POLITICAL MUSIC IS, typically, a tactical art. It tends to target political figures, regimes, movements, or ideologies, and tap the capacity of music to rally listeners in support of or opposition to its subjects. It usually qualifies as “art for use,” to apply an old Marxist-theory frame, whereby music acts as a tool of exhortation and persuasion, mobilizing human minds, hearts, and bodies for political purposes. “My song is my weapon,” the singer Paul Robeson once said, a phrase whose spirit has inspired musical activists ever since.
In the Trump era, dozens of musicians have released songs of resistance that fulfill the mandate of political music as art for use. There’s “Tiny Hands” by Fiona Apple, with its catchy, rally-ready chorus, “We don’t want your tiny hands anywhere near our underpants.” There’s “Fight Like a Girl,” an anthem for the #MeToo movement by Zolita; and “Not My President” by CNG, to cite a few of the best known. And, of course, there are multiple tracks of fiery outrage on DAMN., the Kendrick Lamar hip-hop album that won the Pulitzer Prize for Music this year. All of these songs, and others in their vein, make ringing statements that pump the blood and prod the listener to take a stand on the side of the musicians.
Meanwhile, one of the most fervently political music-makers of our time, the 36-year-old, Los Angeles–based composer and vocalist Ted Hearne, has been experimenting with a wholly different approach to politics and social issues. Since the first decade of the 21st century, Hearne has been busy producing a body of creatively ambitious, genre-smashing music distinctive not only for its attention to topical issues, but also for its uncommon way of dealing with them. In a series of major long-form works, Hearne has addressed such subjects as the federal government’s response to the flood disaster in New Orleans (Katrina Ballads, 2007); the controversy over classified materials on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars released to WikiLeaks by Chelsea Manning (The Source, 2014); and corporate power and “personhood” as defined, or redefined, by the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case (Sound from the Bench, 2014/2017, a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer in Music). In additional works produced over the same period, Hearne has taken up the power dynamics of gender, race, and economics (Privilege, 2009) and the social and psychological impact of divided spaces (Partition, 2010). For all its topicality and political savvy, however, not much of his work sounds a rallying cry and none of it could serve as marching music. Hardly any of it crystalizes the issues it takes up. To the contrary, its very purpose seems to be the opposite: to blur and complicate things. Instead of stirring listeners to stand up and take action, Ted Hearne’s kind of political music challenges them to stop and think, pondering in bafflement, What the fuck does this mean? Hearne makes a kind of political music that Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson would probably never recognize, and perhaps not like very much.
“It shouldn’t be obvious what you think. Or if it is, maybe dig deeper or don’t write that piece,” Hearne told The New York Times in a 2017 symposium on political music with the composers Caroline Shaw and David Lang. It is an aesthetic, though, he would grow into over his career. His 2007 song cycle, Katrina Ballads, offers a glimpse into a timely, experimental, and politicized Hearne whose arrangement of documentary snippets makes perhaps the most unambiguous political statement among his major works. Hearne drew from bits of media coverage of Katrina: Anderson Cooper bracing CNN viewers for the sight of grim scenes of destruction and human suffering; Kanye West proclaiming, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”; President George W. Bush gushing to FEMA head chief Michael D. Brown with the now infamous “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” which Hearne sang with a mordant bite. As a vocal composer, Hearne set this language to quirky, angular melodies that served as a reminder that not everything emanating from the human voice is always humane.
For all the variety and multiformity in the music, there was an overall consistency of attitude, a general atmosphere of discontent, that was utterly appropriate to the content but too predictable and, as a result, counterproductive in the end. One knew exactly where the composer stood on the governmental response to Hurricane Katrina, which was where a great many people in the audience stood before they had heard the piece. With Katrina Ballads, Ted Hearne found a political subject of a scale proportionate to his ambitions, but he had yet to refine the approach that would come to distinguish him as a composer — a turn away from the stridency and polemicism that has long typified political music in favor of uncertainty, ambiguity, and full-on confusion.
