Composer Julia Wolfe’s piece "Anthracite Fields" that won a Pulitzer Prize last week opens with a haunting, "chant like" recitation of the names of turn-of-the-century Pennsylvania coal miners.
Wolfe started with men named John and Frank whose last names fit into her music’s rhythm. They also reveal the international and immigrant-rich nature of Pennsylvania’s coal fields.
"It was so much fun to sing those names. People heard me singing around the house," Wolfe said during an interview with Greenwire. "Just singing those names in that kind of glorious way is interesting."
Wolfe’s piece focuses on the largely bygone story of anthracite mining in the northeastern chunk of the Keystone State. The United States produced more than 42 million tons of anthracite in 1949 compared to 1.3 million in 2003.
But it coincides with an ongoing discussion about the future of coal nationwide and about the plight of miners displaced in other regions by a changing marketplace.
The timeliness of "Anthracite Fields" coupled with the Pulitzer win has brought the piece significant national publicity. "I’m hoping that it’s a nice light that is shining on that period of time and that part of the country," she said.
Wolfe is an internationally renowned musician with a master’s degree in music composition from Yale University. She has given master classes and seminars at the Juilliard School and the Peabody Conservatory, among other top schools.
Wolfe grew up in rural Montgomery County, Pa., but close enough to Philadelphia that she wasn’t in tune with coal field politics and history until later in life.
"It wasn’t something I had studied in school. I knew very little about it," said Wolfe. She has a grandmother who grew up in Scranton, Pa., in the heart of the coal fields, but she couldn’t get out fast enough, Wolfe said.
When the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia commissioned a piece from Wolfe, she wanted to explore something about the region where she grew up. In doing so, she ventured into the unknown.
As a child, Wolfe explained, her family often ventured down Route 309 toward Philly. But north toward the coal fields, "We rarely went that direction," she said. It was "sort of the way you didn’t look."
Wolfe’s research involved visiting the area and touring its small museums, including the Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton. A friend hooked her up with contacts and "a pile of books" on the subject.
Wolfe also ventured into former mine sites, including "a really funky mine" in Lansford. Wolfe said the "raw experience" of exploring the earth’s innards made her feel as if she were inside a human body.
Wolfe describes the mine as "very dark and dripping." And she was awed by the abundance of shiny black rocks called anthracite, the purest and most carbon packed of all coals.
A grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts helped foot the bill for all the research. "Which you never have as a composer," Wolfe said about the money. "Never."
During the development process for the piece, she discovered that Alan Harler, the Mendelssohn Club’s artistic director, was the son of a coal miner. "Sometimes the stars line up and everything makes so much sense," Wolfe said.
"Anthracite Fields" made its world premiere about a year ago at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral. The Mendelssohn Club played with the group Bang on a Can All-Stars, for which Wolfe is artistic director.
The piece has been called an oratorio, a musical work for orchestra and voices. Wolfe describes it as having a classical structure but says her music is also influenced by folk, country and other genres.
For the "highly rhythmic" piece, Wolfe tried to take listeners into the mines and the workers’ lives. She used sound and song techniques to achieve that goal.
At one point, the piece includes a speech from labor organizer John Lewis, who headed the United Mine Workers of America from 1920 to 1960.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration says more than 30,000 people have died in anthracite mining operations since the late 1700s. When it comes to coal mining in general, MSHA says more than 100,000 workers have died since 1900.
The piece ends with a section called "appliances" that explores how the coal-backed Industrial Revolution touches everyone’s life. "It’s giving the listener a chance to think," Wolfe said.
Even though Wolfe has friends in the environmental community, which generally opposes coal, the composer said she wanted to give the subject a more nuanced treatment.
"It’s in the piece. Not in a heavy-handed way. Every issue is multidimensional," she said about the current discussion. "I couldn’t not have it in. Because it is a very important issue."