WOLFE Anthracite Fields
Anthracite Fields is the Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio for choir and six-piece amplified ensemble (specifically the Bang on a Can All-Stars) by New York composer Julia Wolfe. Its subject is early-20th-century coal mining in Pennsylvania, where Wolfe grew up in the 1960s. The text comes from accident indexes, newspaper ads and political speeches. Anthracite is the purest form of coal, the diamond in the rough that is dirty, loud and dangerous to mine – Wolfe’s music is never shy about its symbolism. She visited pits and museums and retired miners for her research and their claustrophobia and hard graft is writ plain in the score. This is social history in music, which I suspect ticked several boxes for the Pulitzer judges.
There are five movements. ‘Foundation’ is dark and gritty, with clanging eruptions and men chanting the names of miners injured in the pits. The singing is rough, static and relentless: if you drew its contours, you’d get blocks of single colour. ‘Breaker Boys’ is a schoolyard rhyme, perky, nervy and disturbing, about the boys who picked debris off the coal with bare hands. ‘Speech’ juxtaposes a solo manifesto with thick ensemble responses; ‘Flowers’ adds some warmth with the voice of a miner’s daughter who describes her family’s garden. Instrumental writing in the last movement, ‘Appliances’, flickers like a faulty lightbulb while singers name activities that require electricity. ‘Bake a cake, drill a hole, go to the gym,’ they intone over a murky rumpus.
The writing is confident, the playing is slick and the singing is arrestingly unfussy. Plenty of the classic post-minimalist, rock-tinged Bang on a Can trademarks are there – which figures, given Wolfe’s founding role alongside Michael Gordon and David Lang in the late 1980s. Wolfe says she thinks of herself as a renegade but the Bang on a Can sound has by now adopted its own conventions. Vicky Chow’s piano rhythms pulsate and interlock; David Cossin’s drums add a self-consciously grungy beat; Mark Stewart’s electric guitar provides an industrial thrum. It all feels a bit obvious, and a bit dated.