ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Anthracite Fields

by Jill Kimball


When it comes to contemporary music, the biggest cause for celebration is its determination to find inspiration in unusual places. Increasingly, composers have tossed aside those old standbys–rich royals, first-world travel, God–and have instead embraced the unpredictable.

In the past, composer Julia Wolfe has found inspiration in a Vermeer painting, an Aretha Franklin song, and the idea of a slow-motion scream. Last year, she even released a musical hommage to the American folktale hero John Henry, a steel driver who died trying to compete with a machine.

But this time, Wolfe found her muse unexpectedly close to home.

For Wolfe, writing Anthracite Fields began with a rumination on her childhood home of Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania. The dirt-road town straddled polar opposite worlds: on one side of it lay the big city, Philadelphia; on the other lay an expanse of coal mining fields, where men and boys once toiled long hours in dangerous conditions for a pittance. She’d almost never ventured in the latter direction before. Curiously, she set off to explore the mines and soon found herself consumed by the history of the coal fields. By April 2014, she’d written an hour-long piece dedicated to the hundreds of thousands of people who literally powered upper- and middle-class American lives for more than a century.

It’s no mystery why Wolfe has already won a Pulitzer Prize for this work, which features performances by Bang on a Can All-Stars and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street. The sound is intense, evocative, and completely original. The carefully chosen words, taken from historical documents, interviews, and speeches, are heart-wrenching. Perhaps most importantly, the piece explores themes that are just as relevant to American lives today as they were 150 years ago: class inequality, unfair working conditions, and the social cost of using coal to generate electricity.

“The politics are very fascinating—the issues about safety, and the consideration for the people who are working and what’s involved in it,” Wolfe said in a recent NPR interview. “But I didn’t want to say, ‘Listen to this. This is a big political issue.’ It really was, ‘Here’s what happened. Here’s this life, and who are we in relationship to that?’ We’re them. They’re us. And basically, these people, working underground, under very dangerous conditions, fueled the nation. That’s very important to understand.”

The five-movement piece begins below ground, in the midst of a typical coal miner’s long, dark, and dangerous workday. An uneasy collection of sustained notes is interrupted by a loud, jarring noise every minute or so. The choir names off a series of men named John, found on a list of more than 50,000 Pennsylvania mining casualties between 1869 and 1916. In a genius compositional move, Wolfe chose to pair this heartbreakingly endless list of names with sung text, at turns mournful and fiery, explaining how coal is formed.

Sadly, children in Pennsylvania’s anthracite region started working in the mines as early as age 6 to help put food on the family table. The second movement of Anthracite Fields remembers those working children, called breaker boys. The children sat bent over on planks all day, cutting their fingers up to pick debris out of freshly mined coal. The text Wolfe set in this movement comes from a perversely catchy regional folk song (“Mickey Pick-Slate, early and late, that was the poor little breaker boy’s fate”) and from a heart-rending interview with a one-time breaker boy (“You didn’t dare say anything, you didn’t dare quit, you didn’t wear gloves”). I admit it: this movement made me cry.

In the second half of the piece, Wolfe moves above ground to examine the social implications of underground coal mining. Her third movement, “Speech,” mixes sparse choral writing with rock opera-style solo vocals, using text from a union president’s speech advocating for fair working conditions and compensation.

The last two movements come from two very different non-miners’ perspectives. Wolfe says “Flowers” was inspired by an interview with Barbara Powell, the daughter of a miner who says she never felt poor, thanks to her town’s generous community and the cheerful little things in life, like growing her beautiful garden. The last movement, “Appliances,” is an uncomfortable reminder that coal miners put their lives on the line for next to no pay so that the upper classes could live in comfort, whether they were traveling by train or heating their homes. At the very end, the singers whistle, conjuring the sound of a train grinding against the rails.

Composer Julia Wolfe.

Composer Julia Wolfe.

Anthracite Fields is not an easy listen, but I don’t think Julia Wolfe wanted it to be. We Americans tend to gloss over unpleasant parts of our history when, in order to make peace with our past, we’d do better to confront it. In telling these miners’ stories through vivid music, Wolfe has brought an important but often ignored chapter of our country’s story to the forefront. I encourage people of all backgrounds to listen to this award-winning work, daunting though it may seem. You’ll learn a little about life in late-1800s Pennsylvania, you’ll contemplate energy usage and workers’ rights, and if you’re like me, you’ll have a good cry.

LIVE PERFORMANCE FEATURE: Seattle Pro Musica sings David Lang


David Lang‘s the little match girl passion won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for music, and was recently performed by Seattle Pro Musica under the direction of Karen P. Thomas:

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A little bit of background on the piece, by David Lang:

“My piece is called The Little Match Girl Passion and it sets Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Little Match Girl in the format of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, interspersing Andersen’s narrative with my versions of the crowd and character responses from Bach’s Passion. The text is by me, after texts by Han Christian Andersen, H. P. Paulli (the first translator of the story into English, in 1872), Picander (the nom de plume of Christian Friedrich Henrici, the librettist of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion), and the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. The word ”passion” comes from the Latin word for suffering. There is no Bach in my piece and there is no Jesus—rather the suffering of the Little Match Girl has been substituted for Jesus’s, elevating (I hope) her sorrow to a higher plane.”

