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Ted Hearne on The Source

On Thursday night I went to the LA Opera/Beth Morrison Projects production of Ted Hearne’s The Source at REDCAT. This is an incredibly important work, and one that needs to be experienced with Daniel Fish’s staging if possible. The text is drawn from documents from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars released by Chelsea Manning via wikileaks, and ways material, both textual and musical, are crosscut, are an amazing reflection not only of the subject but of the way we view subjects today – fragmented, fast, and mediated by technology in occasionally problematic (this is a good thing, in this case) ways. The show continues tonight at tomorrow, and tickets are available at

I was able to talk to composer Ted Hearne ahead of the show, so some of the questions below reflect the fact that I hadn’t seen it yet, but deal with subjects that come up again and again in Ted’s work. He’s incredibly thoughtful and transparent in his approaches, and though this is a long read, what he considers and begs all of us to consider is absolutely worth your attention.

Ted Hearne, composer of The Source. Photo: Nathan Lee Bush.

Ted Hearne, composer of The Source. Photo: Nathan Lee Bush.

Though The Source is an LA Opera project, you call the work an oratorio. What can listeners expect?

There are four singers who sing the piece entirely while embedded in the audience, and four giant screens surrounding the space playing video throughout (designed by Jim Findlay and Daniel Fish). None of the singers are traditional opera singers, and about half of the songs use live a type of live electronic vocal processing akin to auto-tune. The libretto is entirely primary-source material, drawn mostly from the 400,000+ Dept of Defense cables released by WikiLeaks and their media partners in 2010 (now known as the Iraq War Logs and Afghan War Diary) and from the “Chat Logs” between Adrian Lamo and Chelsea Manning, the US Army Private responsible for releasing those documents to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. There are no characters, no stage and the singers don’t move. (If any of those things disqualify the piece as being called an ‘opera’ than I guess it’s not an opera, but I like the idea that LA Opera is unfazed.)

I read in the LA Times that you began with a plot or narrative of sorts, and moved toward the oratorio/more open ended nature of the work as the libretto progressed. Could you talk about that a bit? Do you feel anything was lost in the process? What did the work gain by going in that direction?

We didn’t start with a plot or traditional narrative per se, just a completely different focus. I started working on the piece in early 2010 — back then I was interested in finding ways to explore the differences between (often sensationalized) media narratives surrounding the leaks. After working with Daniel Fish (director) and Mark Doten (librettist), the focus really shifted toward self-reflection, and asking questions about how we engage with the content of the leaks themselves.

I’m still interested in the idea of music that represents or confronts our current media culture, but in this context it felt like portraying the media hysteria wasn’t saying anything meaningful about it, but merely adding to the noise. We did end up keeping one media-centric piece in The Source, a movement called “Julian in a Nutshell” which sets a list of questions asked to Julian Assange by journalists in December 2010 (but none of his answers). Anne Lanzilotti wrote of this movement on her blog the other day, getting into ways genre/style signifiers are used to musically depict a narrative about the media.

About “plot” — David Shields writes this in his literary manifesto Reality Hunger (Actually this passage is an appropriation of writing by E.M. Cioran. Like all passages in Reality Hunger, Shields appropriated it from outside sources and weaved it into his book.):

There’s only one thing worse than boredom—the fear of boredom—and it’s this fear I experience every time I open a novel. I have no use for the hero’s life, don’t attend to it, don’t even believe in it. The genre, having squandered its substance, no longer has an object. The character is dying out; the plot, too. It’s no accident that the only novels deserving of interest today are those in which, once the universe is disbanded, nothing happens…

I tend to feel the same way about musical forms, especially opera. A traditional narrative/plot structure tends to keep me at a distance from the material instead of ushering me into it.

The REDCAT staging is, with audience members facing each other and unable to see all of the screens, supposed to reflect the fragmented nature of the The Source. Is this to highlight, for listeners, that their own judgements of the material are unique? Or is there a particular view of the topic that you hope to encourage?

It’s true that The Source is a patchwork of fragments, made up of shards of text (sometimes very small little pieces, sometimes larger passages that have been filtered through one arbitrary lens or another) and various sundry types of musical material. That comes in many ways from a desire to reflect the way we receive information now, or the structure of the information itself, and I also wanted to create unexpected overlays and juxtapositions and adjacencies that could help loosen text from our relationship to its original context.

Daniel Fish’s staging does reflect the fragmented and sometimes ambiguous nature of the text-setting in that there is a 4-channel video installation surrounding the audience, and of course nobody can see 360 degrees around them at one time, so some information will always be missed. However, I find the way he organizes and presents his visual material to be super different (spare at times, almost minimalist, economical and focused) than way I was thinking about organizing the music. And I love the way Daniel set up the audience in the space, sitting there manages to feel incredibly solitary and incredibly communal at the same time.

