Composed by the American composer Julia Wolfe in 2014, Anthracite Fields is a contemporary piece featuring orchestra and voices. It was first performed in Philadelphia by Bang on a Can All Stars; it received the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2015. This composition consists of 5 movements, the last of which is named “Appliances”.


Song Description

Before main voices come in, a variety of clashing percussion (electronic keys and cymbal) begin with a noisy, turbulent backdrop. A few measures into the movement, a unison choir comes in, chanting single fragmented syllables that constitute a variety of random phrases. These words are separated by random rests, and do not seem to cooperate at all with the underlaid percussion. There is no main melody or apparent theme. Each fragmented syllable lingers around the same notes as the syllables before it. The overall timbre of this movement is rather harsh and cacophonous; it is not warm or pleasant to the ear.

The rhythm, although syncopated, is very mechanical and robot-like. It is hard for the listener to predict where any subsequent beat will fall. In the beginning, the syllables are interspersed by many rests, but as the piece progresses, many of the rests disappear and the voices come in quicker and quicker. Towards the end, the tempo seems to slow back down, and the voices are meshed together and drawn out longer.

Throughout the movement, the dynamic stays relatively constant, although there are occasionally sections with crescendos followed by dramatic pauses. The majority of the piece is loud and cacophonous; it does not die down to a piano dynamic until the very end.

Past Styles & Traditions

Anthracite Fields is quite unlike any kind of music from the Baroque, Classical or Romantic Eras. “Appliances” does not seem to follow any melodic line; nor does it have a reliable rhythm or tempo. The voices come in at arbitrary times, and in many instances the piece feels structureless. Unlike most of the classical pieces we have studied this semester, “Appliances” does not immediately register as music and is quite unwelcoming to the ear.

While Anthracite Fields is contemporary, it does contain musical elements that are found in the traditional pieces we have studied. The syncopation in this piece’s rhythm is not new. Many of the pieces we studied, including Mahler and Beethoven’s symphonies, contain some amount of syncopation. Furthermore, the rhythmless chant of the choir voices is evocative of Gregorian chants we studied at the beginning of the semester, such as “In Paradisum”. Both works lack a main melody, are unpredictable in rhythm, and feature choral singing. Another similarity is that both are syllabic – each syllable the lyrics of “Appliances” is given a single note. This syllabic characteristic is also found in many arias and recitatives we studied early in the semester, including the 7th movement of Bach’s cantata, “Wachet Auf”. 

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