I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania – Montgomeryville. When we first moved there the road was dirt and the woods surrounding the house offered an endless playground of natural forts and ice skating trails. At the end of the long country road you’d reach the highway — route 309. A right turn (which was the way we almost always turned) led to the city, Philadelphia. A left turn on route 309 (which we hardly ever took) led to coal country, the anthracite field region. I remember hearing the names of the towns, and though my grandmother grew up in Scranton, everything in that direction, north of my small town, seemed like the wild west.
When the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia commissioned me to write a new work for choir and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, I looked to the anthracite region. Anthracite is the diamond of coal — the purest form. At the turn of the century the anthracite fields of Pennsylvania became the power source for everything from railroads to industry to heating homes. But the life of the miner was difficult and dangerous. I had been immersed in issues of the American worker — composing Steel Hammer, an evening length art-ballad on the legend of John Henry. For Anthracite Fields I went deeper into American labor history — looking at both local and national issues that arose from coal mining. I went down into the coal mines, visited patch towns and the local museums where the life of the miners has been carefully depicted and commemorated. I interviewed retired miners and children of miners who grew up in the patch. The text is culled from oral histories and interviews, local rhymes, a coal advertisement, geological descriptions, a mining accident index, contemporary daily everyday activities that make use of coal
power, and an impassioned political speech by John L. Lewis, the head of the United Mine Workers Union.
My aim with Anthracite Fields is to honor the people who persevered and endured in the Pennsylvania Anthracite coal region during a time when the industry fueled the nation, and to reveal a bit about who we are as American workers.
In the first movement, FOUNDATION, the singers chant the names of miners that appeared on a Pennsylvania Mining Accident index 1869-1916. The list is sadly long. I chose only the Johns with one-syllable last names in alphabetical order. The piece ends with a setting of the very colorful multi-syllabic names. The miners were largely from immigrant families and the diversity of ethnicity is heard in the names. At the center of Foundation is text from geological descriptions of coal formation.
BREAKER BOYS follows next. There were many boys working in the Pennsylvania coal mines. The younger ones worked in the breakers, which were large ominous structures. The coal would come running down shoots of the breakers, and the boys had the painful job of removing debris from the rush of coal. They weren’t allowed to wear gloves, and as a result their fingers were cut and bleeding. The central rhyme of this movement, Mickey Pick-Slate, is from the anthracite region. Others were adapted from children’s street rhymes. In the center of this movement are the words of Anthony (Shorty) Slick who worked as a breaker boy. The interview is taken from the documentary film, America and Lewis Hine directed by Nina Rosenblum. Hine worked for the National Child Labor Committee, and served as chief photographer for the WPA.
SPEECH is the third movement. The text is adapted from an excerpt of a speech by John L. Lewis who served as president of the United Mine Workers of America. Lewis was an impassioned spokesperson for the miners and fought hard-won battles for safer working conditions and for compensation.
The fourth movement FLOWERS was inspired by an interview with Barbara Powell, daughter and granddaughter of miners. She grew up in a Pennsylvania patch town and had many stories to tell about her family life. She never felt poor. She had an amazing sense of community. Barbara talked about how everyone helped each other. In one interview Barbara said, in order to brighten their lives, “We all had gardens”, and then she began to list the names of flowers.
The last movement APPLIANCES ties the new to the old. I was struck by John L. Lewis’ line “those of us who benefit from that service because we live in comfort.” Our days are filled with activities that require power. Even today coal is fueling the nation, powering electricity. When we bake a cake or grind coffee beans we use coal. The closing words of Anthracite Fields are taken from an advertising campaign for the coal-powered railroad. In 1900 Ernest Elmo Calkins created a fictitious character, a New York socialite named Phoebe Snow, who rode the rails to Buffalo It used to be a dirty business to ride a train But with the diamond of coal her “gown stayed white from morn till night, on the road to Anthracite” — a stunning contrast to the coal darkened faces underground.
The leaves and branches buried deep. Thick roots and trunks buried deep.
Buried deep inside the earth.
Layer upon layer upon layer buried deep.
Heat. Pressure. Time.
