‘Anthracite Fields’ Honors Hard Life Of Coal Miners

Julian Wachner led Bang on a Can All-Stars in their funky continuo to the Choir of Trinity Wall Street during Julia Wolfe’s ‘Anthracite Fields’ at Zankel Hall. The multi-media oratario won a 2015 Pulitzer Prize. (Photos © Richard Termine) 
By Leslie Kandell

NEW YORK – If there were a Pulitzer Prize for forms of coal, it would go to hard, slow-burning anthracite. Anthracite is mined in Eastern states including West Virginia and Pennsylvania, in areas associated with poverty and fist-waving resentment. Anthracite Fields, a vivid multi-media oratorio by Philadelphia-born Julia Wolfe, did receive a Pulitzer for music, in 2015. Wolfe, Musical America’s 2019 Composer of the Year, is a founder of Bang on a Can, whose six Bang on a Can All-Stars made a funky continuo for the Choir of Trinity Wall Street Dec. 1 in Carnegie Hall’s chamber-scaled Zankel Hall. The performance was conducted by the vigorous, insightful Julian Wachner.

Mining, dangerous and dirty, has a mystique that draws people to celebrate the drama of unsmiling guys in caps, trooping onto carts that carry them into deep tunnels of rock: the thorough washing up before dinner, the terrified women running toward the mine entrance when the baleful siren screams. How Green Was My Valley is a classic film. Mining songs, many from immigrants, are part of our folk culture. Merle Travis, whose “Sixteen Tons” is inspired by Kentucky miners, is just one troubadour, who also wrote, “It will form as a habit and seep in your soul / Till the stream of your blood runs as black as the coal” in the song “Dark as a Dungeon.” 

The work’s sounds and concept, clever and appealing, don’t have to be original, and they aren’t. For example, Wolfe is not the first to put this mineral into oratorio format, which seems a strange bedfellow: In 1994, Judith Shatin introduced her oratorio Coal, in Shepherdstown, W.Va. It was a tribute to the plight, power, and music of local miners, and also the result of study, visits, interviews, and homegrown music.

Julia Wolfe, in black, at first thought ‘Anthracite Fields’ would be a short work.

In a talk preceding the performance, Wolfe said Philadelphia’s Mendelssohn Club had commissioned a ten-minute choral piece. Instead they got this hour-plus, five-movement celebration of the addictive culture around a dirty job. Photographs, maps, and diagrams, some from the Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton, appeared on a rear scrim designed by Jeff Sugg.

Since its premiere, Fields has been performed at several events, including the New York Philharmonic Biennial, after which this ensemble heard at Zankel Hall recorded it for the Cantaloupe label.

Over time, Wolfe has taken control of elements that best express her style. She is a musical minimalist and a list-maker, interested in labor issues. The first movement, “Foundation,” is a choral recitation, in measured beats, of names of miners who died in accidents. The accompaniment is loud machine-like noises – David Cossin was the busy percussionist – and a photostat of the sung names on the rear scrim. “Breaker Boys” describes the risky job of underage laborers who cleared debris from the coal processing line, with bare hands.

Mark Stewart, who played electric bass, sang the setting of words from a moving speech by John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers of America in 1920-1960:  “…before God I assert, that those who consume the coal, and you and I who benefit from that service because we live in comfort, we owe protection to those men and we owe security to their families, if they die.” The chorus’ sung notes became shouts of protest. The music sits comfortably for choristers, with uncomplicated beats in mid-range, and no vocal frills.

Images of flowers drenched Zankel in color during the fourth movement, based on recollections of the miners’ gardens.

“Flowers,” the fourth movement, came about from an interview with a miner’s daughter, who pointed out that families – particularly immigrants – kept gardens with varied flowers (listed onscreen and sung softly, in even beats). Colored drawings of flower bulbs descended on the scrim. After all the black-and-white photos, the hall, walls and all, was lighted up with pink flowers, and the scrim displayed colored floral images.

The final “Appliances” showed assorted assembly lines, collectively demonstrating (and listing) our uses for coal and electricity, not only to run the machines, but in uses of products. Choristers yell, the clarinet (played by Ken Thomson) whinnies, and the piece ends with extended tones and words. (Wolfe said there were hymns somewhere, but in performance they got plowed under.)

Wachner, with no stick, was terrific – so into it – making beats slide or precisely punctuate.

Wolfe’s next premiere is with the New York Philharmonic on Jan. 24. Called Fire in My Mouth, it is similar in labor advocacy, and was inspired by young women who managed to survive the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and spoke out against the perilous working conditions.

Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, Musical America, Musical America Directory, and The Berkshire Eagle.