BROWNIE, YOU'RE DOING A HECK OF A JOB (from Katrina Ballads) by Ted Hearne
performed by the Katrina Ballads ensemble, with Ted Hearne singing
by Ted Hearne
VESSELS by Ted Hearne
performed by Anne Lanzilotti, viola; Miki-Sophia Cloud, violin; and Jessica Osborne, piano
C:T talks to composer Ted Hearne, whose 'Katrina Ballads' recently won the Gaudeamus Prize
Tell us something about your background.
I grew up in the city of Chicago. My mom was a singer and voice teacher, and she got me involved in the Chicago Children's Choir, which I immediately took a liking to and sang with for 12 years, until I graduated high school and moved to New York. The CCC is a special group because they draw kids from all over the city, so I learned how inspiring making music with people from different backgrounds (socioeconomic, stylistic) could be.
After leaving Chicago, I got degrees at Manhattan School of Music and Yale School of Music, and I studied abroad for a year at the Royal College of Music in London. I'm the resident conductor of Red Light New Music, the artistic director of a group called Yes is a World, and I lead a band called Your Bad Self. I love dogs but am not yet responsible enough to own one, I swear a lot, and I'm now living in New York with my wife-to-be.
How did you start composing?
For me, composing came as an outgrowth of singing, when I was 11 or 12. I started writing songs and choral pieces, and was lucky that the choir was willing to perform some of my early stuff. I didn't start writing instrumental stuff until later in high school, and my choral background has definitely come back to haunt me, rear its ugly head from time to time. I mean, I think it's because of my choral background I will blindly accept (or occasionally fall into) a certain kind of linear part-writing, in music both instrumental and vocal, that sounds pretty dated. I used to love Baroque music when i was young and I still do - but you know, as great as a Bach cantata might be, the oboe always plays its oboe line - there's not a lot of timbral experimentation going on there. It took me a long time to break out of this Baroquey thinking, which is reflected in lots of contemporary choral music too, and sometimes when I'm not careful I see myself slipping back into those old habits.
What drives your work, what are you passions?
I'm really into music that successfully combines different musical traditions into something original and confounding. I know the trend of eclecticism is pretty big right now - in New York anyway - and I think this comes from the liberating revelation that a piece can be a reflection of all your musical influences, no matter where they come from; that the cohesion of a work is not necessarily dependent on an entirely inward-looking construction. This idea was a big one for me, but like any trend it comes with its own set of pitfalls. Just because a piece is reflective of your many influences doesn't make it good, even if it is 'honest.' Do styles and traditions interact in a meaningful way? When they do, it interests me a lot.
So I'm trying to explore the places where versatile musicians from different backgrounds can overlap and find some shared lineages - but ideally, the process of finding these places should also breed a little resistance and discomfort among the musicians themselves. I have no interest in asking musicians to regurgitate artistic discoveries they've already absorbed, even if they're really great at communicating them. But what I love is getting a few open-minded musicians together and asking them to take some real risks by encountering material they don't quite know how to work out yet. Of course some risks yield cooler shit than others. But when the experiment works, I think you can come really close to a space where 'genre' is most irrelevant, and that's the space I increasingly find myself chasing.
Tell us about your work with 'Yes in a World'
I started Yes is a World in 2002, on the idea that programming different types of music together could lead to a productive dialogue between people from different backgrounds. As I was 20 years old when we produced our first show, I now look at some of our early output as pretty juvenile - and I think that's a good thing because I have learned a lot since then and will hopefully continue to grow up - but the fundamental premise of this idea is something I still believe in. Our most successful performances have explored the ways in which black South Africans have used music as an effective vehicle for social change (both fighting oppression during the Apartheid era, and fighting stigma and unequal access to antiretroviral medication in the present day).
Many of your works, and also your activities express an interest in political and social change. How do you see the relationship between politics and your art? In other words, how do you go about balancing the needs of the politics with the needs of the art?
I think that all music is inherently political, in the sense that it is a product of the time in which it was created. Whoever made the music was existing in some kind of relationship to everything happening around her or him, and because of this the music necessarily reflects the place and time from which it came. In the case of a live performance, it also reflects the place and time and other conditions of the performer, and whenever it is heard, it must be heard in the context of that time (the present) as well.