Hearne’s work, steeped as it is in an appreciation of the unapparent or unknowable, owes something to the sacred strain in the choral music he grew up with. The son of a classically trained concert vocalist and educator who led a Baroque song society in Chicago, Clarice Hearne, Ted Hearne was raised with both formal vocal music and contemporary pop around him. He first applied himself seriously to music as a member of the Chicago Children’s Choir, a rigorous, culturally diverse ensemble whose repertoire has included African-American spirituals and gospel tunes (“Lift Every Voice and Sing”), as well as chestnuts of the choral repertoire (“Cantate Domino”) and popular songs suitable to choralizing (“Yesterday”). Among the musical projects Hearne took on early in his professional life, when he was 21, was the writing of a vocal arrangement of activist Len Chandler’s Civil Rights ballad “Murder on the Road in Alabama” for the choir he had sung in as a boy. At the time of the premiere of Katrina Ballads, at the Piccolo Spoleto Festival in Charleston in May 2007, when Hearne was 25, he had a small but varied and ambitious catalog of works for the voice, including several pieces for solo vocalists, groups of singers, and combinations of traditional electronic instruments, in addition to instrumental works for ensembles of various configurations.
With Katrina Ballads and his work thereafter, Hearne’s work has focused increasingly on ways of distorting and manipulating the choral idiom, using the voice electronically to erase and confuse distinctions between human and nonhuman sound. In that earlier piece, Hearne conducted the ensemble of four singers (plus Hearne himself singing some parts) and 11 instruments (French horn, flute, trumpet, and the like, along with electric guitar, drum kit, and an electronics setup). The result is a smart specimen of contemporary musical hybridization, a mélange of formal and informal elements, traditional and brand-new tonalities mixed up together. Musically, much of the piece is grounded in the discipline of formally notated chamber music, with electronics bubbling up and spilling over at points, and rock instruments slashing up the music staves and jabbing at the woodwinds and viola.
Hearne’s next major long-form composition, The Source, made its premiere at the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in October 2014. An oratorio for five singers, live electronics, samplers, and an array of instruments from the classical and pop domains, the piece deals with a thorny, legally and ethically convoluted set of issues pertaining to the WikiLeaks revelations about the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, and the media reaction to them. The libretto, cut and pasted from primary materials by the novelist Mark Doten, employs excerpts from the text of the documents released to WikiLeaks by Chelsea Manning — the “Iraq War Logs” and “Afghan War Diary” — intermingled with snippets of web chats between Manning and a former hacker, Adrian Lamo; tweets from Lamo; and bits of material from journalism, social media, and pop song lyrics related to the leaks or associated with the period of their disclosure. As in Katrina Ballads, Hearne set most of this text to idiosyncratic melodies for the singers; in this case, though, the singing is juxtaposed with samples of the original speakers’ voices, and many of the varied voices in this mix, including those of singers, are processed through filters and digital pitch controls.
Some excerpts from the WikiLeaks documents are abstruse and highly technical, strings of jargon seemingly inhospitable to a musical setting. The first movement, “Explosive Hazard,” has text taken from the Improvised Explosive Device Explosion Report in the “War Diaries”: “An IED detonation was reported by C co 1-327 INF to Task force SPARTAN, in the Salah Ad Din Province, Ad Dawr, vicinity. 38S LD 8930 1490. 1st Platoon/Aco/1st STB was traveling north on Route Shark when an IED detonated on their convoy.”
One might wonder what Rossini or Mozart would have thought of the idea of setting such language to music, but if historical masters in the tradition of concert vocal music worked in pursuit of such values as clarity of expression and tonal euphony, Hearne and Doten have aimed for something different — and more relevant to human experience in our time. They have sought to express in seemingly random, intractable words and complexly manipulated, ear-twisting music the jolting and numbing disorientation of life in the era of information overload and technological overreach. Hearne and Doten, in The Source, give voice to the elusiveness of meaning and precious scarcity of human feeling in the digitally processed public arena today.
Not that the piece is devoid of emotion, lyrically or musically. The fourth movement, “s/as boy/as a boy,” uses confessional material from a text message from Chelsea Manning to Adrian Lamo: “i wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life / if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me […] plastered all over the world press […] as a boy […]”
Hearne set this to a simple melody laid over music that sounds like a death-metal recording transcribed for string quartet. The effect is unsettling, simultaneously moving and nerve-rattling — destabilizing emotionality for an unstable world.
The Source, like much of Hearne’s work, is a sonic collage of aural ideas from multiple musical spheres: the Bang on a Can school of high-spirited experimentation, alt-rock, pop, and electronica. One tradition it doesn’t bring immediately to mind is that of the classical oratorio. Much to Hearne’s credit, though, his version of the genre-juggling that’s all the rage in new music today comes across as unpretentious and unshowy. Little in the work feels concocted for shock value or included just to impress the listener with the composer’s cleverness. Some of the music is startling, certainly, and nearly all of it is highly inventive. But it feels like music about its subject and its time, rather than about its composer.
“My musical voice is something made from of a big bunch of different influences,” Hearne told me in a recent interview:
I listened to a lot of hip-hop in high school, and I’ve played in a sort of alt-grunge band, and I like electronic music and pop, so I’m not that unusual a person today. We’re all omnivorous listeners now, because we have access to every sort of music, and we’re able to listen to whatever music we want in whatever way we want. That leads naturally to a musician like me making whatever music I want in whatever way I want.
One of the values of this, aesthetically and philosophically, is that, by working in a space where musical boundaries are challenged, other boundaries come into challenge. By playing around the borders of style, mixing divergent influences and juxtaposing them, the audience and I are occupying an environment where lines of division are challenged in more than one sense. We can think more freely about where we stand in relation to the social, cultural, and political boundaries that would otherwise be separating us.
His most recent long-form work, Sound from the Bench, represents Hearne in full bloom. A joint commission by two contemporary vocal ensembles, Volti and The Crossing, the piece was first performed by the groups in their home cities, San Francisco and Philadelphia, in 2014, and later reworked for a new premiere with The Crossing at the Gardner Museum in Boston. A studio recording of the revised version, made for Cantaloupe Music with The Crossing performing, was submitted for a Pulitzer and emerged as one of the two finalists (along with Quartet, a self-descriptive work for strings, by the gifted young classical composing Michael Gilbertson) in the year the prize went to Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., a first-ever for a work of hip-hop. Hearne was magnanimous in interviews about the award, commenting to Slate, “I don’t put too much stock in prizes, but this is a really important year because Kendrick Lamar’s music is super important to me and to a lot of people. […] I think it’s wonderful.”
Sound from the Bench suffers nothing from comparison with DAMN., Gilbertson’s lyrical and elegiac Quartet, or most other compositions to be recognized by the Pulitzers in recent years. It is a fearlessly strange and intellectually delirious piece of work. Composed for chamber choir, two electric guitars, and drums and percussion, it entwines and contrasts the human and the inhuman in musical terms that serve the lyrical content elegantly. The text is inspired by and derived in large part from the book Corporate Relations, a collection of poems by Jena Osman that appropriates bits of text from judicial proceedings on commercial expression. Hearne draws from Osman’s text, adapted in collaboration with Osman, along with excerpts from ventriloquism instruction books.
The piece is essentially an inquiry into the notion of the uncanny valley, the space where inanimate objects or entities — a ventriloquist’s dummy or perhaps a corporation — could be perceived as nearly human and provoke eerie feelings of attraction and repulsion. With Sound from the Bench, Hearne explores this territory in musical terms, at some points using the electric guitars to simulate sonorities of the human voice, at one point scoring the parts of the choir so it sounds as if the singers are producing a single tone longer than human beings possibly could. In one movement, the choir stops and starts abruptly, switching from one musical style to a radically different one in an instant, as if the music were sampled and not sung in real time, as it is. At another point, Hearne employs a studio effect and replays the sound of the choir on top of itself, doing so repeatedly until the electronic noise generated by the process supplants the human voices. “What is human and what is not? That’s a question we live with every day in our digital lives,” says Hearne. “That’s what I’m asking in Sound from the Bench, and, as with most of my work, I try to avoid providing an answer, because there is no easy one.”
At the same time, Hearne is finding the acutely grim state of the world tempting him to take clearer, stronger positions in his work. The fact that Hearne is entertaining two contradictory, seemingly incompatible approaches to political music seems only fitting to a master of creative uncertainty:
As much as I’m interested in how art can illuminate complexity and point at gray areas, in some respect these concerns might not be so important right now or in the near future — or I should say, I feel myself less galvanized to write about the morally ambiguous. A direct address from an artist can be bold and fresh and not necessarily less sophisticated or mere propaganda.
Now that Ted Hearne has demonstrated the power of ambiguity and indirection in political music and, in the process, proven his importance as a composer, he is thinking of trying a blunter, harder-hitting approach. He may end up making something Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson could recognize, after all.
David Hajdu is the music critic for The Nation and a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He has published five books, including Lush Life, Positively 4th Street, The Ten-Cent Plague, and Love for Sale. He is also a songwriter and librettist, with songs on seven albums by various artists in jazz and pop.