A keen political and social awareness forms the backdrop for Sound from the Bench, a new album on the Cantaloupe Music label featuring music by American composer Ted Hearne (b. 1982).
The album’s four choral works are performed by the Philadephia-based contemporary music choir, The Crossing, conducted by Donald Nally. The title track is a 35-minute cantata for chamber choir, two electric guitars and drums which delves into the subject of corporate personhood in the United States. The libretto combines excerpts from Jena Osman’s collection of poems, Corporate Relations, with transcripts from landmark Supreme Court cases and passages from ventriloquism textbooks. Consent (2014), written for sixteen voices, examines gender inequality and sexual violence. Ripple (2012) develops from a single sentence from the internal military cables known as the Iraq War logs which details a horrific incident which took place at a checkpoint in Fallujah in 2005. Privilege (2009) draws on texts relating to growing wealth disparity.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Ted Hearne about his newest album and his thoughts on music. Here is our conversation:
TJ: A fascinating range of disparate influences come together in your music. For example, your cantata, Sound from the Bench, is written for SATB choir, two electric guitars, and drums/percussion. Rock and Roll comes face to face with an almost liturgical style of choral writing. As you began working on this piece, how did you arrive at this unique sound world?
TH: Jena Osman’s work is cut-and-pastey. Texts are drawn from a variety of disparate sources, and extracted, rearranged, and scrawled upon so that the new assemblage tells a different story without ignoring the original context(s) of each piece of material. I love this about her poetry; it’s creative and radical appropriation. In her book Corporate Relations, public documents including Supreme Court oral arguments are combined with other source material, including texts about ventriloquism — sometimes Osman lays language from each source next to one another in discrete poems, and sometimes she overlays them in a single poem. The adjacency of those two sources is so fertile. So, with Sound From the Bench, the cut-and-paste aesthetic and the idea of using sharp stylistic juxtapositions came directly from Osman’s text.
But in general, I am really curious about the ways musical style or genre can reflect their audiences; how the facets that come to define a style can reflect certain patterns of thinking. In my own music, I like to play at the borders of style: placing familiar musical patterns in unfamiliar contexts, mixing and juxtaposing divergent musical references, finding ways to skirt the edge of parameters that may signify a certain ‘type’ of music. I do this because I want to create a space where we’re able to consciously challenge what we expect of our music, rather than accepting the boundaries of style that have been drawn for us and sinking into a haze of comfort within them. If consciousness can be provoked and boundaries challenged in an abstract and musical sense, we can think in freer and more flexible ways about our relationship to the social and cultural boundaries that divide us in real life.
Sound from the Bench centers around this idea that corporations are endowed with human rights, and Osman’s book keeps coming back to this syllogism: If corporations are persons, are persons machines? So I chose to set the undeniably human sound of a choir against the sound of the electric guitar — an instrument that is at once completely non-human and relies on an electronic apparatus to be heard at all, but is also extremely versatile sonically and thus capable of a great transformational power. I love the electric guitar because it can sound like almost anything. Taylor Levine and James Moore, the two guitarists for whom I wrote the piece, are experimental musicians of the highest order, who craft their own sonic palette from scratch and take nothing for granted. The instrumental ensemble is filled out by Ron Wiltrout, a drummer with a truly omnivorous approach to style. With these musicians (as well as Donald Nally and the extraordinary singers of The Crossing), I was able to write music that traffics in huge contrasts like the one you mentioned (where an industrial rock sound coexists with liturgical-style choral writing) but also passages where both forces blend into one sound, calling to mind that uncanny valley, and the illusion of a human(ish) voice coming from a source that is distinctly non-human.
TJ: From the opening of Sound from the Bench, it’s easy to get a sense of alienation and fragmentation. There’s a definite conflict between human (the voice) and machine (the electric guitar). But at moments, the voice itself seems to take on a “mechanical,” or otherworldly quality. Can you talk about this juxtaposition between human and machine?
TH: Yeah, so it’s that idea of the uncanny valley. What is the boundary across which we will not accept an entity as being human? The ventriloquism dummy has been said to skirt that edge, and so at times in Sound from the Bench, I ask singers to skirt that edge as well. In the first and last movements (which set texts from ventriloquism manuals), singers hold a single sonority, unwavering, for way longer than is humanly possible, evoking a mechanical drone.
In the third movement, I played with another kind of mechanically-inspired musical device, which is that the choir is asked to switch immediately between vastly different styles of singing, turning on a dime to execute different repeated phrases (the text being portions of the oral argument to the landmark 2010 case Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission). This kind of rapid-fire stylistic juxtaposition, while totally easy to reproduce when I’m playing around with samples using Ableton Live or other music production software, is profoundly inorganic for the voice and would be rather unthinkable in a time before the era of mechanical reproduction.