This certainly isn’t the first time you’ve engaged with sociopolitical issues, particularly systemic injustice, in your work. What you’re doing is absolutely admirable, and important, and clearly done with care and sensitivity. But it does beg a tricky question, one that I’ve also dealt with (perhaps unsuccessfully) as a composer. In some sense, what qualifies you to speak on behalf of the experiences of others? I don’t mean this in at all an accusatory way, but just this morning I was reading Ta Nehisi Coates’ account of growing up in Baltimore and realizing that, as much of an ally as I can be, I have absolutely no experience to relate to that kind of hardship. I’m thinking more of your Katrina Songs here – and don’t know exactly where in Chicago you are from – but do you ever worry about appropriation in your music? Or that you may misrepresent a group? Or is it more about drawing attention to issues?

You’re right, the question is both huge and tricky. And yes, I think about the ins and outs of appropriation all the time. (It would be irresponsible not to, since I use it so often as a creative strategy.) Responsible, attributed appropriation — be it from Chelsea Manning’s chat logs or the oral arguments to Citizens United or Kanye West’s diatribe on the NBC Katrina relief telethon — can be an incredibly honest vehicle for expression, pointing not only at how we process and reflect someone else’s words, but also at the impact of our current media landscape, which is one of decontextualization, fragmentation and sampling.

Katrina Ballads, a piece I wrote nine years ago, is a collection of songs, about an hour long, that sets primary-source texts from the week following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, all of which were heard on national media, the words of public figures (Barbara Bush, Anderson Cooper, Kanye West) as well as, in two cases, residents of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast who were interviewed about their experience. (One of them, Hardy Jackson, was interviewed the morning after the storm and had just lost his wife. Another, Ashley Nelson, was trapped in the Lafitte Projects in Treme, New Orleans for several days and spoke about her experience a few days later to an NPR reporter.)

One implication of your question, it seems, is that setting someone else’s words to music is the same thing as attempting to “speak on behalf” of them. That’s not always the case, and was never my intention in writing Katrina Ballads. Rather, the intention was to honor all the circumstances surrounding the origination of the text by never pretending to embody or characterize the speakers themselves, always respecting (and pointing to) that distance. When we put together productions of the piece in 2008 and 2010 we made sure to preserve and respect the identities of the singers too: I wanted to make it clear we were presenting a collection of songs where musicians who lived in Chicago, New York City and Charleston, SC were repeating and aestheticizing words spoken by other Americans in completely different circumstances. The tension between those two perspectives is integral to the piece.

That being said, there is one movement of Katrina Ballads that gnaws at me, which is the one that sets Hardy Jackson’s words. I know I would set those words differently now — actually I would probably choose not to set them — not necessarily because his circumstances are so much different from mine (they are) but because those words were spoken just as he had undergone a terrible life tragedy and he didn’t even really choose to sit for an interview (there just happened to be a roving reporter there). In some contexts – for instance, when the piece is being presented at a music school – the aestheticizing of his trauma seems immoral. Does this movement really bring that assembled audience closer to an understanding of the power and destruction of the storm that couldn’t be achieved with less invasive appropriation? Probably not. If I had been a more mature composer then, if I had been disciplined enough to ask myself some harder questions while writing the piece, I probably would have made different choices.

On the other hand, I have been present at forums where people really hadn’t grasped the impact of Katrina on actual humans, or the need for assistance that never came. There were performances for almost entirely affluent white audiences in Houston, and also for schoolchildren of all backgrounds, and for both of those groups I think the Hardy Jackson movement especially did actually provide a mix of decontextualization and documentation that served an educational function. (And of course for the most part today’s schoolchildren really know nothing about Katrina and its aftermath). And the ensuing conversations (even this one) are also in a way part of the point — who am I to appropriate that man’s words? How sick is it that we’re sitting here receiving this bourgie art piece that steals the words of people living such vastly different lives? Does the music highlight or gloss over those differences?

The implication you took from my question there about setting other people’s words – I’d like to talk a little more about that. This is something I’ve struggled with as a composer. I’ve always had trouble setting other peoples’ texts, because – without their explicit collaboration – I often feel that I’m adding something to the text that the author or speaker might not have intended. I’ve always had an interest in socially conscious music, and certainly love the written word, but this often stops me writing pieces that I might otherwise like to. Unless, of course, I can do something with the text so far from the original that there’s no way a listener might mistake it for the speaker’s intention. Perhaps this is too dogmatic of a question, are there any guiding principles you follow in your use of text? How do you make it clear that you’re not writing on behalf of the original speaker?

Well, if text is attributed, there shouldn’t be any confusion that it originated from another person, right? And it should be obvious that the composer is setting the text, not speaking it. So for me the question about using text is the really same as using any other musical material: are you as a composer using them in a particularly evocative way?

One question I’m interested in asking now: Can you get closer to understanding the difference between yourself and someone else by repeating their words in your own voice?