A few of Seattle Pro Musica’s concert-goers offered up their reactions to this moving piece:

“What has stayed with me most from LMGP is the last line, “Rest soft, rest soft”. Boom. “Rest soft, rest soft”. The weight of that single drum beat. The weight in the silent lift of Karen’s hands following that drum beat. The weight and beauty of such a ‘simple’ phrase. “Rest soft, rest soft”.



Silence.” –Miriam Gnagy

the little match girl passion is one of those pieces that’s very difficult for performers. Besides being technically demanding, the story is so moving that you could easily get carried away by your emotions and become lost. It’s a delicate balancing act – being in the moment enough to make it powerful for the audience without losing control of the performance. It was an unforgettable experience.” –Wes Kim

“Evocative. Poignant.  Difficult.  Heartbreaking.  David Lang’s the little match girl passion causes the singer—and the listener—to experience viscerally the shivering of a little girl on the last evening of the year, and mourn her passing in a forgotten corner of the village.  The Hans Christian Anderson fairytale brought to musical life—a 21st century artistic masterpiece.” –Marilyn Colyar

“The music was mesmerizing. It made me FEEL cold. The blend and balance of the voices was perfection, the halting rhythms dropped me into a focused suspended listening state, so that the sudden shift to the intense soprano solo swept me up and broke me open. What a piece! The stamina of the performers and their complete engagement was extraordinary. The use of instruments (that low drumbeat, the tubular bells, the chain on the hub) was powerful and haunting.” –Elly Hale

“The LMGP performances were haunting. The austere walls of St. James’ made the repetitions in the music even more relentless, providing a suitably cold and eerie atmosphere for the piece to grab the listener by the throat. And so it ended: the candle died with our last breath.” –Isabelle Phan

Many thanks to Karen P. Thomas and David Lang for the allowance of this streaming on-demand!


by Maggie Stapleton

Here at Second Inversion, our catchphrase is “Rethink Classical.”  The multi-talented Aaron Grad (Composer, Guitarist, Artistic Consultant, Program Note Author, Lecturer, the list goes on) has done some serious rethinking of his own.  Let’s go a step or two back in time and call it “Rethink Renaissance.”

In 2012, Aaron built a one-of-a-kind electric theorbo.  You read that correctly.  Here’s a sample of the instrument’s sound in an excerpt from Aaron’s composition, Old-Fashioned Love Songs.theorbo_body


I had the pleasure of chatting with Aaron about the concept and design of the instrument as well as his upcoming performance featuring Aaron on electric theorbo and Gus Mercante, countertenor on Saturday, June 21, 8pm at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center.  Aaron recently returned to Seattle after an East Coast tour with performances in NYC, Delaware, and Maryland (which got a great review in the Washington Post).

Listen if you’d like, or keep reading if that’s your preference!

Q. Could you tell us a little bit about this instrument you’ve created, the electric theorbo?

A. It’s based on an old instrument, the theorbo, which is a 16th century Italian lute with long bass strings plus a fretted fret board like a lute would have.  I fell in love with this instrument – it’s audacious, bold, has a deep bass sound, is beautiful for accompanying vocal music.  I had the idea to create a version that would work for me, because I’m not a period practiced lute player, like there are so many wonderful people who do that, especially here in Seattle, so I had to find my version.   I had this idea to hybridize the theorbo, with its many strings and deep bass notes and combine that with an electric guitar, with is my instrument.   So I came up with a design that brought those two worlds together and it uses some old ideas and old stringing and tuning but also very modern techniques of carbon fibers and other new materials.

Q. Did you actually build the instrument yourself?

I did.  It took me many months to design it and probably 8 months in a wood shop putting it together.  I had to try a bunch of things, engineer new techniques and bits and pieces that just don’t exist.  There aren’t a lot of precedents for this so I had to come up with a way to make a new bridge and find the right kind of tuners and even the pickups – every single component I had to rethink, source from somewhere, and ultimately assemble and put it all together.

Q.  What did you have in mind as far as the music to be performed on this instrument ?  Old?  New?

A. The overall message I had in mind was “the timelessness of love songs,” so it ended up being a new-old hybrid, but in a way my goal was not to show not how different those worlds are, but how similar they are.  Any time I’m involved in that new-old territory (which I find I’m doing a lot of), it’s usually to find common threads and connections back to something that I think is immortal in a musical statement or even a human, personal statement.  I ended up using love songs as far back as the 16th century and up to the 21st century and then I wrote a bunch of my own new songs.   The idea was just to show a common thread, that music has always been used to express love.  The simplest version is one person singing and the sound of something being strummed or plucked (and that goes back even farther than the theorbo) and as long as people have been singing or plucking strings, they’ve been expressing love.