I think there's an idea in classical music that the greatest music is actually timeless - like, so universal that its value exists completely outside of any historical conditions, and it will resonate with people forever. (A lot of classical musicians feel this way about J.S. Bach maybe.) This idea is really dangerous, because it isolates composers and pits them against their audience. And it promotes the idea that your music can be so good and so smart that the people who will really understand it aren't even alive yet. I think this line of thinking is super contemptuous of contemporary audiences, and unfortunately is pervasive in a lot of music circles today.
When I got to Yale, one of my colleagues there said something that stuck with me: "I don't write music for people, I write it for eternity." This is not to say that some composers haven't been misunderstood in their own time, but I think we have romanticized that notion to the point of complete alienation.
Anyway, to get back to your original question, sometimes I feel inspired by nonmusical events from our time, and choose to write a piece that is directly related to something that may have 'political' import. As a composer, any time you mix music and text you risk turning people off - especially if this mixture amounts to you throwing your opinions around about political ideas. I think the best you can do is present what you consider to be a nuanced and thoughtful setting of a text, and whatever the text, if people find it too blunt or garish or simplistic or whatever, you have to accept that as a legitimate reaction to your art. But:
1. A lot of the time, people set poetry, and a lot of the time it's old poetry. And for the most part, the older the text - and the more well-known the text - the more muted and tempered (and often disengaged) audience reactions will be to it. Sometimes you come across a really sensitive, interactive and innovative setting of older poetry, but I think those are pretty rare. I think a lot of people choose to set such texts because they are non-threatening; the composer can create a surface connection with the words but draw a lot of attention to the musical ideas without taking a real stand on a text, and without forcing the audience to engage with the ideas of the text. I know I was guilty of this when I wrote a Mass setting last year - I'm very happy with this piece musically, but I engaged with the text on a rather shallow level - really, I was trying to create an experience that transported people musically and just used this ancient text as just another musical device.
2. If you avoid writing music that addresses current topics because its meaning will change as time goes on, then you are trying to stop the passage of time itself (and good luck with that). This goes back to what I was talking about at the beginning of this question - all music bears the stamp of the time it was written, and all music cannot be separated from the present in which it is heard. For instance, I wrote Katrina Ballads two years ago and already so much about how the piece affects people has changed. When we premiered it, America was still very much in the first stages of processing the disaster, and most of the texts I set were totally in people's memory. Now, four years after Katrina happened and one year into the Obama administration, I'm getting the feeling a lot of people don't want to be reminded right now - as a country we are definitely still healing and processing, and of course there's still a shitload of rebuilding that needs to happen in New Orleans, but people's relationships to those texts have changed, and they will continue to change. I chose the primary-source Katrina texts because I knew I needed a catharsis after all the bottled up sadness and anger that experience brought me, and I thought a lot of people in this country might as well. Now, I think that in the case of the particular political event that is Hurricane Katrina, these texts will continue to have meaning for Americans for a long time - in relationship to the ongoing questions of racial and economic disparity, or government's responsibility to the people, or as a contact point during another natural disaster - but if they didn't, that's OK. Some classical musicians might feel that this is a negative quality for a piece to have, for fear of a work's accessibility diminishing as time goes on, but these are really qualities beyond our control.
Tell us something about your working method as a composer. Give us something that might be or might have been a starting point for a piece.
I have lots of different kinds of jumping-off points, but I try to make sure the period when I am really generating musical material happens via a process of circumventing, avoiding, and re-imagining my own natural instincts. The times when I have been most unhappy with a piece are almost entirely the times I have gone on 'auto-pilot,' writing the stuff that I know works. Because for me, the stuff that really "works" in music usually has just as much to do with the risks and challenges and unknown qualities of the music as with the material itself, if not more. The ideal way for me to start a piece is to find something I don't know how to do, or think of something I don't know how to achieve, and then attempt to do it. When I start by thinking about the music that players might be 'good' at playing, or what I might be 'good' at writing, I usually end up with stuff that is boring and (sometimes) idiomatic, and that bums me out.
Which non-musical influences have affected your music most?
The composer Daniel Vezza is working on a collection of interviews with composers and music professionals working in Berlin, many of them American expats. He is asking after the differences between living and working as a musician in Germany, where the music culture is so heavily subsidized by the government, and America, where it's really not, and it's been extremely interesting to read into this. His work, which is still in progress, has shaped the way I see my own development as a composer and as part of the artistic community: I am coming to a greater understanding of how vast a grey area exists between writing music that is sure to be a hit with audiences, and writing music that is purely for the gratification of yourself as a composer. Because there is so much less public support for music, there's more severe competition among composers here in the states, and the thesis that Vezza seems to be developing is that this environment, while more cut-throat in some ways, has its positive and negative points. In being forced to fight for a tiny slice of a tiny pie, we in America are pit against each other, but we may also feel greater pressure to discover an original means of communication with an audience. Anyway, these interviews are causing me to see myself and my country in a different light, which I think is very cool.
Who has been the greatest influence on your musical style to date and why?
The "greatest" influence changes by the day, but I have a long best-hits list of stuff that has existed at the right place and time for me to really influence the things I was thinking about. Some things on this list might include:
Peter Evans, a trumpet player and composer and improvisor who blew my mind when I heard not only the sounds he came up with but also the way he put them together.
Bjork, who in my mind is getting better and better. She keeps experimenting with materials and conventions from different stylistic traditions, and she keeps opening herself up to new collaborations when less-secure musicians would be afraid of looking weak.
Stravinsky, whose treatment of external references really inspired me, and who also connected with me on a visceral level when I had the pleasure of singing Les Noces with the Joffrey Ballet when I was in college.
Gerard Grisey, whose piece Vortex Temporum opened me up to the world of timbral control - that piece sounds like nothing i've ever heard before and the form is so clear that the audience really has complete freedom to take in the ecstasy of all the timbres.
Also there are great pieces by people in my own age bracket that pushed me over one edge or another, including A. Vincent Raikhel's Anther, Lisa Coons' Prolix, David T. Little's Electric Proletariat, Alex Mincek's From Nowhere to Nowhere, Yuan-Chen Li's Cats' Romp and a ballet I just conducted by Bryan Senti called From the Margins, This, Unmentioned, just to name a few.
Talk about a piece you are proud of.
I wrote a piece last year called Make It Out, which is a strange little piece but also, I think, surprisingly successful given the circumstances. This was for a Yes is a World show about how people use music to fight the HIV/AIDS pandemic in South Africa, and the purpose of the piece was to draw a comparison between lacks of access to treatment and health resources among people in America and South Africa. The injustice of disparity of wealth in both places and the human effect. I wanted to write something for this great rapper and poet SKIM, who would be performing in the show, but I had also never met her and knew that she hadn't really performed in collaborative pieces with composers before. So I was going to write the music, to be performed by a five-person ensemble plus a singer (all playing notated stuff) and she was going to write some verses to go over it. And I'd never worked with a rapper or anyone in the hiphop world before, and so of course the whole thing sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, but the whole thing came together really smoothly and the piece is definitely something I'm proud of. And I think everyone involved with the performance learned something about music. It made me feel really hopeful for future collaborations.
What does the future hold for you?
I'm heading to the MacDowell Colony in a few days, which should be totally beautiful and I hope the setting will help me get a lot of work done. I just finished a trumpet concerto for Chris Coletti and the Huntsville Symphony, so that will be premiered down in Alabama in January, and I'll be composing works for the Yale Glee Club, the Albany Symphony and a bunch of new songs for my group Your Bad Self, who will be releasing and album next year. Also I'm really excited to be writing an hour-long piece for the fabulous and forward-looking electric guitar quartet DITHER. Those guys are great.
Ted Hearne's comments about the apparant timelesness of Bach's music is interesting. It seems generally to have been forgotten that he was part of a then contempory German society and though now the most prominent composer, was a member of what seems almost to have been a hereditary caste of musicians. There was lots of fine music written all around him during his lifetime and by his great uncles and sons etc.
Just as today his music did not always interact with society as he hoped. There is written evidence that the Passions did not go down very well with all of the church members.
I do not know if even Beethoven succeeded in changing the world outside music but it is a great thing that composers like Ted Hearne still try.