JULIA WOLFE: Anthracite Fields – Bang On a Can All Stars/ The Choir of Trinity Wall Street/Julian Wachner – Cantaloupe Music CA21111, 57:36 (9/25/15) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Julia Wolfe is a consistently fascinating, and challenging, composer. Her music often takes small, lesser known, ‘slices of life’ stories and gives them life and an audience through her music. Works such her Steel Hammer and Cruel Sister are a perfect example. She accomplishes the same and more in Anthracite Fields; which won her the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for music.

Anthracite Fields is essentially an oratorio about turn-of-the-20th-century Pennsylvania coal miners. From the publicity notes to this piece, “Weaving together personal interviews that she conducted with miners and their families, along with oral histories, speeches, rhymes and local mining lore, Wolfe sought to honor the working lives of Pennsylvania’s anthracite region. ‘It’s not necessarily mainstream history,’ she told NPR shortly after she received word of winning the Pulitzer. ‘The politics are very fascinating; the issues about safety, and the consideration for the people who are working and what’s involved in it’. Her compositional focal point however was non-judgmental.

It is more a narrative on what happened and in recognition that, without these workers, the industrial and economic course of the nation might have been significantly altered. To me, this theme and the purpose of the piece is somewhat ironic in its timing as, presently, the whole fossil fuel industry in America is under its greatest scrutiny and lack of government support. Ultimately, Julia Wolfe is an artist, not a commentator. Her music survives on its strengths and there are many to admire here.

The music is alternately melodic, beautiful and moving and also jarring, on edge and – yes – ‘industrial.’ There is an opening guitar riff from Mark Stewart that sets the tone and the heart breaking text and tone of “Flowers” stands in sharp contrast to the almost ‘metal rock’ sound of “Breaker Boys.”

I always find Julia’s music to be amazing, captivating and unique. I have read some comments on line suggesting that her Pulitzer is a bit controversial. Certainly, 2015 gave us some very exciting new music from an amazingly eclectic array of composers. Pulitzer worthy or not; and I think it is, Anthracite Fields is one of the most intriguing and interesting works to have come out the past several years and Julia Wolfe will continue to gain reputation and gift us with her fascinating art. Thanks for that!

—Daniel Coombs