Massimino Santiarelli, Nicholas Scalgo, Edward Scutulis, Alfred Seabury, Jonathan Shoemaker, Josiah Sibley, Emanuel Skidmore, Martin Sladovick, Andrew Smalley, Thomas Snedden, Sylvester Sokoski, Benjamin Spade, Charles St. Clair, Ignatz Stancheski, James Henry Sullivan, Anton Svanevich, Augustus Swanson, Olif Sweedbury, Anthony Sweeney, Lathrie Symmons, Julius Tamanini, Lino Tarillia, Premo Tonetti, Bladis Tonatis, Rofello Tironzelli, Anthony Tonery, Christian Ulrich, Theodore Valentine, Isaac VanBlaragan, Constantine Vickerell, Edwin Wagstaff, August Yeager, Henry Youngcourt, Martian Yunman, Victor Zaimerovich, Ezekiel Zamoconie,
Ezekiel, Ezekiel, Ezekiel, Ezekiel.
The names above appear on the list of the Pennsylvania Mining Accidents index 1869-1916 (from the Denver Public Library Digital Collections) with the exception of Massimino Santiarelli who appeared in Growing Up in Coal Country by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. The geographic description was adapted from information in the book Big Coal by Jeff Goodell.
early and late
that was the poor little breaker boys fate.
mickety pickety rickety tickety lickety splickety
kickety, kickety, kick, kick, kick, kick
Mickey, Mickey, Mickey, Mickey
eight years, nine years, ten years, twelve years,
six years, seven years, thirteen, fifteen, fourteen,
eleven, seventeen, eighteen, sixteen
Mickey, Mickey, Mickey, Mickey
mickety pickety rickety tickety lickety splickety
“Oh what a place, you sat on a hard seat.
You didn’t dare cushion it, no matter.
You had to sit on that plain plank, no matter,
with your feet in the shoot, on a plain plank
bent over like this.
Well I’ll tell you it was very scary.
Believe me, believe me.
"I don’t know how in the world I got the nerve to go there in the first place.
You didn’t dare say anything.
You didn’t dare quit,
because it was something to have a job at 8 cents an hour.
You didn’t wear gloves.
You didn’t dare.
You weren’t allowed to wear gloves.
"Your fingernails, you had none.
The ends of them would be bleeding ever day from work,
* everything in quotes excerpted and adapted from an interview with Anthony (Shorty) Slick (breaker boy) from the film America and Lewis Hine directed and produced by Nina Rosenblum, Daedalus Productions, Inc. Other text based on children’s street rhymes.
If we must grind up human flesh and bones
in the industrial machine that we call modern America,
then before God I assert
that those who consume the coal
and you and I who benefit from that service because we live in comfort,
we owe protection to those men and we owe the security to their families
if they die.
I say it, I voice it, I proclaim it
and I care not who in heaven or hell opposes it.
That is what I believe.
That is what I believe, I believe, I believe.
And the miners believe that.*
*excerpt from a speech by John L. Lewis (head of the United Mine Workers) to the House Labor subcommittee
“My gown stays white from morn till night. My gown stays white.
On the road to Anthracite.”*
*Phoebe Snow was a fictitious New York socialite created by Ernest Elmo Calkins (D.L.&W.) in 1900 for an advertising campaign for the Lakawana coal-powered railroad. Her image was accompanied by short rhymes like the one in the last paragraph above.
Anthracite Fields was commissioned through Meet the Composer's Commissioning Music/USA program, which is made possible by generous support from the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Helen F. Whitaker Fund. Additional support was made possible through the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia Alan Harler New Ventures Fund; the Presser Foundation; The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through Philadelphia Music Project.
Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia and BOAC All-Stars; April 2014
This work is only available for SATB chorus in performance with the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Please info [at] redpoppymusic [dot] com (contact us) for more information about scheduling performances.
For my field recording I’ve used a fantastic clip of a French Canadian singer. He’s an older man and he sings a very beautiful kind of music that’s basically the music that you make when you don’t have a fiddler and you don’t have a banjo. You just use your voice. You sing syllables in a sing-song twirly way. I started this project from a very pure place, just using his voice. And little by little I go from his world to my world, which is much more cacophonous and has a more urban sensibility. There is a very personal connection for me. I love folk music and I’ve played a lot of folk music. So in a way I’m connecting my own history by going to his singing and revving it up.