Q. Is that the impetus for the concert you have coming up on June 21st?

A.  The two sides of it came together – one was building the instrument and just having the idea for that as a sound that I was drawn to.  The other was this idea about love and its timelessness and universality.  And so those came together in Old-Fashioned Love Songs – an evening length song cycle and the whole thing is one big love letter to my wife.  It’s my way of putting out in a very public, exposed, and somewhat vulnerable way- very true and personal feelings.  That’s what I’m interested in doing as a composer – I’m trying to push myself to be as “out there” as I can be with what I feel deeply.  I used to allow musical activities to just be on the surface… write a piece that sounded nice.  I’m sure I’ll do that again, but right now I’m interested in going really deep into what is most true and personal for me at that point in my life and figuring a way to put it to music.

Q.  Can you give us a sense of the range of songs we can expect to hear?

A.  The first thing on the program is a Toccata by an Italian theorbo composer written in a 1604.  The earliest song on the program is by John Dowland, great master of English love songs – beautiful, heartsick love songs (the agony of love!).  I also touch some Henry Purcell, which is also from that era when the theorbo was an active instrument.  Then I move somewhat chronologically… some Stephen Foster, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill.  Then we get into some later 20th century pop music by Cyndi Lauper and Norah Jones.  Interspersed between all of those are some of my own songs which were written in the last year or two.

Q. Tell us a little bit about the collaboration with the vocalist.

A. The singer is a countertenor, a wonderful singer from Delaware named Gus Mercante who I worked with for the first time over a decade ago.  It’s been so nice to work with that voice type which also has these old resonances.  It’s a voice associated with centuries past.  There’s something so pure and angelic about a countertenor voice that helps to deliver that message that floats just beyond one moment.  He’s just been a wonderful musician and partner to work with.  We’ve been working very closely together and touring together and it really helps that I think our friendship shows up on stage and from the last performances we just did on the east coast, I saw how important that was as a part of what we’re doing because it is such personal music and especially because I’m not the one singing it, he’s really a mouthpiece for my ideas and I just felt like we were really close and connected and able to move together and phrase together in ways that spoke to our friendship and connection just as two people.

Old-Fashioned Love Songs will be a great way to cozy up with a loved one and take a journey through time, all the while experiencing the electric theorbo in the intimate setting of the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center.

Visit our Streaming Albums On-Demand page to hear more of Aaron Grad’s compositions and recordings!


by Maggie Stapleton 

Andrew C. Smith

Andrew C. Smith is a composer, pianist, and co-founder of Indexical, which is “dedicated to supporting music by composers who work outside of mainstream contemporary music institutions” through recording projects, live concerts, and publications.

Andrew’s currently living in Seattle and stopped by the studios recently to share a curated playlist with three selections from Index 0, the first record released on Indexical.

Among the pieces on the list is Topology (phases of this difference).  A performance of his Topology recently shared the stage with John Teske’s topographies at the Good Shepherd Center.  For a more in depth look at the piece and its location-based uniquity, I’ll leave that to Andrew!

Elizabeth Adams: CUSP
Beau Sievers: Distance Etude No. 1
Andrew C. Smith: Topology (phases of this difference)
James Tenney: Critical Band

Happy listening and we’ll keep you posted on Indexical’s projects!


by Maggie Stapleton

Second Inversion is very excited about a couple of projects Seattle composer Nat Evans has up his sleeve this Spring.

Nat and a Cat.

Nat and a Cat.

On Saturday, March 29, 8pm at the Good Shepherd Center Chapel Performance Space, The Box is Empty will present a concert on the Wayward Music Series featuring one of his works, More Comfort, which “explores the evolution of our relation to different screens in our lives, mobile devices and televisions as a hearth place, and the nature of our contemporary interactions and language.”  The performance includes a video by Rodrigo Valenzuela showing of the use of our hands with the multitude of devices in our everyday lives.  Three works for strings by New York-based composer Leaha Villarreal (and Artistic Director of Hotel Elefant are also slated, one of which features video by Seattle artist Erin Elyse Burns.  I’m also told that alka seltzer tablets and compressed air will cameo as instruments, which on its own is enough to pique my interest in attending.

Then, in late April Nat is going to take a very long walk.  A 2,600 mile journey from Mexico to Canada along the Pacific Crest Trail, to be exact.  This is a compositional journey in which Nat will send 8 West Coast composers field recordings to use with newly composed material.  In early 2015, all of these new works will be released on Quakebasket Records.  I sincerely encourage you to find out more about “The Tortoise and His Raincoat” and we hope to give you some sneak peeks of Nat’s work as he checks in along the way!

PS If that’s not enough to put you in green spirits, here’s some music by Nat performed in Seattle’s Ravenna Park.