,” says the composer, who, as she did for Anthracite Fields, wrote her own libretto — in the former case culling from more than 200 versions of the famous ballad about John Henry and his formidable steel hammer (and taking into account contradictory versions) to explore “the subject of human versus machine in this quintessential American legend.” That experience rekindled her interest in narrative and in labor history, paving the way for Anthracite Fields. “It feels like a very natural progression,” says Wolfe, adding that it may at the same time represent a new direction.
Also written for the Bang on a Can All-Stars, along with the early music vocal group Trio Mediæval, Steel Hammer’s score manifests the influence of folk music likewise heard in the English balladtinted Cruel Sisters. In the former, the folk element derives from the sounds of Appalachia, which Wolfe notes “have long been a part of my musical consciousness.”
Last December the director Anne Bogart brought her theatrical staging of Steel Hammer to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, combining texts by four playwrights with what the New York Times described as Wolfe’s “galvanizing score — alternately clamorous, haunting, exhilarating and sometimes all three simultaneously.” Asked whether she foresees a similar theatrical adaptation of Anthracite Fields, Wolfe responds: “Sometimes less is more. I’d be wary of over-staging what I feel right now is a nice balance as a concert piece for the audience of visual images and the instrumentalists and singers onstage.”
The version Wolfe has arrived at integrates her score with the work of projection design artist Jeff Sugg, who gathered photographs and video documentation of the miners to create a slowly moving sequence of images that respond to the music. Together with his lighting, these projections function as a dynamic set without distracting from the visual component of the performers themselves. “For me it’s important that the performance energy of the instrumentalists and singers is also visible for the audience to observe,” says Wolfe.
Both she and Sugg discovered a wealth of inspiration from numerous field trips. In addition to her wide background reading, Wolfe’s research included making descents into the coal mines and visiting patch towns (the small villages, usually owned by the mining companies that grew up around the towns and comprising simple frame houses). She absorbed a host of colorful details from enthusiastic guides, interviewed miners and their descendants, and visited museums like the Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton, which commemorates all facets of the coal miners’ work and home life. Wolfe completed Anthracite Fields in 2014 on a commission from the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, which gave the world premiere on April 26, 2014 with the Bang on a Can All-Stars. (Alan Harler, The Mendelssohn Club’s director until last year, was himself the son of a coal miner in the Midwest.) Last year a recording of the work with the Choir of Trinity Wall Street as the chorus was released on the Cantaloupe label; it was also nominated for this year’s Best Contemporary Classical Composition Grammy Award.
Wolfe points out that she wanted to ensure the words could be heard distinctly — “not just the shape of the line” — and thus had in mind the “clear sensibility” she admired from the Trio Mediæval when they collaborated on Steel Hammer. “The quality of this kind of singing takes it out of the opera world, which is one reason I decided to call Anthracite Fields an oratorio.” The forces involved are bigger than in her “art ballad” Steel Hammer: a mixed chorus of flexible size (from 150 heard at the Mendelssohn Club’s premiere to the 32 we hear in this performance, and possibly even chamber size, she notes) plus the amplified All-Stars sextet (clarinets, electric guitar, percussion, piano/keyboard, cello and double bass); two of the players also contribute lead voice for the solos on “Breaker Boys” and “Speech” (cellist Ashley Bathgate and guitarist Mark Stewart, respectively).
“It’s a vast subject to cover, but powerful themes emerged and called out to be in the piece,” the composer remarks. Anthracite Fields is structured as five movements, each homing in on a different aspect of the workers’ experience. Although Wolfe’s method turns away from straightforward linear narrative, the opening movement (“Foundation”) evokes an unforgettable sonic image of setting off into new terrain — or, rather, a descent into a terrifyingly unfamiliar space. She uses the open lowest string on the double bass, the bottom of the bass clarinet (“a rich, reedy tone, which I made kind of like a foghorn sound”), percussion, and delayed reverb on the electric guitar, played with a kitchen whisk to enhance the overtones. Wolfe recalls visiting the point during guided tours of the mines when the lights would be turned off. “I wanted to evoke that echoey experience of being deep underground, of that complete darkness.”
As the wordless chorus enters, it is instructed to sing what she calls “scratch notes” — incrementally bending the pitches by cupping their hands around the mouth and gradually opening and closing their hands — “to create a gravelly sound at the back of the throat so it doesn’t sound human.” Eventually they begin to chant a litany of names. Here Wolfe drew from a tragically long list of names of victims of mining accidents from an official index covering the years 1869 to 1916, choosing only those named “John” with one-syllable last names. At the center of “Foundation” she sets a geological description of how the coal was formed that, in this context, takes on a new life as vivid found poetry.
Following this Requiem-like solemnity comes a remarkable shift in tone for “Breaker Boys.” The Stygian darkness of the opening gives way to music of raucous energy and drive, with a text adapted from local children’s street rhymes (“Mickey Pick- Slate”). Breaker Boys were assigned to remove debris from the coal as it came rushing down breaker shoots (without gloves); in the middle Wolfe uses material taken from a documentary interview with a surviving former breaker boy. A guiding sonic image was the sound of kids rolling sticks against a fence. Wolfe also incorporates the image of boyish energy through newly constructed instruments made of bicycle wheels. The adolescent defiance conjured by the rock idiom is likewise part of the picture, resulting overall in a kind of scherzo counterpart to the darkness of the opening.
Despite their punishing working conditions — as cruel as the conditions under which Wagner’s Alberich forces the enslaved Nibelung miners to endure through the power of the Ring he has forged — these boys find a way of escape through their mischievous fun.
“Speech” addresses the protracted, overtly political struggle for improved working conditions so essential to this story. Wolfe uses excerpts from a speech by United Mine Workers of America’s president John L. Lewis to craft a movement for narrating solo tenor and male chorus, alluding to bluegrass idiom in the accompaniment.
When she started working on Anthracite Fields, Wolfe says, she grew concerned that depicting such grim working conditions would make for an unrelentingly dark piece. But as with “Breaker Boys,” “Flowers” sheds light on the coping mechanisms of those eking out a life in the heyday of the coal mining operations. She was inspired by an interview with a daughter and granddaughter of miners who spoke of the sense of community that emerged in the patch towns. Their gardens served as a much-loved source of beauty — Elysian Fields in comparison to the Anthracite Fields of daily labor. Using a folk-like, flowing melody, Wolfe sets a Whitman-like catalogue of flower names.
The final movement (“Appliances”) connects these images of a vanished era — the main “action” being conceivably set at the turn of the century, into the early decades of the 20th century — to our own time. Wolfe wrote out another catalogue here, listing the countless daily ways in which Americans use electricity, a significant portion of which continues to be fueled by coal (“Bake a cake.” “ Drill a hole.” “Toast a slice.”).
A direct connection with the era of the miners enters near the end with a reference to a character created in 1900 for an advertisement created by Earnest Elmo Calkins. (See Composer’s Notes on opposite page.)
At the premiere of Anthracite Fields, Wolfe had a chance to witness first-hand the effect of her desire to pay tribute to the workers who helped build the nation. “It meant so much to me to see some of the people I interviewed come to the performance. I continue to get letters from people who had family involved in the mining industry in the past. This way of connecting as a musician to a community is really moving.”
— Thomas May, program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, writes about the arts and blogs at memeteria.com.