This article was originally published in the April 2017 Trenton Downtowner.
The space that was once the heart of Trenton’s industrial power is now the furnace of Trenton’s emerging art industry.
The former Roebling Wire Works building on South Broad Street in Trenton is the center for the powerhouse Art All Night Festival, Punk Rock Flea Market, and Trenton Circus Squad. And now it is the stage for an oratorio written by one of America’s most prominent and innovative composers, Julia Wolfe.
Wolfe’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Anthracite Fields” is set for a full performance by the Princeton-based Westminster Choir College and the New York City-based Bang on a Can All Stars on Friday and Saturday, April 21 and 22.
The event is part of Westminster’s Transforming Space project to “explore how the arts can transform a space or a location not generally used for a performance or arts-related event.” A second Trenton project is the fall, 2017, “Liebeslieder Waltzes” being developed in cooperation with American Ballet Repertory for the Trenton War Memorial Ballroom.
While “Anthracite Fields” focuses on the lives of coal miners in Northeast Pennsylvania, Westminster spokeswoman Anne Sears says there is a direct link to the Roebling Factory: it was anthracite coal that fueled the furnaces that allowed Roebling to make the steel that built America.
Sears, the communications director for Westminster Choir College of Rider University and producer for several Westminster CDs, is part of the spark for the work’s coming to Trenton.
After attending the work’s premiere in Philadelphia, Sears, whose family roots are in Pennsylvania coal mining culture, says she saw the relevance of the work to Trenton and brought the work to the attention of Westminster faculty members.
The Roebling space made sense for its current and past artistic activity — in the early 1990s it was the site of the Passage Theater premiere of “Roebling Steel,” a work about Roebling factory workers.
Although currently based in New York City, composer Wolfe is connected to rural Pennsylvania, where she grew up, and the Trenton region, where she was a doctoral fellow at Princeton University.
Her music “combines influences from folk, classical, and rock genres in works that are grounded in historical and legendary narrative,” noted the MacArthur Foundation committee upon awarding her a 2016 fellowship, dubbed the Genius Award. “Often described as post-minimalist, Wolfe demonstrates an openness to sonic possibilities, with choral elements and instruments such as the mountain dulcimer, bagpipes, and body percussion often augmenting string and orchestral arrangements. Many of her works blur the line between music and theatrical experience.”
Wolfe is also one of the founders of the celebrated Bang on a Can, a 30-year-old project dedicated to commissioning, performing, recording new works, and developing new audiences. Another co-founder is current Institute for Advanced Study artist-in-residence, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang.
“My aim with ‘Anthracite Fields’ is to honor the people who persevered and endured in the Pennsylvania anthracite coal region during a time when the industry fueled the nation, and to reveal a bit about who we are as American workers,” Wolfe says in a statement.
“The text is culled from oral histories and interviews, local rhymes, a coal advertisement, geological descriptions, a mining accident index, and contemporary daily everyday activities that make use of coal,” says the composer, who combined research in American labor history with interviews with retired miners and family members in the Scranton region, where her grandmother was raised.
Wolfe explains the five moments: “In the first movement, ‘Foundation,’ the singers chant the names of miners that appeared on a Pennsylvania Mining Accident index, 1869-1916,” says Wolfe. “The list is sadly long. I chose only the Johns with one-syllable last names in alphabetical order. The piece ends with a setting of the very colorful multi-syllabic names. The miners were largely from immigrant families and the diversity of ethnicity is heard in the names. At the center of Foundation is text from geological descriptions of coal formation.
“‘Breaker Boys’ follows next. There were many boys working in the Pennsylvania coal mines. The younger ones worked in the breakers, which were large ominous structures. The coal would come running down shoots of the breakers, and the boys had the painful job of removing debris from the rush of coal. They weren’t allowed to wear gloves, and as a result their fingers were cut and bleeding. The central rhyme of this movement, Mickey Pick-Slate, is from the anthracite region. Others were adapted from children’s street rhymes. In the center of this movement are the words of Anthony (Shorty) Slick, who worked as a breaker boy. The interview is taken from the documentary film, ‘America and Lewis Hine’ directed by Nina Rosenblum. Hine worked for the National Child Labor Committee, and served as chief photographer for the WPA.
“‘Speech’ is the third movement. The text is adapted from an excerpt of a speech by John L. Lewis, who served as president of the United Mine Workers of America. Lewis was an impassioned spokesperson for the miners and fought hard-won battles for safer working conditions and for compensation.
“The fourth movement, ‘Flowers,’ was inspired by an interview with Barbara Powell, daughter and granddaughter of miners. She grew up in a Pennsylvania patch town and had many stories to tell about her family life. She never felt poor. She had an amazing sense of community. Barbara talked about how everyone helped each other. In one interview Barbara said, in order to brighten their lives, ‘We all had gardens,’ and then she began to list the names of flowers.
“And the last movement, ‘Appliances,’ ties the new to the old. I was struck by John L. Lewis’ line ‘those of us who benefit from that service because we live in comfort.’ Our days are filled with activities that require power. Even today coal is fueling the nation, powering electricity. When we bake a cake or grind coffee beans we use coal.”
Wolfe says the closing words are taken from a 1900 Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad advertising campaign that used the fictitious socialite Phoebe Snow whose “gown stayed white from morn till night, on the road to Anthracite.” Wolfe calls the lines, “a stunning contrast to the coal-darkened faces underground.”
Westminster Choir College choral director and orchestra conductor Joe Miller says the Trenton presentation will be “an experience where music, poetry, and the arts are put inside a space outside a typical performance hall.”
The semi-staged event is under the direction of New York-based director and choreographer Doug Varone, whose credits include four productions at the Metropolitan Opera and commissions for the Limon Company, Martha Graham Dance Company, and others.
The “Anthracite Fields” performances will be enhanced by a concurrent art exhibition at Artworks Trenton, “Transformations — Post Industrial Trenton.” According to curator Addison Vincent, the two-day exhibition involves artists from both the Trenton and Northeast Pennsylvania regions and shows “how post-industrial places like Trenton, just like coal country, can find beauty and dignity in these spaces, conjuring the humanity of the workers and families who animated these building and communities long ago, and how artists of all genres, can reanimate these communities and spaces in the present.”
Anthracite Fields, Roebling Wireworks, 675 South Clinton Avenue, Trenton, Friday and Saturday, April 21 and 22, 8 p.m., $15 to $20, box information at (609) 921-2663 or rider.edu/arts.
Composer Julia Wolf and conductor Joe Mill will discuss the work at 7:15 p.m. prior to each performance. There also will be a daytime workshop and educational component, with one-third of tickets to the performances offered free to Trenton residents and distributed through school children. The workshop will include a performance for Trenton school children, followed by a Q&A with the choir.
For information on Transforming Space Project, rider.edu/transformingspace.