Composer To Share Music, Stories Behind Pulitzer Prize-winning Oratorio On Coal Mining
Julia Wolfe won a Pulitzer Prize for music in 2015 for turning the lives and tribulations of coal miners into a musical masterpiece.
This week, she will present her oratorio “Anthracite Fields” at Peoples Security Bank Theater at Lackawanna College, Scranton, as part of an ongoing celebration of the 250th anniversary of the anthracite coal-mining industry in Northeast Pennsylvania.
And ahead of the performance, residents will be able to hear from Wolfe herself as she addresses the audience at Lackawanna Historical Society’s annual dinner, set for Thursday, Nov. 8, at the Anthracite Center, Carbondale.
Wolfe, whose grandmother grew up in Scranton, was raised in Montgomeryville outside Philadelphia and composed the piece for the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia. It marked the first time a group from her home state had requested a commission, and so she decided to focus the work on a community and period of Pennsylvania’s history — the anthracite coal-mining industry.
“I thought, ‘Well, it would be nice to take a look at a regional point of view,’” Wolfe said recently by phone from New York City. “I certainly could have looked at the history of the city of Philadelphia, but I thought, what about the other direction?”
She started researching the subject and grew fascinated by all of the issues connected to the industry. Her research included visiting the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton, where she looked at artifacts and spoke with historians and others who had close connections to the mining industry. Books, documentaries and event advertisements also served as sources.
It resulted in a five-movement oratorio mixing elements of classical and folk music into an hour-long piece focused on the history of coal mining and those involved in the industry. The movements are “Foundation,” which honors people who died from mining accidents in Pennsylvania; “Breaker Boys,” a tribute to kids who worked in coal breakers; “Speech,” inspired by a John L. Lewis address; “Flowers,” inspired by an interview with a descendent of coal miners; and “Appliances,” which focuses on coal as a fuel source.
“I didn’t go in with any preconceived idea, first of all, (of) what I was going to cover, what issues needed to be in the piece,” said Wolfe, who noted she tried hard to get the facts right. “I just listened. I just went and listened to people, listened to the sounds of machines, even. ... The main issues started to jump out.”
Wolfe said she felt surprised when she learned “Anthracite Fields” had earned her a Pulitzer.
“It’s kind of a raw subject and raw sound,” she said. “There is a certain kind of noisy energy to the piece. It was kind of a fancy prize for a rough-and-ready piece, but I felt very touched by it. However the committee came to the decision, I guess it spoke to them.”
The local audience will hear the award-winning work through the instrumental skills of Bang on a Can All-Stars, a group Wolfe co-founded in the 1980s. The choir of New York City’s historic Trinity Church will join it for the night.
“All of the (Bang on a Can) players really have a broad musicianship where they can have the kind of body energy of pop music, but then can also play the complex things required with notated classical music,” Wolfe said.
Since the work’s debut, Wolfe has heard from people who are related to coal miners and have even shared personal artifacts. She treasures that her world has somehow “expanded to a different public, and that’s really been enriching,” she said.
And Wolfe expects to share how her interest in the subject developed at the historical society dinner.
“I’ll just explain how history turned into music and what it was like for me to get to know this community and turn it into a piece,” she said.
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If you go
What: Lackawanna Historical Society annual dinner, featuring guest speaker Julia Wolfe When: Thursday, Nov. 8, 6 p.m.
Where: The Anthracite Center, 41 N. Main St., Carbondale
What: “Anthracite Fields,” featuring Bang on a Can All-Stars and the choir of Trinity Church, New York City When: Saturday, Nov. 10, 7:30 p.m. Where: Peoples Security Bank Theater at Lackawanna College, 501 Vine St., Scranton
Tickets cost $50 for the dinner only, $30 for the oratorio only, $20 for students for the oratorio only and $75 for the dinner and oratorio. For tickets, visit . For more information, call 570-344-3841.