My love affair with American folk music began in Ann Arbor, Michigan where I studied and worked. There I began to play mountain dulcimer, sing, try out the bones. The folk scene in Ann Arbor was and still is very rich - and I had the opportunity to immerse myself in the culture. As I veered off into more experimental ideas in music the folk threads remained - references in pieces like Four Marys (my first string quartet), Cruel Sister (string orchestra work that follows the arc of an old Scottish ballad), and most recently Steel Hammer (an evening length art ballad for Trio Mediaeval and the Bang on a Can All-Stars). In With a blue dress on for five violins the folk roots come to the fore with fiddling licks, fragments of song, and bows deep into the string. I was inspired by a plaintive field recording of a woman singing "Pretty little girl with a blue dress on." Her tone was rough and her rhythm irregular. The timing and tempos, or implied tempos, in my piece play on this irregularity and fluctuation - placing folk-like fragments into a kind of joyful hyper state.
With a blue dress on was written for Monica Germino and commissioned by the Eduard van Beinum Stichting.
Steel Hammer is inspired by my love for the legends and music of Appalachia. The text is culled from the over 200 versions of the John Henry ballad. The various versions, based on hearsay, recollection, and tall tales, explore the subject of human vs. machine in this quintessential American legend. Many of the facts are unclear – some say he’s from West Virginia – some say he’s from South Carolina – some say he’s from New Jersey... But regardless of the details, John Henry, wielding a steel hammer, faces the onslaught of the industrial age as his super human strength is challenged in a contest to out dig an engine. I drew upon the extreme variations of the story, fragmenting and weaving the contradictory versions of the ballad that have circulated since the late 1800s in to a new whole - at times meditating on single words or phrases – in order to tell the story of the story - to embody the simultaneous diverse paths it traveled.
The sounds of Appalachia have long been a part of my musical consciousness. (My first public music performance was on mountain dulcimer). I have referenced the folk music influence in many of my other works - Four Marys (for string quartet) and Cruel Sister (for string orchestra) take folk tales as the inspiration for the music. LAD (for 9 bagpipes), and Accordion Love (accordion concerto) explore and experiment with folk performance traditions. In Steel Hammer, I’m calling on the Bang on a Can All-Stars to expand out from their usual instrumentation to include the likes of dulcimers and bones, and accessing Trio Mediæval’s extensive work in their native vocal traditions.
The title singing in the dead of night conjures up the still and surreal nighttime experience of being the only one awake. Out of the silence often comes inspiration - finding one's way to a human song, symphony of sound. Singing in the dead of night is its own metaphor - beginnings always beginning in ''the dead of night'' - in the void into which a creation is made. The virtuosity and intensity of the music are inspired by the high voltage performers of eighth blackbird. The silences, sand, and density are there for the thoughtful and exquisite Susan Marshall. —Julia Wolfe
Stronghold was written for Robert Black and premiered by his group The Hartt Bass Ensemble. While working with Robert I discovered that the bass had a limitless universe of expressive possibilities rarely explored. Yes it has those great low notes, but you won’t hear any until halfway through the piece. Stronghold starts with webs of rolling harmonics, very high overtones that take advantage of the long length of the strings, and ends with thick resonant sounds created when the bow is heavily pressed into the low open E string. With 8 basses going at once the ensemble turns into one mega bass, and it’s hard to tell where one player ends and another begins. On this recording Robert Black plays all eight parts.
When Talujon Percussion Quartet asked me to write a piece for 4 percussionists I immediately thought of the drums. I am a long time fan of drummers and their ability to play simultaneously with both hands and feet, so I thought why not four of them? I went to David Cossin’s studio to try ideas out. When we got to the hi-hat I became mesmerized. It’s an amazing instrument – 2 cymbals crashing together by means of a foot pedal and struck from above. It produces an enormous range of shimmering colors. Just opening and closing the cymbals allow for symphonic possibilities. You can play the cymbals on the edge, play on the bell (top), roll, attack, be delicate, and my favorite - make the hi-hat roar. The first 7 minutes of the piece are entirely on hi-hats. Then I add in cymbals. That’s where the title of the piece comes from – it was printed on the back of one of the ride cymbals. From there the piece spreads out to the drums, eventually leading to a cacophony of conflicting pounding speeds on the whole drum set. Towards of the end of Dark Full Ride the four players are playing beats at different tempos while speeding up and slowing down relative to each other.
The title for Believing came to me after the music had been written. During the time I was working on the piece I had been listening to a song by John Lennon called Tomorrow never knows. It's a fantastic song - very psychedelic - written at a time when the Beatles were exploring spiritual questions. You can hear it in the music, and in the words. There's a line, "It is believing" that comes back again and again. Believing is such a powerful word - full of optimism and struggle. It's hard to believe and it's liberating to believe. The music is very much written for the Bang on a Can All-Stars. It is my second piece for the group and I feel that I have really gotten inside their sound. Believing was commissioned by NPS Dutch Radio. I am very grateful for their support for this work.
Composer Note I wrote STEAM for three instruments built by Harry Partch, two harmonic canons and a bloboy, as well as amplified flute, cello, and electric organ. The Newband performers are specially trained on Partch's original instruments which have been in their possession since 1990. Newband lent me one of the harmonic canons for several weeks. It's a large microtonal zither. The tuning is amazingly beautiful with 43 notes to the octave. I spent hours strumming, plucking, glissing — when you slide down the strings it has the sound of a wild animal cry. I kept Partch's tuning for his instruments while using the familiar tempered tuning for the others. I loved the sound of these two worlds rubbing against each other, fusing into a new kind of harmony.
I see music as something other than presentation. Each piece is its own world that I've found a way into. It starts from an emotional place — not sentimental or an expression of an emotion — but connected to the spirit. I begin with an image — a fragment of a tune, a visual or sonic image — a joyous, active, rhythmic thing that unravels like a little knot. To really make a piece and not just piece things together, you have to be less attached to every moment and stand back and let the music go how it wants to go. It's a funny combination of intuition and construction. Lately I have been veering more towards the power of sound. There's an insistence, a feeling of pushing things to the edge, and there is a certain kind of groove, a dance quality. The body energy of pop music has come into my music and it is definitely in Lick. Motown, funk, rock. This is the music I grew up on — listening, dancing to it. It has a certain kind of freedom to it. Lick has a lot of meanings and the piece has to do with all the meanings you can think of. It's saucy and it has an edge. It's impatient; although it stays with things for a long time, it hammers at than. I took a fragment, a lick, and magnified it. And the beat is split up by all the players, so it becomes fragmented, a fragmented energy. The piece is about attacks, but it has a more sensual side. I really thought about the Bang on a Can All-Stars when I wrote it because I wanted to see them lock in with this intense energy. It's definitely over the top.
— Julia Wolfe
Review: Julia Wolfe's Lick, a hot, dense piece based on what one might call terrorist rhythms, in that you never know when they'll strike. —David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer, 03/03/2009
Composer Note While living in Amsterdam [in 1992] I began Early That Summer. I was reading a book about U.S. political history and the author kept introducing small incidents with phrases like ''Early that summer...'' The incidents would eventually snowball into major political crises or events. I realized that the music I was writing was exactly like this — that I was creating a constant state of anticipation and forward build. Early That Summer was written for the Lark Quartet. I asked them to play it the way they play Beethoven. They are so clear and strong, full of fire and aggression.
my lips from speaking, for 6 pianos, is inspired by the opening few chords played on piano by Aretha Franklin in her hit tune "Think". It is a fantastic musical moment. my lips from speaking takes this bit of music - fragments it, spreads it out, and wildly spins it into a kind of ecstatic frenzy. The title is taken from the biblical line, “Guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceit.” - a nod to the deeply spiritual musical background from which the great Aretha Franklin emerged. my lips from speaking, in its original form, written for 6 live pianos, and was commissioned by the Huddersfield Festival for Piano Circus (U.K.). This arrangement for one live player and tape was created for Lisa Moore.
Composer Note In 1991 the Cassatt String Quartet came to play on the [Bang on a Can] festival because another quartet had canceled at the last minute. We didn't know them. When they started to play I was amazed — they were like angels, moving and breathing together. In 1992 I wrote Four Marys for the Cassatt. I thought about how they played as if they were one organism. Four Marys takes the sound world of the mountain dulcimer and magnifies it — the sliding pitches, the crude crying tone, the drone strings, and the ''strumming'' expand throughout the quartet. I spent hours hanging around with them in their apartments, trying out ideas, reworking things, ordering take-out food. This was the beginning of our friendship.