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Julia Wolfe

Anthracite Fields

Cantaloupe Music, 2015

Underground history

Julia Wolfe spent a great deal of time researching stories from the coal-mining district she grew up in, in Pennsylvania while writing Anthracite Fields. She travelled widely, visited museums, interviewed miners’ families and even ventured deep, deep underground to experience the cramped, dark mines for herself. The result of her enquiries is an hour-long oratorio that won her a Pulitzer Prize in 2015.

Some lucky timing meant I was able to meet up with Julia in New York and discuss, in person, the diverse references in Anthracite Fields. Each of the five movements look at coal-mining through a variety of perspectives such as geology, history, politics, anthropology, economics, mythology and biology, touching on themes as diverse as child labour, advertising and modern day use of appliances.

She wanted the right balance of masculine and feminine – and the right balance of historical references and modern ones. She was also wary that the graphics shouldn’t read as overly critical of coal, but a have broader more neutral approach that could encompass the wide range of perspectives.

Anthracite Fields has an epic scale, taking you in and out of massive time landscape. With its many angles – and varied musical styles within the work – it seemed right to choose images from many different sources to echo the themes and references in the work.

To avoid the cover image appearing too historical or documentary-like, I made a photo-collage featuring a piece of anthracite coal – presented as a mountain to reflect the monumental landscape created from “heat, pressure and time” as described in the expansive first movement Foundation – combined with flowers (forget-me-nots) in reference to the fourth movement Flowers. In this movement, Barbara Powell – granddaughter of Pennsylvania coal miners – remembers the gardens they had in their patch town. Despite their poverty, they nurtured beauty and life on the surface while the men and boys were working in the dark, deep underground.

Inside the wallet are: a detail from an original 1863 map of Schuylkill County, the ‘Anthracite Fields’ of Pennsylvania, a scientific image of a piece of anthracite (‘the diamond of coal’), and a 1910 century advertisement for Lakawana railways portraying Phoebe Snow – a fine lady and fictional character who could wear white with confidence on the trains as anthracite burns so cleanly and produces no dirty smoke. ‘My gown stays white from morn til night. My gown stays white. On the road to Anthracite.’ Lastly, a modern image of a cake baking in an oven, in reference to the last movement Appliances.

There were more images in the booklet, including a photograph of children working as ‘breaker boys’ taken by sociologist Lewis Wickes Hine in 1911 as part of his documentation of child labour for National Child Labour Committee. The breaker boys were as young as 8-years old and it was their job was to pick through the coal with their bare hands. From the heart-breaking second movement Breaker Boys: ‘You didn’t dare quit, because it was something to have a job at 8 cents an hour… Your fingernails, you had none. The ends of them would be bleeding every day from work, bleeding every day.’

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