A Dark But Redeeming Tour Of Coal Country, With Composer Julia Wolfe

Sep 28, 2015
Originally published on September 28, 2015 9:16 am

Back in April, Julia Wolfe received a call at her loft space in New York, and ignored it. The the 57-year-old composer was in the middle of a meeting with her colleagues from Bang on a Can, the new music collective she co-founded in the late 1980s, and anyway she didn't recognize the number. Moments later, the phone rang again; this time, it was Bang on a Can's director on the line. Wolfe picked up.

"And he said, 'Do you know what's going on out there? You just won the Pulitzer!'" Wolfe explains. "The whole office was screaming. It was a very, very sweet moment. We all put so much energy into making that piece happen."

"That piece" is Anthracite Fields, an oratorio for choir and sextet that Wolfe wrote after being inspired by the stories of coal-mining families in Pennsylvania, and it is this year's winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music. (As it turned out, the previous call to Wolfe's office had been NPR, seeking a comment.)

The official recording of Anthracite Fields was released Friday, and Wolfe joined NPR's Arun Rath to talk about it. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read an edited version below.

Arun Rath: First, what drew you to Pennsylvania coal country at the end of the 19th century for inspiration?

Julia Wolfe: I grew up in this little town about an hour north of Philadelphia; it's really not a suburb, it's like small-town USA. My parents were very oriented towards culture and going into the city, and we'd always turn right on this route, this highway, 309. But if you turned left, you would hit Scranton and Wilkes-Barre and this whole coal country region, which I really knew nothing about. I had the vague idea there was some coal mining there at some time; I really didn't have any knowledge about it. So I started to look into it and I thought, "This is really fascinating — this life, this industry and how dependent we were on it."

You made that decision to turn left, and you took a deep dive into that. Tell me about the journey. You actually went into a mine, right?

Yeah, it was wonderful to actually go out there, interview people — third-generation miner, granddaughter of miners — and get a real understanding. I read a ton of books, just to learn everything about disasters, to just daily life. So I got an incredible education.

Is there anything of the sonic experience of being inside the mine that we can hear in this piece?

Definitely. I had both guides turn the guide light off so that you could see complete darkness — which is something you don't usually get to experience. And I think that's definitely in the piece, especially in the first movement. In the opening, I was really going for this very deep, resonant, cavernous sound, so you have the open string of the double bass, the bow really digging into the open string. The electric guitar is being scrubbed with the handle of a metal kitchen wisk, with a lot of reverb, and you get this deep, kind of wooly sound. And the choir is using their voices in a very different way.

The text of this oratorio, you assembled this yourself. Can you talk about how you did that? Where the words come from?

I came across a Pennsylvania index of miners who had been injured — they didn't necessarily die, but they'd been injured in the mines — from until about 1910, something like that. And it was a crazy long list, and I couldn't possibly set all the names. It's pretty sad how long that list is. I just decided to take all the Johns, with one-syllable last names, in alphabetical order. So it had this kind of chant-like quality: John Ash, John Ayers, John Banes, John Bates, John Carr. It was very emotional. And in coaching the choir, I really wanted to capture the idea that it's not just this list: This is someone's uncle, it's someone's father, it's someone's brother.

If one says "coal mining," it summons very dark associations, but the music is not all gloom. There's actually a movement called "Flowers."

When I started I thought, "Oh my God, is this dark. Disasters and floods and cave-ins — this is terrifying!" At the same time, there is incredible life in these communities. This woman I interviewed, her father — or grandfather, I don't remember now — was buried alive in the mines, but was saved. She was talking about living in multi-generational homes. She grew up in a patch town, which is literally, the company owns the little houses that they all live in, they own the store. Pretty impoverished existence. But at some point she said, "Oh, but we all had flowers, and we all had gardens." And she started to name flowers! What a great image, the women beautifying their life with these flowers.

The last movement is called "Appliances," which kind of brings up what happens with the energy this work produces.

