Haunting, poignant, and relentlessly physical, Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields is a lovingly detailed oratorio about turn-of-the-20th-century Pennsylvania coal miners, and a fitting recipient of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Music. NPR Music’s Tom Huizenga describes the piece as “almost a public history project and a music project at the same time,” which hints at the work’s universal appeal.
Weaving together personal interviews that she conducted with miners and their families, along with oral histories, speeches, rhymes, and local mining lore, Wolfe sought to honor the working lives of Pennsylvania’s Anthracite region. “It’s not necessarily mainstream history,” she told NPR shortly after she received word of winning the Pulitzer. “The politics are very fascinating—the issues about safety, and the consideration for the people who are working and what’s involved in it. But I didn’t want to say, ‘Listen to this. This is a big political issue.’ It really was, ‘Here’s what happened. Here’s this life, and who are we in relationship to that?’ We’re them. They’re us. And basically, these people, working underground, under very dangerous conditions, fueled the nation. That’s very important to understand.”
Featuring the always adventurous Bang on a Can All-Stars and the renowned Choir of Trinity Wall Street, Anthracite Fields merges multiple styles with classical themes, from the deep, ambient sweep of the opening movement “Foundation” (with the All-Stars’ Mark Stewart wrenching waves of keening sound from his electric guitar) to the athletic work-song mood of “Breaker Boys” and the elegiac, contemplative drift of “Flowers.” In the socio-politically engaged “Speech,” Stewart takes the lead with boisterous rock vocals, while “Appliances” spells out the economic weight of coal power with ruthlessly mechanical precision.