‘Here what I like to see happen,” says Doug Varone to the 30 singers bunched together near the center of Hillman Performance Hall on the campus of Westminster Choir College in Princeton. “Basses move to front. Tenors move back in the line. I may ask the tenors to move towards the chairs.”
The New York-based choreographer and director — whose credits include directing and choreography for the Metropolitan Opera, Limon Company, and Martha Graham Dance Company — folds his arms and asks, “Are we good?”
When there’s tacit agreement, he gestures to the rehearsal pianist who in turn attacks the sounds of the percussive score. The singers follow as directed, face an imagined audience, and sing the repetition of words: “heat” and “time.”
The words are significant. In one way, they suggest Varone’s hot race against time to ready American composer Julia Wolfe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio, “Anthracite Fields,” for performance on Friday and Saturday, April 21 and 22, in Trenton.
Yet they also go directly to the heart of the subject, the coal industry and its “time is money” ethic, and the venue, the Roebling Wire Works in Trenton.
Closed for decades and owned by the City of Trenton, the Roebling Iron Works building has become a hotbox for Trenton’s emerging art industry and is home for the powerhouse Art All Night Festival, the popular Punk Rock Flea Markets, and Trenton Circus Squad, which will host a national circus festival in August.
Now the appearance of Wolfe’s 2015 work — which will include the involvement of the New York City-based Bang on a Can All Stars — is part of that critical cultural mass.
“Anthracite Fields” 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 “Liebeslieder Waltzes” being developed in cooperation with American Ballet Repertory for the Trenton War Memorial Ballroom this fall.
While the oratorical fuses various veins of music to examine the lives of Pennsylvania coal miners, 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 2014 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 — 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.
The movement called “Breaker Boys” follows. “There were many boys working in the Pennsylvania coal mines,” Wolfe says. “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 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 calls the Trenton presentation “an experience where music, poetry, and the arts are put inside a space outside a typical performance hall.”
“The world is transforming and it is our job as artists to respond to the world,” he says one recent afternoon in his office on the top floor of Williamson Hall on the Westminster Princeton campus. “Anyone who teaches school knows that students are different today. If we don’t find a way to connect, the art form is dead.”
He says the “transformation” approach is part of an effort to connect art to society to be something more than “a museum or something you would put on a shelf.”
The inspiration comes in part from the college’s ongoing participation in the Spoleto Festival, a major American arts festival combining theater, music, and dance and held annually in Charlestown, South Carolina.
“We see artists in different art forms. Watching the audience respond to them has been an education. So it’s being responsible to see what young people are inspired by,” says Miller who has also participated in events in Europe where “new theaters are being built to be more engaging, so the audience is closer to the singers.”
One of the new approaches Miller likes is “music not coming from the stage but from people. Sometimes we (perform music) in such a way that the choir is in the audience. The audience responds to more than the music, to human beings, how they look, sound.”
Regarding the Roebling factory, Miller says, “Space inspires me. I’m very visual and very spatial. One of the things that inspires me is to take traditional repertoire and put it in these places. Walking into Arts All Night and seeing the wire works and the environment I thought, ‘What an opportunity!’”
Yet it’s one with artistic challenges. The first is creating a design for the performance space. Instead of the familiar Art All Night staging area encountered immediately from the South Broad Street entrance, the performance will be in Art All Night’s traditional gallery area where between 400 and 500 seats face an orchestra area and film station over the rear wall and door.
The next challenge is to involve the audience deeper into the work, solved by the inclusion of choreographer Varone, who regularly works with composer Wolfe and presents at Spoleto. “The staging is integrated with the music and video. We’re not adding an additional narrative. It will be a cohesive part of the whole work.”
Another method of engagement is an art exhibition organized in the venue by 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.”
Reflecting on the project that has taken two years to realize, Miller says the success will come from delivering the sound. “Seeing an ensemble completely committed to what they’re doing and when a whole group — a choir — does it. It’s most compelling to an audience. The more digital and screen-based society becomes the more human contact is important.”
Will the innovations and new music have the fire power to heat up a new audience? “I certainly don’t have the answers,” Miller says, “but I’m going to keep pushing buttons and feel the reactions.”
Anthracite Fields, Roebling Wireworks, 675 South Clinton Avenue, Trenton. Friday and Saturday, April 21 and 22, 8 p.m. $15 to $20. 609-921-2663 or rider.edu/arts.
Composer Julia Wolfe and conductor Joe Miller 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 visit www.rider.edu/transformingspace.