Julia Wolfe's Anthracite Fields won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in music. Wolfe teaches in New York, but she grew up far from its music scene in the coal fields of western Pennsylvania that form the subject matter for this work. Wolfe's nearest ancestor is John Adams, the choral declamation of whose On the Transmigration of Souls will give you an idea the kind of personal and tragic minimalist style you get here. Wolfe breaks up words and names into choral syllables with powerful effect, most of all in the opening "Foundation" movement, where the chorus intones the names of miners killed in accidents between 1869 and 1916 (you should by all means sample this generously). The mood lightens only in the fourth movement, "Flowers." Wolfe departs from Adams in the flexible treatment of her small ensemble writing, performed here by the Bang on a Can All-Stars with whom she has been associated in the past. This sextet of players -- cello, bass, keyboards, percussion, guitar, and clarinets -- is capable of both somber background and aggressive disruption in a variety of styles, including rock & roll, and the contrast between the ensemble and the fully traditional sound of the Choir of Trinity Wall Street (ironically enough, given that the words of labor leader John L. Lewis form part of the work's text) is one of the keys to the work's appeal. The work is in five movements which might easily, it would seem, be performed separately; in whatever form, the work seems likely to have a lasting presence in American musical life.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim