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.