Classical CD Review: Julia Wolfe’s “Anthracite Fields” — Hard-Driving Minimalism

Even if it’s a mite inconsistent, Anthracite Fields is a fully deserving Pulitzer winner.


By Jonathan Blumhofer

Back when he won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2003, John Adams surprised not a few by almost immediately airing his complaints about the award. “Every year I continue to be disappointed that the Pulitzer has stayed stylistically within such a narrow bandwidth of mainly academic music,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “It doesn’t carry much prestige amongst the composers that I know. I hope that over the years, the people who administer the prize will accept that American music is a far more universal art form than the past history would suggest.”

Politic or not, it seems the committee was listening: in the subsequent twelve years, the Pulitzer has gone to a series of, if not exactly populist composers, then at least trendy, stylistically diverse, and non-academic ones. This year’s recipient was Julia Wolfe. Though she teaches NYU, Wolfe’s musical voice is driven by an array of influences, many of which are drawn from popular and folk music styles. Anthracite Fields, her Pulitzer-winning score, reflects these characteristics along with a few others, most notably a hard-driving Minimalist aesthetic, and its premiere recording is just out, courtesy of Cantaloupe Records.

Anthracite Fields is clearly a personal piece for Wolfe: she grew up in rural Pennsylvania, not far from coal country, and the music evokes both that geographic area and the material itself. What’s more, she’s crafted here not so much personal musical memoir as a compelling, tragic narrative history of life in and around the coal industry. The texts of Anthracite Fields reflect this. Culled from, among other things, oral histories, advertisements, a speech by John L. Lewis, and, most hauntingly, a mining accident index, it weaves a tale of hardship, loss, and perseverance. There’s beauty to be found, too – the fourth movement, “Flowers,” sets the words of Barbara Powell, a woman who grew up in a coal town, recalling the gardens families grew to brighten their lives – but its overriding affect is tough and unsentimental.

It’s also, once you’ve heard it, unforgettable. The texts Wolfe set seem tailor-made for her musical language, one that’s uncompromising in its directness and energy and not a little unsentimental itself.

There are five movements. The text of the first, “Foundation,” juxtaposes a listing of miners killed in accidents between 1869 and 1916 (Wolfe set all the Johns with one-syllable names in alphabetical order – and the movement runs about twenty minutes) with geological descriptions of coal formations. It opens with what sounds like the aural equivalent of a wall of rock: rumbling piano and electric guitar; gritty, tense cello and bass; and a gently wailing bass clarinet (all of which are amplified) that glower and suddenly burst into screams. The voices blend with and emerge out of this texture with great subtlety, eventually becoming predominant. Gradually, the granitic texture of the instrumental ensemble softens and the music’s momentum builds.

Throughout, Wolfe’s sense of pacing is astute: her style relies heavily (though not exclusively) on repetition and she seems to enjoy pushing the limits of how many times she can reiterate a gesture or a theme before it becomes redundant. And her sense of variation in “Foundation” is keen: the whole movement is built around just five primary harmonic and rhythmic textures. Their subtle relationships to one another provide much of the movement’s musical interest, as does the free-flowing form Wolfe employs. In all, it’s a mighty achievement and sets a high bar for the rest of the piece to follow – one that the remainder of Anthracite Fields never quite achieves.

The second movement comes closest. Called “Breaker Boys,” it’s built around a children’s rhyme called “Mickey Picked Slate” and an interview with an actual breaker boy, Anthony Slick. Only at one point does its pummeling energy let up – in the very middle, in fact, when Wolfe sets the heart of Slick’s words – otherwise it drives furiously on, like coal running down the shoots of a breaker. Its last half builds relentlessly over the rock-infused thunder of a drum kit.

Anthracite Field’s third and fifth movements set, respectively, part of a Lewis speech to the House Labor subcommittee and the finale declaims a list of activities in modern life that remain powered by coal. At the very end of the latter, Wolfe incorporates the text of a 1900 advertisement for the Lackawanna coal-powered railroad. Both build to driving climaxes though their dramatic effectiveness, to my ears at least, was partially undercut by their brevity (for “Speech”) and some less-than-compelling musical ideas (over the first third of “Appliances”).

The fourth movement, though, “Flowers,” provides a break in the action. Simple, folk-like, with the singers accompanied prominently by an acoustic guitar, its description of the plain beauties of nature proves downright haunting in this context.

There’s no faulting the performers or performance on this recording. The Bang on a Can All-Stars, who Wolfe (in part) wrote the piece for, dazzle. Ken Thomson’s clarinets scream, wail, and soar, and David Cossin’s account of the percussion writing, especially, is wildly colorful and assured. And the excellent Choir of Trinity Wall Street sing with energy, confidence, crisp diction, and full tone – you would never guess this was not an exclusively all-new music vocal ensemble just from hearing them, so commandingly do they render their parts here.

Even if it’s a mite inconsistent, Anthracite Fields makes for a powerful entry into Wolfe’s catalogue and, for at least the second year in a row, a fully deserving Pulitzer winner. What legs the piece may have remains to be seen, but its debut recording makes the case that it ought to be heard far and wide.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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