Last year I wrote a piece for Roomful of Teeth that was related to that idea. I set (among other things) two small chunks of text from Zora Neale Hurston’s classic essay How it feels to be colored me. The idea was not to pretend to any authoritative take on her perspective, but rather to a) understand it better by speaking it and b) understand my own perspective — my own relationship to whiteness and the construct of race in America — by studying and reinterpreting the words that describe hers.

One of the chunks was:

[The position of my white neighbor is much more difficult.]
No brown specter pulls up a chair beside me when I sit down to eat.
No dark ghost thrusts its leg against mine in bed.
[The game of keeping what one has is never so exciting as the game of getting.]

I only set the middle two sentences but include the outer ones in program notes for context. I realized that if it were me writing/speaking these words, their meaning might be completely the opposite to Hurston’s; it would be a denial of my white privilege, perhaps a defensive one. I tried to set the words so the specter existed in the music even as the words denied their existence.

I also set the words of another section, in which Hurston tells the story of sitting next to a white person while hearing a performance by jazz musicians in an otherwise all-black club. After describing an ecstatic experience with the music itself, she says:

 I creep back slowly to the veneer we call civilization with the last tone and find the white friend sitting motionless in his seat, smoking calmly.

“Good music they have here,” he remarks, drumming the table with his fingertips.

Music. The great blobs of purple and red emotion have not touched him. He has only heard what I felt. He is far away and I see him but dimly across the ocean and the continent that have fallen between us. He is so pale with his whiteness then and I am so colored.

For whatever reason, the gulf of understanding Hurston described made me think of my relationship with my father, in the distance that grew between us and which continues to grow, provoked by conversations surrounding racism and politics and art. I started to see my experience alongside the one she was describing, totally different but also totally real. I called the piece “Letter to My Father,” and reformatted the text so the words would stay in the same sequence but each line would begin and end with a pronoun:

Him. He
He has only heard what I
I felt. He
He is far away but I
I see him.
Him but dimly across the ocean and the continent that have fallen between us.
Us. He
He is so pale with his whiteness then and I
I am so colored.
Music. The great blobs of purple and red emotion have not touched him.
He is so pale with his whiteness then and I am so colored.

I don’t know what it means exactly, and the more specific I try to get with an explanation the less sense it makes, but setting this text in this way did help me connect with it strongly. And I don’t think it disrespects the text or the author at all to apply changes as long as the identity and context of the original is clear.

Also I just wanna say: I think it’s OK, even preferable, for art to be problematic. We live in a problematic world. Artists should own that. It’s the loose ends and unanswered questions, and even the misfires and unintended consequences, that provoke the best questions about what art is doing in the first place.

Yes! This is actually something that bothers me quite a bit about certain traditional classical concerts: it seems like there is very little risk. When a performer has studied a piece for their whole life, rehearsed it to “perfection,” and will be playing it in a hall with great sound, I often ask myself why I’d drive and pay money to hear that when awesome recordings are available, though I’m lucky to have a great set of speakers and a comfy couch. With other genres, or even other sociomusical situations, sometimes things go wrong. With new music, you might not know how it’s going to go, and that, to me, makes the live experience so much more thrilling. Is there a way, that you as a composer (and now fellow concert series producer), can encourage artistic question-asking like this?

Well I don’t have any problem with musicians rehearsing a lot if they think it’ll make their performance better!

Personally, I start asking a lot of questions when similar musical gestures or ideas are used in super different musical contexts, or when very different musics exist on top of each other or next to each other in the same framework. Basically, looking to difference as much as possible. Endlessly inspired by this Audre Lorde quote: “Difference must not be merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which creativity can spark like a dialectic.”

How does that make it into your musical material? I once heard you use the phrase “genre counterpoint” in passing, and always wanted to hear more about it.

I don’t remember using that phrase but I like it and am going to steal it from you starting now.

I’m pretty sure it’s yours, so certainly feel free! It’s a kind of rad term. I’d heard rumors you were shaking things up at USC and trying to reduce the amount of traditional counterpoint composers had to take. I think – and this was after a show and beer was involved – I asked something like “isn’t that actually kind of important?” and you said something like “yes, but maybe we should use those semesters to teach other approaches to counterpoint, what might genre counterpoint be…”

I wrote a little essay about my feelings re: genre and “craft” which I put on my website a few months ago. I don’t know if ‘genre counterpoint’ makes any sense but I do think that when musical signifiers are used outside of their expected context a sometimes-interesting counterpoint of ideas and expectations occurs.  There are some people for whom it seems that the inclusion of nonclassical stylistic elements (e.g. a drumset player hitting the snare drum a certain way, or a singer accessing an R&B vocal tradition) in a classical/concert-music context automatically constitutes an impurity, or pandering, or an example of inauthentic cultural appropriation. This type of thinking is pretty weak because it avoids dealing with lots of potential complexities, and it tends to keep the field pretty segregated.

Ted’s work certainly helps to fight segregation in our field. Hear it for yourself at REDCAT tonight and tomorrow, of via bandcamp at

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