The Lives of Coal Miners, Set to Hauntingly Beautiful Music

Don’t miss this chance to see and hear Julia Wolfe’s Pulitzer Prize–winning “Anthracite Fields” at Carnegie Hall.

Photo by Chris Lee

In the modern era, when the perils of coal feel so distinctly global, it’s easy to forget that the rock that fuels the nation was the cause of death for the many American men and children who brought it into the light. Not to be a total downer, but at the height of the era prior to state safety regulations, American coal workers died at a yearly rate of more than three per 1,000, more than twice the pace of their British counterparts. That greater risk is attributable to the unbound capitalist corruption of the Gilded Age, where the divide between the haves and have-nots led to obscene inequality and disposable human labor. It’s a too-familiar refrain in our current times that echoes loudly through U.S. history and forms the heart of composer Julia Wolfe’s choral-and-sextet piece, Anthracite Fields, playing at Carnegie Hall this Saturday.

Wolfe’s career is intimidatingly impressive: She is a founding member of the influential New York–based ensemble Bang on a Can; the composer of dozens of full-length orchestral works; and a writer of bagpipe, accordion, and Harry Partch’s obscure instrumentation works. She also won the Pulitzer Prize for Anthracite Fields, teaches composition at New York University, and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2016.

Carnegie Hall Music
Photo by Chris Lee

Anthracite Fields is a stream-of-consciousness oratorio (think: opera but without any physical staging or narrative) that blends modern rock, rustic folk, oral interviews, classical structure, and jarring minimalism. Presented in five discrete movements, Anthracite’s focus is on the men and women who worked at the turn of the century in the Pennsylvania coal mines near Wolfe’s childhood home of Philadelphia.

The piece begins with a dirgelike alphabetical recitation of nearly 3,000 men’s full names, each starting with John. The tempo of these names varies and is broken apart by a jarring alarm of noise. Wolfe intended this 20-minute section as a memorial to the Pennsylvania mining dead, but discovered their numbers to be so great that she could only accommodate the “Johns” and, even then, only those with a single-syllable last name. It’s a powerful beginning to a complex hour of music and recitation. Future movements include a presentation of a labor reformer speech, a list of the delicate flowers that the coal miners’ wives would grow, and an interview with a onetime “breaker boy” who would pull coal barehanded off a fast-moving conveyor belt. These little glimpses into unknowable, difficult lives are supported by achingly emotional music.

Staging the piece requires an ambitious assemblage of artists; the Carnegie recitation includes the core performing members of the Bang on a Can All-Stars and the more than two dozen heavenly voices of the Grammy-nominated Choir of Trinity Wall Street.

Why You Should Go: This is likely one of the few chances you’ll have to see Anthracite Fields in New York for the next few years. I strongly recommend taking advantage of the opportunity to experience one of the best Carnegie Hall events of the season.

Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields
Performed by the Bang on a Can All-Stars and Choir of Trinity Wall Street
Carnegie Hall
881 Seventh Avenue (between West 56th and 57th Streets), Midtown

Saturday, December 1
9 p.m.
Tickets start at $55

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