At the end of the fourth movement, we hear music based on the sound of the choir played back and re-recorded in a single room, over and over again, until feedback and the resonant frequencies of the room entirely overtake the sound once produced by humans.
TJ: Can you provide some background on the references behind the movement titles? What drew you to these particular fragments of text?
TH: The first and last movements (“How to throw your voice” and “When you hear”) are drawn from ventriloquism manuals, and both of these titles (as well as the entire text of these movements) speak to a consciousness of a sound source. Who, really, is making the sound that appears to be coming from a doll? Whose voice, really, is represented behind a corporate shell?
The second movement (“Mouth piece”) consists of just two short phrases: No mouth / The very heart. ‘No mouth’ is Osman’s paraphrase of the central reasoning behind the majority in Bellotti v. First National Bank, the 1978 case upon which Citizens United is based: because corporations don’t have a literal mouth, they cannot literally speak, therefore advertising is their only available method of communication and must be considered speech (and is entitled to First Amendment protections as such). The phrase ‘the very heart’ is excerpted from Justice White’s dissent in this case: “It has long been recognized, however, that the special status of corporations has placed them in a position to control vast amounts of economic power which may, if not regulated, dominate not only the economy but the very heart of our democracy, the electoral process.”
The central movement sets words from the oral argument to Citizens United. The title “(Ch)oral Argument” is really just a pun, but one that works for me on a number of levels. My brain started firing when I realized this poem of Osman’s was a literal erasure of the Supreme Court document — every phrase appeared in order, and in a position approximating the horizontal spot around which it appeared on the page. When I printed out the full 83-page oral argument and blacked out every phrase that Jena hadn’t included, the remaining words jumped out at me and started to take on new meanings and inferences, at times forming new and strange sentences, at times standing as isolated blocks arguing with one another. That strange, new energy helped propel the decontextualized text into music.
The fourth movement (“Simple surgery”) actually comes from another collection of Osman’s called The Character. I thought this little poem spoke beautifully to the idea that if we don’t look carefully our eyes can deceive us, as two distinctly separate entities become joined in an illusion. Furthermore, I liked the image of a simple surgical procedure here, perhaps creating a human-machine hybrid.
TJ: The final movement sets up a dichotomy which reminded me, strangely enough, of the end of Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra. Throughout the movement, enticing hints of the vocal lines poke through the “clouds” of the electric guitar. At the end, suddenly, we’re left with a single F major triad. It’s as if the music is reminding us that, in the end, the natural order, expressed here through the most fundamental building block of harmony, remains eternal. Can you talk more about this ending?
TH: Interesting. I never would have thought of the Strauss there, but I love that you did. Personally, I never approached the F major triad at the end of the piece as representing natural order or a fundamental building block, but rather the ominous drone of the ventriloquist throwing his or her voice to a lifeless puppet. Often drowning out this sustained sonority is music played by the electric guitars and drums, featuring a pedal that guitarist Taylor Levine built himself which creates an explosive effect that bends pitch wildly and at times renders pitch unintelligible entirely. The band’s music is noisy and at times brash, and floats in and out of steady time The major triad that pokes through and eventually ends the piece may be innocuous (dangerously so), but behind it lurks a danger that threatens a fundamental respect for human life.
TJ: Your background is as a vocalist and you perform with R WE WHO R WE, a duo that blends contemporary pop songs with experimental electronic music. How have these associations influenced your other work? What drew you to this kind of development of pop music?
TH: R WE WHO R WE is a duo made up of myself and Philip White, an incredible composer and performer of electronic music. Our first album deconstructed pop songs, but our upcoming sophomore release features all original songs and lyrics. Philip’s approach to music-making has influenced almost everything I’ve done since we started working together. I’ve found myself inspired by not only his rigorous aesthetic control of each piece and extremely clear formal organization, but also his creative energy as a composer-performer (and instrument builder). While working on the music for our first album with R WE, we developed an use of vocal processing that resembles an interactive sort of Auto-Tune, the sound and feel of which I loved so much that I ended up using in several of my subsequent works, including my piece The Source.
With respect to your second question, Philip and I decided to explore pop music after thinking long and hard about what a productive focus of our collaboration could be. Because we both had such different musical aesthetics at the time, we were searching for some subject matter on which we could find some common ground. I know we were both really interested in what was being communicated in the best pop production of the time, and we both felt like our sonic landscape was plastered with pop whether we liked it or not, so the idea of recontextualizing some of those sounds was appealing.
TJ: What are your current projects?
TH: I’m working on a 90-minute theatrical work called Place with the poet Saul Williams and director Patricia McGregor, which will be premiered by Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil in April 2018. It’s shaping up to be partly a memoir of my experience growing up in the city of Chicago and partly a rumination on cartography, land and ‘manifest destiny’ in America.
photograph by Nathan Lee Bush