It was interesting: While I was working on the piece, friends would ask me, "Well, are you going to talk about pollution and the mess coal has us in?" And I was thinking, "No, no, I'm really looking at these people and their lives." [But] I felt like, you know, I really can't not put this in the piece. I really wanted the piece to be about us: We are these people. And the way I did that was just to make a list of all the things you do every day that still use coal: Bake a cake, drill a hole, call your girlfriend on the phone, send a message; the list goes on. It's kind of unbelievable what we do every day, and the energy that we're using. So that was my way of somehow putting that into the conversation.

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(SOUNDBITE OF ORATORIO, "ANTHRACITE FIELDS")

BANG ON A CAN ALL STARS AND THE MENDELSSOHN CLUB CHORUS: (Singing) And we offer security to their families if they die...

ARUN RATH, HOST:

This work is the latest winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music - "Anthracite Fields" by Julia Wolfe. The Pulitzer committee called it a powerful oratorio for a chorus and sextet, evoking Pennsylvania coal-mining life around the turn of the 20th century.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORATORIO, "ANTHRACITE FIELDS")

BANG ON A CAN ALL STARS AND THE MENDELSSOHN CLUB CHORUS: (Singing) I voice it (I voice it) I proclaim it...

RATH: Thanks to the award and this brand-new recording released yesterday, "Anthracite Fields" is sure to reach a wider audience. But Julia Wolfe has already had mainstream success as one of the co-creators of the innovative New York Concert Series and performing arts group Bang on a Can. She recently told me about finding out she'd received this life-changing honor.

JULIA WOLFE: I was actually in a meeting at home in my loft. And I saw a call come in, and it was from Washington, D.C. And I thought, oh, I don't know who that is. I'm not going to take it. And the next call that came in was from Bang on a Can. And I picked it up because I thought, oh, they probably need something for me, and it was Kenny Savelson. He's the director there. And he said do you know what's going on out there? I was like uh, what? And he said you just won a Pulitzer. So - and the whole office was screaming. It was so - it was a very, very sweet moment because it really was a friend-sharing moment. And we all put so much energy into making that peace happen. So - and that call that had come in was - was NPR actually.

RATH: Oh, it was? (Laughter).

WOLFE: And I thought, oh, well, actually, I'm a little bit glad that I had some preparation to absorb it. I would've been maybe a little stunned and awkward, like huh? (Laughter).

RATH: So let's talk about this marvelous piece, "Anthracite Fields." First, what drew you to Pennsylvania coal country at the end of the 19th century for inspiration?

WOLFE: Yeah, well, I grew up in this little town. It was about an hour north of Philadelphia - small-town USA. And my parents were very oriented towards culture and going into the city. We'd always turn right on this route, this highway, 309. But if you turn left, you would hit Scranton and Wilkes-Barre and this whole coal country region, which I really knew nothing about. So I started to look into it, and I thought, oh, this is really fascinating - this life, this industry and how dependent we were on it.

RATH: And you took a deep dive into that. Talk about your journey. You actually went into a mine, right?

WOLFE: Yeah. Oh, it was wonderful. It was just - you know, to actually go out there, interview people, you know, third-generation miner, daughter of and granddaughter of miners - and got a real understanding - read a ton of books, just to, you know, learn everything about it from disasters to just, you know, daily life. So I got an incredible education.

RATH: Is there anything of the sonic experience of being inside the mine that we can hear in this piece?

WOLFE: Oh, definitely, yeah. I - both guides turned the guide light off so that you could see complete darkness, which is something you don't usually get to experience. And I think that's definitely in the piece, especially in the first movement. In the opening, I was really going for this very deep, resonant, cavernous sound, so you have the open string of the double bass, really - the bow really digging into the open string. The electric guitar is being scrubbed with the handle of a whisk - metal whisk - so you get this kind of...

RATH: A kitchen whisk?

WOLFE: A kitchen whisk, yeah, with a lot of reverb, and you get this kind of (imitating music) kind of wooly - deep wooly sound. The voices - the choir's using their voices in a very different way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORATORIO, "ANTHRACITE FIELDS")

BANG ON A CAN ALL STARS AND THE MENDELSSOHN CLUB CHORUS: (Singing) John Bates, John Carr...

