Almost exactly a month ago Cantaloupe Music, the label launched by the creators of Bang on a Can, released the latest recording by that group’s founder and director Julia Wolfe. The album presents a recording of Wolfe’s oratorio for chorus and instruments entitled Anthracite Fields, which was awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Music. The instrumentalists and solo vocalists are members of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, cellist Ashley Bathgate, bassist Robert Black, keyboardist Vicky Chow, percussionist David Cossin, guitarist Mark Stewart, and clarinetist Ken Thomson. The chorus is The Choir of Trinity Wall Street under the direction of Julian Wachner.
It would not be unfair to approach Anthracite Fields as a follow-up to last year’s Wolfe album Steel Hammer. That was a recording of a one-hour song cycle that was best approached as “the product of an intense analysis of the ‘John Henry’ ballad.” However, while John Henry was a folk figure who worked the coal mines, Anthracite Fields amounts to a study of the real workers in the coal-mining industry, among whom Wolfe grew up in Pennsylvania. The myth of John Henry is the tale of a worker who challenges the decisions of his bosses. Anthracite Fields is about the workers who had no choice but to submit to soul-deadening labor with the prospect of little more than a short life.
Wolfe’s conception of the oratorio emerged from considerable research involving both history and anthropology. Many of her texts come from interviews. The movement entitled “Speech” adapts an excerpt of a speech by John L. Lewis, President of the United Mine Workers from 1920 to 1960, and one of the strongest advocates for workers’ rights in the history of the American labor movements.
Much of the music has been conceived for shock value. Wolfe is not shy about evoking the sounds of heavy machinery, just as effective in mangling the limbs of miners as it could be in extracting coal from the ground. Wolfe is also particularly skillful at bringing her own rhetoric to what Philip Glass would call repetitive structures. Her rhetoric of repetition underscores the monotony of the miners’ lives without imposing a similar sense of monotony on the attentive listener. For the most part her tools for maintaining listener attention reside in a wide variety of approaches to deploying dissonance and meticulous attention to dynamic levels, particularly when it comes to choosing between gradual and sudden transitions.
This is not necessarily “pleasant” music; but there is not doubt that it has been well crafted. Music, after all, is not always about delivering good news. Anthracite Fields provides an engaging perspective that offers a strikingly penetrating point of view to complement the study of miner culture featured in the television series Justified.