How thrilling to see my all-time favorite new music group, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, represented at the New York Phil Biennial! Not only that, but they were performing a brand new composition by one of their three co-founders, Julia Wolfe. As a bonus, there was a moment during the New York première of Anthracite Fields when percussionist David Cossin was actually banging on a can. This self-referential juncture was one of many highlights in Ms Wolfe’s expansive new work.

Bang on a Can All-Stars © Peter Serling
Bang on a Can All-Stars
© Peter Serling

The anthracite fields in Pennsylvania were the inspiration for this five-movement, hour-long illustration of the coal industry. As with her Steel Hammer, which focuses on the legend of John Henry, Ms Wolfe has crafted a stunning synecdoche with Anthracite Fields: what starts out as a glimpse into the lives of Pennsylvania coal miners becomes a beautiful meditation on the American worker. In writing the piece, Ms Wolfe journeyed into the coal mines, interviewed former miners and their children, and researched the political and cultural issues surrounding the coal mines.

The texts range from names taken from the index of Pennsylvania mining accidents, sung hauntingly by the Trinity Wall Street Choir and conducted phenomenally by Julian Wachner, to children’s street rhymes, to a speech given by the head of the United Mine Workers. These last two were sung by two of the All-Stars themselves, with cellist Ashley Bathgate chanting “Mickey Pick-Slate, early and late” during “Breaker Boys”, and guitarist Mark Stewart singing the third movement speech. These two movements were the most stirring, especially the juxtaposition of children’s rhymes with excerpted statements of a former “breaker boy”: “You weren’t allowed to wear gloves. / Your fingernails, you had none. / The ends of them would be bleeding every day...”

The words and the music, which varied from the solemn recitation of the miners’ names to more dissonant sections involving distortion and yelling, were accompanied by images projected onto the stage behind the choir and instrumentalists. The foreboding instrumental opening to “Foundation” was joined by white drops of light falling across a black screen; the vocalization of the miners’ names – “John Ace, John Art, John Ash” – was joined by the black and white image of a miner with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Images of young “breaker boys” appeared during the striking second movement, with its upbeat rhythms and references to childhood. In addition to the “Mickey Pick-Slate” chants, the score incorporates the banging of a can, the spinning of bicycle wheels, whistling, and shouting.

After such raw and eye-opening emotion, the third and fourth movements felt a bit cheesier via the choir’s echoes of Mr Stewart’s wailed plea in “Speech” and the pulsing repetition of “Flowers”. The final movement, “Appliances”, whisked us off on a Koyaanisqatsi-esque journey through the various everyday processes and machines that rely on coal, from baking a cake to vacuuming the rug to turning on a light. The images and sounds overlapped and morphed and convoluted, finally ending with a reprise of the eerie whistling. I managed to snap out of my amazement to join in the thunderous ovation.

After the intermission, the New York Philharmonic took the stage to give the New York première of another work, this time by Steven Mackey. Like Anthracite Fields, Mr Mackey’s Dreamhouse is long, dense, and political. Rather than employing images, the performance relied on the texts to convey disillusionment and chaos, using an architect’s point of view to offer fragments and glimpses into what Mr Mackey describes as “the fragility of life in coexisting on this blue marble in space.”

Joined by the precision of guest conductor Jayce Ogren, as well as the four vocalists from Synergy Vocals and four guitarists of the Catch Electric Guitar Quartet, the Philharmonic rendered the unsettling music with energy and grace. From the opening fifths and metallic interruption, to the flute melodies fifing along, to the crowded, disturbing array of sounds in Part II, Mr Ogren and the Philharmonic were unabashed in their forceful interpretation. Soloist Rinde Eckert, who collaborated with Mr Mackey on the text, was the highlight, belting out his lines without a trace of pretension. At times the score seemed to be emulating (or mocking) musical theater – for instance, the “cell phone call” of Part II – and jazz or rock or pop at other times. Meanwhile, the words offered snapshots of people, houses, and towns. After the more impersonal Part I (“vinyl-lined aluminum downspout gutters”) and the overtly personal Part II (“She says she is leaving”), Part III: Dreamhouse was more universal, a symbolic reflection on nature and utopianism.

The extensive finale, while a bit drawn-out, was thought-provoking in its troublesome, intensifying volumes from all performers. With the musicians twinkling and the chorus ooh-ing sweetly, it was easy to get lulled into a false sense of complacency during the “lullaby”. But the loud, brash ending quashed this idea of security or safeness, conveying a sense of unexpected catastrophe looming just outside the fence.