Dayton Hare: Wolfe tones

Thursday, February 8, 2018 - 5:42pm

If a piece of music begins with a list of solemnly intoned names, it’s a safe bet to assume that the composer intends to take you on a dark, emotional ride. So when I hear a piece like John Adams’s “On the Transmigration of Souls” — the composer’s 9/11 memorial and the work for which he won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize — I know that by the end of my experience, I will have been touched on some fundamental level, perhaps changed in some way. When shown art that is meant to explore tragedy and the darkest aspects of human experience, it’s almost impossible for it to be otherwise.

But I’m not really here to talk about representations of tragedy in music, or even about John Adams.

About a decade after “Transmigration of Souls” was written, a different composer from a newer generation applied a similar style of opening in her latest major work. Like Adams, she was exploring the way that music could ameliorate or clarify tragedy, and also like Adams; she won a Pulitzer for her efforts. But in contrast to the elder don of American post-minimalism, when Julia Wolfe wrote “Anthracite Fields,” she wasn’t trying to reckon with fire and terror, but rather with a lesser known but still menacing facet of the American experience.

“Anthracite Fields” — an oratorio for chamber ensemble and choir — begins with a quiet, low drone with an eerie sort of electrified effect. Every so often, a moaning clarinet emerges from the texture, or a bass clarinet groans beneath it. The entire atmosphere is disturbing, yet utterly still. Then without warning the noise of someone banging on the piano — literally banging the keys — slices through the music and assaults the listener with a sort of violence rarely heard. Gradually the choir enters, reciting names of coal miners killed in accidents that are by now more than a century past. Even those who have survived have long since been returned to the soil.

As the music progresses, it expands outwards in both sonority and emotional scope. Dissonance and cacophony turn to resonance and figuration. Menace and dread turn to grief and yearning. There really is no substitute for simply listening to it, but by the end of it all, Wolfe’s work is perhaps the single greatest sonic exploration of American labor history to ever be created. Divided into five movements and mixing together elements from all manner of musical genres and backgrounds (in itself a somewhat American phenomenon), in “Anthracite Fields” you can hear the classical tradition, minimalism, rock, Scots-Irish folk and all manner of things more. Wolfe’s creative voice is unmistakable, managing to temper edgy, avant-garde inclinations with moments of profound beauty.

Wolfe herself is an interesting figure: Born in Penn. (not too distant from the coal fields that she takes as her subject), she went to college here at the University, where she was in the Residential College and received a Bachelors of Arts in Theatre. She went on to receive music graduate degrees from Yale and Princeton, and along with her composer friends David Lang and Michael Gordon (who is also her husband), she founded Bang on a Can, an organization that is perhaps the single most important ensemble in the contemporary classical music world. Not yet 60, her head is adorned by a curly collection of red hair, somewhat frizzy. Her eyes, a soft grey-blue, somehow seem to watch things quietly. Her demeanor, when I met her at a School of Music, Theatre & Dance event a few weeks ago, was kindly and curious. She once appeared as herself on an episode of the popular children’s TV show “Arthur.” From the way that she carries herself, you’d never know she was the same person who produced such riveting musical drama.

But this drama has always been a part of Wolfe’s interior life. Since her time as a theatre student at the University, her creative energies have gone more towards manifesting drama in a musical medium, but it’s no less present in her work now. Wolfe’s music often has a political slant, though not too openly so (thank God — art of that type usually turns out to be terribly banal), and is concerned with the radical notion that we should be kind to one another. Her more recent projects — including “Anthracite Fields — often deal with topics of labor history, and her voice has emerged as the strongest of those who might be described as musical populists.

This populism manifests itself in various ways. For one, her music reflects such a broad range of influences it’s often impossible to pinpoint exactly where any one thing might have originated. She mixes together violins, banjos, harmonicas and electric guitars indiscriminately. At one moment she sounds like the most impenetrable of the avant-garde and at the next has a good old-fashioned Irish reel dancing along. In at least one piece I’ve heard literal banging on a can. But another aspect of this populism can be seen in other aspects of her life. Bang on a Can itself is an example of this: In the ideological heat of the ’80s, the organization was set up in part to bridge gaps between the academic avant-garde and minimalist camps of American classical music. At the first Bang on a Can Marathon concert, prominent members from both of these groups were present (though they didn’t talk to each other — that would be asking too much).

But the third element of Wolfe’s populism is seen in her choice of subject. She has enormous interest in and empathy for the working class (at least the historical working class, though one assumes this would continue on to the present), and in contrast to some of the charlatans on today’s political right, actually cares about ameliorating the conditions in which they live. Which brings us back to “Anthracite Fields” — more than anything else, the listener walks away from it with a deep sense of the injustices that have been done. Though the subject takes place more than a century ago, and the power of the capitalist class has been curbed to an extent, the impression that the ideas in it are timely ones is impossible to shake. Though the Gilded Age of “Anthracite Fields” has vanished, for those of us who fear a new advent of inequity, the music can serve as a poignant reminder of what’s at stake. To take the words of labor leader John L. Lewis, which Wolfe used in her piece:

“If we must grind up human flesh and bone in the industrial machine that we call modern America, then before God, I assert that those who consume the coal, and you and I who benefit from that service because we live in comfort, we owe protection to those men first, and we owe the security for their family if they die. I say it, I voice it, I proclaim it, and I care not who in heaven or hell opposes it!”