Composer Julia Wolfe brings coal mining history back to Pennsylvania with performance on November 14 - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
New York Philharmonic’s 2014 Biennial with Bang on the Can performing Juila Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields at Avery Fisher Hall | Photo by Chris Lee

Pennsylvania is home to North America’s largest reserves of anthracite coal. At the turn of the 20th century, the mining industry dominated towns like Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, and Pottsville. But as coal began to lose favor to more efficient alternatives like oil and natural gas, the mining industry virtually ceased to exist in these towns, leaving them disadvantaged and broke.

Renowned composer Julia Wolfe, who herself hails from rural PA, began to take in interest in the region’s coal mining history. Her oratorio, Anthracite Hills, is a revolutionary piece for chorus and sextet that brings to life the spirit and history of coal mining in Pennsylvania. On November 14th, Wolfe is set to perform her work at the Wyoming Seminary’s Kirby Center for Creative Arts, right outside Wilkes-Barre.

Wolfe, who won a Pullitzer Prize for Anthracite Hills, has been one of the preeminent forces in American contemporary classical music. Her music collective, Bang on a Can, which she co-founded, is dedicated to performing and premiering contemporary music.

Anthracite Hills is a revelatory work, managing to simultaneously combine musical innovation with meaningful historical perspective . Indeed, the steps Wolfe took to research the mining industry for  Anthracite Hills sound closer those taken by historians than composers. Wolfe conducted extensive interviews, including one with a third-generation minor, and also took a journey into an active coal mine. These experiences informed Wolfe’s composition, both in the piece’s written text and musical character. Describing her experience in the mines, Wolfe recently told NPR in an interview:

Both guides turned the guide light off, so you could see complete darkness, which is something you don’t usually get to experience… I think that’s definitely in the piece. In the first movement, 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 whisk.

Meanwhile, the piece’s text also relays a strong historical message. In “Foudation,” the first movement, the chorus chants in an eerie monotone the names of every person named John with one-syllable last names who was injured in the mines up until 1910. The entire text of the last movement, “Appliances,” is literally just a list of everyday activities that are powered by coal, indicating how much rely on coal to this day, though we may not realize it.

A performance of Anthracite Fields would be fantastic anywhere, but the show on November 14 is extra special, as it takes place in the very region from which it drew its inspiration. The day’s schedule also includes the awesome opportunity to tour a coal mine and hear a free talk from Julia Wolfe at the Anthracite Heritage museum. You can pick up tickets to the show for the absurdly cheap price of $10 here.

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