Anthracite Fields by Julia Wolfe

'Julia Wolfe has always been the most viscerally demotic of the Bang On a Can composers'

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COMPOSERS: Julia Wolfe
LABELS: Cantaloupe
ALBUM TITLE: Anthracite Fields
WORKS: Anthracite Fields
PERFORMER: Ashley Bathgate (alto), Mark Stewart (tenor, electric guitar); Choir of Trinity Wall Street; Bang on a Can All-Stars/Julian Wachner
CATALOGUE NO: CA 21111

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Julia Wolfe has always been the most viscerally demotic of the Bang On a Can composers: she’s not afraid to throw electric guitar and rock drums into choral formalities, and controls her folk, street and minimalist resources with sassy conviction. The inspiration for this expertly paced oratorio was the coalfield of her Pennsylvanian childhood home, where anthracite was mined until the 1970s. She’s done her own mining, finding archive and aural witness to its devastating accidents, heroic union leaders, child labourers and the industrial revolution it fuelled.

Opening with a litany of names of men killed in accidents, and menacing, mechanistic noise, the work finds its emotional heart in a rock-driven child’s rhyme ‘Mickey Pick-Slate’, interleaved with still laments on the ‘Poor little breaker boys’, children as young as seven who used to pick out debris with bleeding hands. Rage against an industrial machine which ‘must grind up human flesh and bones’ reaches its climax in ‘Speech’, based on the words of union leader John L Lewis, given a performance of raw power here by Mark Stewart.

Clearly, David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion is an influence, particularly in the dream-like chant of ‘Flowers’ and the creepily haunting advertising jingles of the coda, ‘Appliances’.

The Choir of Trinity Wall Street under Julian Wachner rises to each of the work’s myriad styles. Written for the amateur Mendelssohn Society, Anthracite Fields, I predict, will go viral among US choirs, though Bang on a Can All-Stars may need to clone themselves.

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Helen Wallace