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EXCLUSIVE: Classicalite Q&A with 'The Source' Composer Ted Hearne on His Chelsea Manning, WikiLeaks, R We Who R We and Erykah Badu

By Maria Jean Sullivan m.sullivan@classicalite.com on Nov 04, 2014 03:50 PM EST

Composer/singer Ted Hearne's latest work, the multimedia oratorio The Source, premiered last week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The piece is based on Chelsea Manning's release of government documents to WikiLeaks and features some of Hearne's most accessible compositions yet. Commissioned and produced by Beth Morrison Projects (she of the Protoype Festival), the work features a libretto by Mark Doten with direction by Daniel Fish, production design by Jim Findlay and video work by Fish and Findlay together.

To fully comprehend the construction of The Source, how Hearne finds the time to still collaborate with Philip White of R We Who R We--as well as his past work with Erykah Badu at BAM with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, we went straight to the man, himself. 

Classicalite: Your latest work, The Source, features text from the Iraq and Afghanistan War logs with words by Chelsea Manning (the transgendered U.S. Army private who intentionally shared those classified documents with Julian Assange and Wikileaks), premiered at BAM Next Wave Festival in Brooklyn last week. How did this project come to light?

Ted Hearne: It was a long process -- I started over four years ago, when considering the similarities between the ways Julian Assange+WikiLeaks treated classified yet digitized information, and the way peer-to-peer file-sharing services treated audio files (and the ways musicians or producers treated audio samples). I thought there was an interesting parallel from a freedom-of-information perspective and wanted to explore that.

However, when the story of Chelsea Manning came to light, as well as the massive trove of government documents she was responsible for leaking (some of which detailed horrible war crimes, some of which detailed the day-to-day operations of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), my focus quickly turned to this individual. I had a lot of questions. What was going through her mind when she encountered these documents? What circumstances led her to make them public? But then, most importantly: how do I, as someone who is extremely removed from war, engage with and receive the real content of those documents?

Those questions are behind my decision to set portions of the Logs themselves, because I thought that if music couldn't make sense of the war, it could at least help portray the distance I felt when reading the Logs.

I had been working with librettist Mark Doten on the seeds of this idea for about a year when I told Beth Morrison about it, and thankfully she took on the project and has been such a vital force in getting it off the ground, producing with a big vision from day one.

C-LITE: Why an oratorio rather than an opera?

TD: The oratorios I love -- Handel's Messiah being the most famous example of course -- tell a story without specific characters or plots, but rather through isolated vignettes that are juxtaposed with one another. The totality is communicated through the adjacency of the discrete movements, and I modeled The Source on that concept.

C-LITE: What was the significance of director Daniel Fish and videographer Jim Findlay to film 100 people separately watching the same video of an Apache helicopter attack?

TD: The concept for the video came from our desire to focus on the actual content of the leaks that Chelsea Manning brought to light. After all, while she is a fascinating individual who was undergoing an intense period of isolation and confusion at that time, and while the 2010 leaks have inspired conversations on a huge variety of topics (secrecy, privacy, identity, sexuality to name a few), for us the most important (and potent) factor remained the leaks themselves. What do they actually look like? It's one thing to read a headline about the leaks, and quite another to actually read them. We know that Manning watched that video and couldn't just let it go. So in a way it's about honoring her experience of actually watching it.

C-LITE: What influence does the video have on the music?

TD: There is a little over an hour of music, and during that performance, the video content consists entirely of people's faces as they were watching the "Collateral Murder" video. I had written about half the score when we decided on this visual concept, so my compositional process from that point forward was influenced by the knowledge that the video would be quite minimal and slowly-developing. In a sense, I think this inspired me even more to create music that was rough and overstuffed, full of reference and noise, so much that you can't catch it all in one hearing.

I usually try to bring the polyphony/cacophony of life's experience into the work somehow, and knowing that the pace, speed and content of the visuals would be a contrast to that helped me follow my impulses more.

C-LITE: Another recent BAM collaboration paired you with Erykah Badu, Alan Pierson and the Brooklyn Philharmonic for an evening-length work comprised of new music with creative arrangements of songs from Badu's 2008 album New Amerykah: Part One. Is Erykah Badu a big influence of yours?

TD: Erykah is a huge influence of mine, yes. Along with D'Angelo's Brown Sugar and especially Voodoo, her albums Baduizm and Mama's Gun were like textbooks for me when I was in college. There is a minimalism that stretches to every level of that music-- structurally, harmonically, melodically, rhythmically. And the musicians playing on and producing those albums (some of the best out there, obviously, including Questlove and the unbelievable bass players Pino Paladino and Braylon "Brother B" Lacy) give extremely focused but nuanced performances, so that a ton of information is communicated in each musical gesture. The way an underlying rhythmic feel/grid is expressed is so subtle and beautiful, and helped exemplify the concept of "economy of means" for me more than basically any other music.

New Amerykah: Part One is another incredible album which I love, but I think that material lent itself to an orchestral adaptation especially well. There are more electronic elements at play there -- I believe Erykah recorded a lot of it into Garageband herself, and some of the original sounds remain -- and on many tracks, the music came more from her experimentation with moving around individual sounds and grooves than it did from working out material with her band.

The challenge of creating orchestral sound-combinations that could replace the role the fixed electronics played in New Amerykah seemed a lot more interesting to me than the idea of re-voicing a bunch of sick grooves for the bassoons or layering some conventionally-pretty strings on top of the electric bass and drums playing what they would have played anyway.

C-LITE: Tell me about your experiences performing and composing with Philip White as their electronic/vocal duo R WE WHO R WE and the New Focus Recordings debut Eponymous.

TD: Philip White has been another huge inspiration for me as a composer and performing artist. We have been friends for a long time but the music we write sounds so different from one another, it took us forever to figure out what we could do as a collaboration. Philip manipulates feedback from a mixer into some beautiful shapes and sounds and while his improvisations have a stunning architecture to them, he never forsakes the visceral for the academic.

Philip also shares my obsession with all the grey areas surrounding ownership of sound and music, and the ineptitude of current copyright law to deal with the way artists process and create music. (His new album Documents is an incredible example of the way he explores these concepts through music, as he uses seminal jazz recordings as source material that becomes highly transformed, reduced/pixellated and scrawled-upon.)

Anyway, Philip and I decided to use music from the contemporary pop landscape as source material for R WE WHO R WE, and we discovered a lot about ourselves and our music in the process. I've very proud of the sound we came up with together. A big product of Philip's and my collaboration is a sort of Frankenstein auto-tune that we messed with and exploited for our purposes, and I went on to use that sound in many movements of The Source. So, Philip's work has had a huge effect on my own work. Luckily, we're still working together as R WE WHO R WE, and we are recording our next album this January.

C-LITE: Anything new in the works with composer collective Sleeping Giant?

TD: Yes. Sleeping Giant has evolved interestingly since the six of us (myself along with Timo Andres, Jacob Cooper, Chris Cerrone, Robert Honstein and Andrew Norman) left school. We have all encountered our own challenges, and have forged our own separate paths aesthetically, and I think because of our newly-found differences, our upcoming collaborations have the potential to be the richest yet.

We have just finished a 75-minute program (featuring six distinct works) for eighth blackbird -- that will be premiered in 2015. We are also beginning a two-year residency with the Albany Symphony, during which we will write an evening-length song cycle for Theo Bleckmann, curate a few orchestra concerts, and compose a "reimagining" of the Mozart Requiem.

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