Commissioned by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia to write her first-ever piece about her home state, she decided to explore the mining towns just north of where she grew up.
On the morning of April 20, Julia Wolfe was in her home studio, having just finished up a meeting with fellow composers Michael Gordon and David Lang, when the phone rang. The caller ID showed an unfamiliar number from Washington D.C., so she let it go.
Then, just minutes later, the phone rang again. This time it was Kenny Savelson, executive director of Bang on a Can, the genre-busting experimental-music collective Wolfe founded with Lang and Gordon in 1987. She picked up.
“You won the Pulitzer!” Savelson exclaimed. She could hear screaming—the ecstatic reaction of the Bang on a Can office staff—on the other end of the line. She checked her voicemail. The previous call had been NPR, asking for an interview.
Stunned, Wolfe rushed to tell her two colleagues the news. Gordon, who also happens to be her husband, popped open a bottle of champagne. “I was supposed to teach that night,” Wolfe recalls, “but Michael and David said, ‘Sit down, don’t move. You’re going to get a million phone calls.’ It was a very sweet moment, being able to celebrate together.”
She got a guest speaker to cover her class—and eventually called NPR back.
The Pulitzer jury described Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields as “a powerful oratorio for chorus and sextet evoking Pennsylvania coal-mining life around the turn of the 20th Century.” But don’t let the fustiness of the term “oratorio’ fool you—this one is less in the spirit of Handel than that of Phillip Glass, Woody Guthrie, and even Led Zeppelin. The latest in a series of works (including 2010 Pulitzer finalist Steel Hammer, based on the legend of John Henry) exploring American labor history, Anthracite Fields took Wolfe back to her adolescence: As a teenager from a small Pennsylvania town, she was in the habit of turning right (south) on route 309 to drive in to Philadelphia, and never gave much thought to where that highway might lead in the other direction. But when she was commissioned by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia to write her first-ever piece about her home state, she decided to revisit the road not taken, exploring the coal mining towns just north of where she grew up.
Named after the prized, hot-burning coal found in high concentration in a 500 square mile region of eastern Pennsylvania, the piece is a product of a year and a half of Wolfe’s research, drawing on historical texts such as a 1947 speech to Congress by United Mine Workers union leader John L. Lewis and a registry of names of miners injured on the job. (First mined in 1830, anthracite remained the foundation of Pennsylvania’s economy well into the 20th century.) One movement offers a rock-and-roll tribute to “breaker boys,” 8- to 12-year-olds who were employed to break coal into uniform pieces and pick out impurities by hand, while another honors women’s efforts to maintain neat, tranquil households despite miners’ meager wages. A brisk, syncopated finale called “Appliances” fast-forwards to the present, with a reminder that we continue to depend on coal-fueled energy to power our favorite gadgets today.
Anthracite Fields was premiered in Philadelphia in April 2014 by the Mendelssohn Club chorus and Bang on a Can’s amplified “house band,” the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and made its New York City debut with performances at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fischer Hall by the Choir of Trinity Wall Street as part of the New York Philharmonic Biennial the following month. A recording will be released in September.
NYU Stories checked in with Wolfe this summer—just as she was finally settling into a post-Pulitzer routine—to talk about her influences, her passion for American history, and what’s next.
How did your students and colleagues react to the news you’d won the Pulitzer?
They were incredibly sweet about it! I literally couldn’t walk into the elevators at NYU without having someone stop me to say, “Wow, congratulations! We’re all so excited.” And another colleague, John Gilbert, told me that this means so much to the students—to actually have met someone who’s on this list of Pulitzer Prize winners and think, “Hey, that’s someone like me.” I hadn’t thought of it that way before. Obviously, you don’t write music to win prizes—you write music because you love writing music. So when you get one, you’re always a little bit stunned, like "What does this mean?" It definitely takes a community to allow you to do the work that you do, so it was really nice to hear people viewed this as a collective experience. It was really nice for us to share.
How did you go about your research for Anthracite Fields, once you knew you wanted to write about coal miners?
You don’t necessarily learn about Pennsylvania coal mining in your American history class, but when I started looking into the subject it was a little bit intimidating, because there are actually tons of books written about it. My grant connected me to a wonderful guide—Laurie McCants, a theater artist who lives in that region. She introduced me to the curators at a local history museum, we went into the coal mines, I stayed over at her house, and she lent me an amazing pile of books. I took very detailed notes, and there were certain subjects that sparked my interest right away.
As soon as they started talking about the breaker boys, I thought, oh, that’s unbelievable. They were these young boys working long hours in terrible conditions, and not going to school because they didn’t have the opportunity or they really needed to bring in extra incomes for their families. Heartbreaking stories, but amazing stories too—of their resilience and their youthful energy, and the games they played. They were kind of still being boys.
