Julia Wolfe

“I was drawn to composing because the act of creating music

accesses different parts of me. Music is mathematical, spiritual,

poetic, physical, emotional, scientific, and more. In recent works 

like Steel Hammer and Anthracite Fields I have also delved into

American labor history. Through a musical lens I explore who we

are as American workers.”

                                                                  — Julia Wolfe

By Nicole Bolt

Anthracite is a type of coal heavily found in Pennsylvania. Unlike other types of coals, it is clean to the touch. Somewhat rare, Anthracite burns a beautiful blue flame but is also used for decorative purposes when polished and has a brilliant, almost metallic lustre. Julia Wolfe, a Phi Beta Kappa member and Pennsylvania native, composed a five-movement oratorio for choir and sextet, Anthracite Fields, winning her the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in music.

After her first Pulitzer nomination, Wolfe was commissioned by Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia to compose the piece. The five-movements—Foundation, The Breaker Boys, Speech, Flowers, and Appliances—tell the story of Anthracite mineworkers in Pennsylvania, not far from where Wolfe grew up. In an interview with NPR, Wolfe said, “One thing that is really important to me was to honor that life.” Wolfe didn’t want to piece necessarily to touch on the political side of the mining industry, but to focus more on the human component of telling individual stories. Wolfe explained further in the interview: “We’re them. They’re us. And, basically, these people, working underground, under very dangerous conditions, fueled the nation. That’s fascinating and very important to understand.” Wolfe researched the mineworkers’ lives for over a year before she began working on the piece that would eventually win her the Pulitzer.

Wolfe has written for quartets and full orchestras alike, commissioned by other prestigious groups such as the Munich Chamber Orchestra. Wolfe has also written for the Kronos Quartet, the Orchestra National de France, the American Composers Orchestra, and more. Her music can be heard all over the world in different forms, from choral to orchestral arrangements. 

Anthracite Fields premiered in Philadelphia, April 26, 2014, with the Bang on a Can All-StarsWolfe is one of the co-founders of Bang on a Can, who are dedicated to making music new. Founded in 1987, Bang on a Can has worked toward creating an international community of innovative musicians and tasks itself with “building a world in which powerful new musical ideas flow freely across all genres and borders.” 

Now that she has won the Pulitzer, Wolfe hopes the style of her work inspires others to push the limits constraining artists. “I’ve always been someone who challenges the system and tries to reach for something beyond the status quo, not do business as usual,” she told NPR. It’s this very desire to push the limits that sets her creativity apart. By focusing on the people who perform the job, their lives and their families, Wolfe was able to express the very thing that the Pulitzer Prize aims to do – tell a story in a profound way. The New York Times described Wolfe’s work in these words: “…a polished and stylistically assured cantata, the overall coherence of the musical material helped her expressions of outrage to burn cleanly and brightly.” Ironically, or maybe not so, Anthracite burns cleanly too.

Nicole Bolt is a senior at the University of Iowa majoring in English with minors in mass communications and communications studies. The University of Iowa is home to the Alpha of Iowa Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.