Los Angeles Times

March 2, 2016

By David Ng

When you win a Pulitzer Prize for music, you hear about it just like everyone else — in the news perhaps, or from other people who read about it before you do.

You don’t know anything, said composer Julia Wolfe, who won the coveted award last year for her choral piece Anthracite Fields, an unconventional exploration into the history of coal mining in rural Pennsylvania.

Wolfe recalled that she was at home in her Tribeca loft, working with colleagues from the Bang on a Can ensemble, when a call came in from Washington, D.C. I didn’t take it. I didn’t know who it was, she recounted.

Later that day, she learned about the win from a colleague, and much celebrating ensued. And that missed call? That was NPR, she said. I was glad I didn’t pick up. I would’ve said, ‘Huh?’

Anthracite Fields will have its West Coast premiere on Sunday, performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale and members of the Bang on a Can All-Stars at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Divided into five chapters, the hourlong choral work creates a highly abstract and fragmented portrayal of the Coal Region, the area of northeast Pennsylvania where anthracite coal mining was the dominant industry around the turn of the 20th century.

I didn’t grow up around miners. But the sensibility of the region wasn’t so different from the small town where I did grow up, so it felt familiar. 
— Composer Julia Wolfe

Wolfe grew up in the area but wasn’t familiar with the history of coal mining when she began the project.

I didn’t grow up around miners. But the sensibility of the region wasn’t so different from the small town where I did grow up, so it felt familiar, she said during a recent stop in L.A.

The composer spent about a year researching the subject, including interviewing experts at the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton. One subject that fascinated her was the breaker boys — primarily children who were employed to manually separate debris from the coal.

It seemed abusive, she said, but sometimes the families wanted them to work. They wanted income. Everything counted. And sometimes the boys were proud they were getting wages.

Wolfe has largely avoided inserting sociopolitical messages about labor laws or the environment into the piece.

It’s not didactic, said Grant Gershon, artistic director of the L.A. Master Chorale. She doesn’t hit you over the head. It doesn’t come from a belligerent environmentalist viewpoint.

In some sections, chorus members invoke a long list of names of coal miners that Wolfe collected during her research. In the piece’s last movement, they incant a list of modern-day appliances and other conveniences that rely on fossil fuels.

I wanted people who listen to it to put the pieces together themselves. It’s not a manifesto, the composer said.

The musical style of Anthracite Fields ranges widely, with ominous drone tones giving way to more lighthearted sounds and folk passages, with occasional intrusions of rock music-inspired flights of fancy.

Wolfe also makes use of an unconventional instrument: a bicycle wheel spinning while mounted on a cymbal stand. The spokes all have different pitches, she said.

I wanted people who listen to it to put the pieces together themselves. It’s not a manifesto.
— Grant Gershon, artistic director of the L.A. Master Chorale

Anthracite Fields will be a multimedia presentation, including historic photo montages depicting the coal industry.

Wolfe, 57, is one of the founders of Bang on a Can, the New York group known worldwide for its innovative performances and embrace of new music. She is married to fellow co-founder Michael Gordon, with whom she has two teenage children.

Growing up, Wolfe was expected to follow in the footsteps of her father, a physician.

I was supposed to be a doctor, she said. When she chose to pursue music, her parents weren’t disappointed, but they were definitely confused.

For much of her career, she has focused on composing for string quartets and string ensembles. But she has frequently branched out into other genres. Steel Hammer, her folk-inspired vocal and instrumental take on the John Henry ballad, was performed in October as part of UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance programming at Royce Hall.

Wolfe said she divides her time between composing and teaching music at New York University, where she recently received tenure.

One of her upcoming projects will tackle another historic labor issue — women working in factories in New York. She said her walk to work often takes her past the site of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed more than 100 garment workers, most of them women.

Anthracite Fields was very guy heavy, she said. So I thought, wait a minute, women worked too.