What else surprised you?
I interviewed Barbara Powell, a lovely woman and one of the docents from the Anthracite Heritage Museum, whose father and grandfather were miners. She had been keeping a journal of her life and was very ready to jump in and tell all her stories. In the middle of one of the conversations, she said, "we lived in these kind of impoverished houses but we all had gardens and we all had flowers." And then she started to name all these flowers that they had. The idea of the women illuminating their impoverished existence with these incredible flowerbeds was fascinating to me, and that became the movement “Flowers.”
What about the movement where you list miners’ names? How did that come about?
I came across this index of miners injured in Pennsylvania from the late 1800s and early 1900s, and it was sadly a very, very long list. I just wound up taking the “John”s with one syllable last names and putting them in alphabetical order—which was interesting because John crosses over ethnicities. So you have Italian Johns and Ukrainian Johns and British Johns, because most of the population working in the area were immigrants, and the immigration changed over the time period when the mines were running. It’s emotional because, on the one hand, it’s just a list of names, and you don’t know these people. But as you’re saying them, you think well, this is somebody's father and someone's uncle and someone's brother.
What was it like to tour the mines?
I went into two different mines, very deep down in the earth. They have these little safety lights so you can see where you're going, but the guides would turn them off so you could have a moment to see how dark it is. That was a darkness I had never seen before—pitch, pitch black. When there is some light shining on the walls, they're very dark and luminescent, shiny because coal has a kind of sheen to it. It's a little like going into a cave, I guess, but caves can be a little more, well, cavernous. This is definitely an enclosed space—not for the claustrophobic, I can say that.
Did that experience make it into the piece somehow?
Definitely. The first thing I thought was what’s the sound of this image? I wanted something that evoked that sense of depth, so I used the open strings of the double bass, the lowest notes on the bass clarinet, and the lower end of the cello with the electric guitar. Mark Stewart, the guitarist, is endlessly inventive with that instrument, and we experimented with a bunch of different techniques to get this grubby kind of sound that he makes using the wiry handle of a kitchen whisk. He strums on the neck of the guitar to get these strange, washy, reverberant sounds.
I also used the voices in a different way in the opening—the singers are cupping their hands around their mouths and doing a kind of guttural sound that’s somewhere between an instrument and a voice. Then that resonant sound in the opening is interrupted by these sudden, very loud blasts from the ensemble that evoke what an alarm bell might sound like.
It seems like critics are always struggling to find a label for your work. Is it folk-rock-classical? Or how would you describe your influences for this piece in particular?
I think in a lot of my work, especially in the past 10 years or so, there’s a strong connection to American folk music. That’s where music-making began for me—the first instrument I played in public was the mountain dulcimer. But my language is pretty broad and I love all kinds of music, so in Anthracite Fields you hear a lot of different threads. There’s finger-picking folk guitar in the “Flowers” movement, and the first movement has some connection to chants and early music. Then in the breaker boys movement, I thought about that young, adolescent boy energy, and put in a heavy drumbeat.
What’s next for you? Has your phone been ringing off the hook since the Pulitzer?
The prize does kind of put wind in your sails, so that people who had some interest in the kind of thing that you do are suddenly more interested, and can illuminate a body of work for people who haven’t been aware of it before. As part of this celebratory year, I have been trying to travel to as many performances as I can, and let myself enjoy it. But mostly, it’s back to work!
I do have some other historically based projects coming up, including one large piece for orchestra and chorus where I'm turning my attention to women in the workforce. I realized these pieces I’ve been writing about the American worker have been a bit guy heavy—I thought, hey, women work too! In fact I’m a workaholic. So I started looking into women working in factories in New York City. The piece is just in the beginning stages now, and I’m excited to have this new subject to read about and learn from.
Have you always been interested in history?
Yeah—in a way this is a return to my roots. If someone had told me when I was leaving for college that I was going to be studying music, I would have said, “Oh, that’s really funny. I don’t think so.” I’d studied piano and I loved to play folk guitar, but I went off to the University of Michigan very interested in politics and social sciences, and in studying communities. Then I accidentally walked into a music class my second semester freshman year, and that was it. I got the bug.
Do you have a set routine that you like to stick to when you’re working on a new piece?
I really like to start first thing in the day and see what happens. But it's interesting—I think people on the outside tend to find this a bit mysterious. They ask, “How do you even write music?” as if you have to be this wild artist who’s madly inspired all the time. Inspiration is a very fundamental part of it, but it's also just a lot of hard work. So after you have that great burst of inspiration, you have to just sit down and make sketches and put these pieces of the puzzle together—which is not very different from any other discipline, in that way that you put your mind to it and somehow things come out. It's just, you know, sitting at a desk and letting the mind do its work, and using your ears, and your heart.