RATH: The text of this oratorio, you assembled this yourself. Can you talk about how you did that, where these words come from?

WOLFE: I came across a Pennsylvania index of miners who had been injured - they didn't necessarily die, but they'd been injured in the mines from until about 1910, something like that. And it was a crazy long list, and I couldn't possibly have said all the names. It's pretty sad how long that list is. But I just decided to take all of the Johns and with one-syllable last names and in alphabetical order, so it had this kind of chant-like quality - John Ash, John Ayers, John Banes, John Bates, John Carr...

(SOUNDBITE OF ORATORIO, "ANTHRACITE FIELDS")

BANG ON A CAN ALL STARS AND THE MENDELSSOHN CLUB CHORUS: (Singing) John Ash, John Ayers, John Banes, John Bates, John Carr...

WOLFE: It was very emotional. And in coaching the choir, I really wanted to capture this idea that it's not just this list. There are many lists of names in the world. This is someone's uncle. It's someone's father. It's someone's brother.

RATH: If one says coal mining, you know, it summons very dark associations. But the music is not all gloom. There are flowers here. There's actually a movement called "Flowers."

(SOUNDBITE OF BANG ON A CAN ALL STARS AND THE MENDELSSOHN CLUB CHORUS ORATORIO, "ANTHRACITE FIELDS")

RATH: Talk about why they spring up here.

WOLFE: That's a good question because when I started, I thought, oh, my God, is this dark. It was like complete disasters and floods and cave-ins. It's terrifying. And at the same time, there is incredible life in these communities. And, you know, the woman I interviewed, Barbara, she - her father - I'm trying to remember if it was her father or grandfather now - was buried alive in the mines but was saved. She was talking about living in multi-generational homes. She grew up in a patch town, which is literally - the company owns the little houses that they all live in. They own the store, pretty impoverished existence. But at some point, she said, oh, but we all had flowers, and they all had gardens. And she started to name flowers.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANG ON A CAN ALL STARS AND THE MENDELSSOHN CLUB CHORUS ORATORIO, "ANTHRACITE FIELDS")

WOLFE: What a great image of the women, beautifying their life with these flowers.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANG ON A CAN ALL STARS AND THE MENDELSSOHN CLUB CHORUS ORATORIO, "ANTHRACITE FIELDS")

RATH: The last movement is called "Appliances," which kind of brings up, you know, what happens with the energy - that coal is produced.

WOLFE: It was interesting. While I was working on the piece, friends would ask me - well, are you going to talk about, like, pollution and the mess coal has us in? And I went - I was thinking no, no, no. I'm really looking at these people and their lives, and I felt like, you know, I really can't not put this in the piece. I really wanted the piece to be about us. You know, we are these people. And the way I did that was just to make a list of all the things you do every day that use coal - that still use coal because probably - I think something like 50 percent of our energy is coal-fueled today - like, you know, bake a cake, drill a hole, call your girlfriend on the phone, send a message...

(SOUNDBITE OF ORATORIO, "ANTHRACITE FIELDS")

BANG ON A CAN ALL STARS AND THE MENDELSSOHN CLUB CHORUS: (Singing) Dreamcast, dry your clothes, turn on the light...

WOLFE: ...The list goes on. It's kind of unbelievable what we do every day and the energy that we're using. So that was my way of somehow putting that into the conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANG ON A CAN ALL STARS AND THE MENDELSSOHN CLUB CHORUS ORATORIO, "ANTHRACITE FIELDS")

RATH: That's Julia Wolfe, the latest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her composition "Anthracite Fields." The first official recording of that work was just released. Julia, it's been a real treat getting to talk with you. Thank you.

WOLFE: Thank you from all the people in coal country - Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and the rest.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANG ON A CAN ALL STARS AND THE MENDELSSOHN CLUB CHORUS ORATORIO, "ANTHRACITE FIELDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.