Current OHMA student Kyna Patel (2017 cohort) reflects on the historical and political themes in composer Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields, as well as her personal connection with her work.
As part of the Columbia Center for Oral History’s lecture series titled “Oral History and the Arts,” Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur Fellow Julia Wolfe discussed a wide range of topics, including her life growing up in Pennsylvania, how she collaborates with different artists and groups, and her 2015 composition Anthracite Fields. Wolfe hails from a small town outside of Philadelphia and happened upon a music class as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan that guided her into pursuing music outside of the classroom.
Anthracite Fields is more than an avant-garde piece of music; Wolfe masterfully blends the history of Pennsylvania coal mining country, archival materials, and oral history practice with this composition. The first movement, “Foundation,” honors the people who have died in mining accidents in Pennsylvania from 1896 to 1916. The second movement is a tribute to the breaker boys, and the third uses a speech by John L. Lewis advocating safer working conditions for those in the mining industry. In “Flowers,” Wolfe uses part of an interview she conducted with Barbara, a woman whose ancestors worked in the mines. And finally, Wolfe uses archival materials once more in “Appliances” from an advertisement for a coal-powered railroad.
According to Wolfe, she did not set out to create something that was so closely related to where she is from; she says that “it just came full force.” Oftentimes in looking for subjects to explore and research in social science and oral history, we tend to look outside of our communities and identities and towards issues and subjects that are of personal interest. The researcher in this case can be removed from their work in the sense that they do not have a direct, personal history with the subject. However, the trend of conducting interviews and research in localities with which one is familiar or belongs to provides an extra dimension to the intersubjective relationship between the subject/narrator and the interviewer/researcher.
Doing this kind of oral history work can be meaningful in the way that one cannot so easily divorce themselves from the research and has more urgency to lift up, affirm, and honor the stories and experiences of the narrators and the people themselves. In including political elements (Lewis’s speech, acknowledging child labor and mining accidents, etc.) in Anthracite Fields, Wolfe reveals her own feelings and connections towards an industry that has played an extremely important part in American life.
With the renewed spotlight on coalmining in Pennsylvania by way of Donald Trump’s election campaign and comments made earlier this month, Anthracite Fields has received a new context with which to interpret this composition. Anthracite Fields was released in 2014, before Trump’s run for president was a reality. Coal miners’ discussions of wanting to become employed again is a real issue, especially considering the decline of the coal industry in recent decades. In looking at her own research and the current conversations about coalmining and jobs, Wolfe states that there is a disconnect in the current state of the industry and what it can provide in its decline; there are other ways to look at energy and employ former miners (e.g. renewable sources), most of the mines are already mined out, and coalmining unions are not as strong as they were in the past. She notes that, “there is no romantic idea about [coalmining], even though it’s safer now.”
Wolfe’s work, research, and composition are an example of how something that might appear to be esoteric and inaccessible can be thrust into the spotlight for reasons outside of the creator’s control and gain “renewed relevance”; her work has always been relevant and important for reasons that may not have been immediately obvious.
Kyna Patel is a current OHMA student. She studied anthropology at and graduated from New College of Florida in 2015 and was an English teaching assistant in Germany through the Fulbright Program (2015-2016). She is currently studying the generational differences in understanding the aftermath of September 11th, 2001 and the current U.S. political climate in Arab, Muslim, and South Asian families.