.Everything’s In ‘Place’: Composer Ted Hearne tackles whiteness with witness

A city like Oakland or Berkeley, imagined as a sonic map in the mind of composer Ted Hearne, is not based on a grid of streets, parklands, homes and buildings. Instead, it is a place filled with sounds equal to a cartographer’s best dreams and worst nightmares. Replacing avenues and boulevards are human connections stoked by memories, ruminations, preoccupations, prejudices, privileges, disenfranchisements, sensitivity and outright ignorance. Urban neighborhood pathways projected into Hearne’s musical works are lined with arboreal-equivalent audible outgrowths of rage, generosity, redemption, forgiveness, avarice, racism, violence, belligerence, xenophobia, grief, loss, love and more. These things express themselves in found, natural, electronically manipulated or synthesized instrumental screeches, gorgeous harmonies, vocal shouts, muffled, hand-over-mouth muttering, and sampling drawn from musical theater, classical music, Baroque-era hymns, opera, pop, hip-hop, R&B, jazz, indie rock, gospel, modern classical and electronic music and spoken word.

Listen closely to the music and text of his newest 75-minute work, Place, and you will hear an intensely urban, cacophonous, and sublime oratorio that feels like it was created long ago, yesterday, today, and in some future tomorrow. The semi-staged production written by Ted Hearne and poet/librettist Saul Williams with music by Hearne and directed by Patricia McGregor arrives March 12 for it’s West Coast premiere in Berkeley as part of Cal Performances’ 2021-22 Illuminations series.

Places’ polyphonic sound maps—scores of them layered one upon another—together represent the lives and paths taken by every resident of the city that is Brooklyn, NY, but could be any metropolis in America. Embedded in the rich, patchwork fabric of Hearne’s sonic landscape that charts the Fort Greene neighborhood to which he moved in the early 2010s, the city’s every relationship, conversation, confrontation, privileged assumption, incidences of anger or grace, avoidance, comfort and discomfort, harmony and dissonance play out in full force. A cast recording of the work received two Grammy nominations. Place is a finalist for the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Music and in its premiere at Zellerbach Hall on the UC campus, the work features six vocalists and an 18-member ensemble.

Hearne in previous interviews has reluctantly used the buzz-weary words “gentrification and displacement” to describe the primary themes addressed in Place. But in a conversation moments after his arrival in Berkeley from his home in Los Angeles in early March, he tells me, “Place came from thinking about maps. And about my Whiteness. I heard Spike Lee giving a speech at the Pratt Institute and started thinking about the city I lived in and how I mapped the city and what maps I referred to in my place. What would a city feel, sound, and look like if everyone’s map was overlaid on top of each other?”

Specifically, Hearne thought about his White privilege and how white guilt is a dodge, a way to hook on “I didn’t realize” and shirk real accountability. He thought hard thoughts about himself. Uncomfortable thoughts. The kind of thoughts his Midwest upbringing told him “are best left unsaid;” let alone written and included in a piece of art meant for public consumption.

“Art is about communication,” Hearne says, then falters before finding clarity in words that tumble like an avalanche once he gets rolling. “It’s just…I don’t necessarily…I don’t know…I’ll say this: As a person in the world, I’m difficult. I’m extroverted, I love meeting new people, but I have an anti-authoritarian streak. If something feels unjust, I think it’s important to talk about it. Where I come from, the culture was where it might be easier to not say the difficult thing. I was also raised by a person who was steeped in classical music and then, because of my relationship with Chicago Children’s Choir, which does classical music but is really a social justice group with kids from different walks of life and socio-economic backgrounds all singing together, there’s a friction between those two philosophies of music. Thinking about it as an adult, is music really about communication if the community making it is totally homogeneous? If the values of the audience are geared toward comfort and pacification rather than conflict and challenge? That’s the stew that motivates my work.”

Hearne doesn’t view his work as it is often described by critics and characterized in reviews and other media coverage as being “about political issues.” Instead his work is a reaction to the world he lives in. A frequent element is the inclusion of texts that were never meant to be set to music or were not created to be aestheticized or repurposed—Supreme Court rulings read aloud, words or excerpts of written works quoted from James Baldwin or Zora Neal Hurston, and more. Sampling brings in an eclectic musical whirlwind: Erykah Badu, Nina Simone, Sade, Modest Mouse, Handel’s Messiah, electronic loops that bring to mind Steve Reich and repetitions that shift the mind to minimalists such as composer Terry Riley.

“I’ve been interested for a long time in the expressive possibilities of sampling in terms of the different conversations and types of dialogues that can happen with pieces of sound, with different styles of music and chunks of music all together in a stew. Those types of (sampling) techniques reflect our own world and our place in it. This piece is built on that type of writing, but when I started working with Saul, I also started listening to my own environment in a different way. It has to do with how my words sounded or were interpreted by Saul when he read them and wrote back. That’s listening in itself. It’s a consciousness around how listening unfolds around you. It’s not “the sounds of the city” but it’s about (asking) how is my lived experience being felt by others? What is my impact on the community around me?”

Hearne wrote the text for Part I and sent it off to Williams, who wrote Parts II and III in response. Williams’ writing, he says, is incredibly stimulating. “Saul is such a brilliant mind and poet and musician. His words are full of references to music, film, poetry, culture and different perspectives. He is so well-versed that the writing is rich and there’s context everywhere. If you’ve ever seen a DJ set by him, he’s really incredible. All types of music. It’s pretty out, lots of deep references; yeah, it keeps speaking to me. I’ll always see new things in a great poem.”

We talk about a line from the libretto that Hearne says is Place’s “penultimate” expression and exemplifies the incredible depth in Williams’ writing. The song lyrics read, “I need a million mouths to say this but I only have this one; A million bright ambassadors of mourning mother’s Sun.” The culminating idea of the lines communicated to Hearne exactly what he himself experienced as he undertook the project. “I only have this one mouth. I really latched onto that because a big part of the dialogue in the piece, a big part of the response from Saul, links into “Am I ok? Am I ok?” You can never really get out of your own brain or transcend your own body. It’s like I needed to have a million mouths, to be omniscient to get the message out. It speaks to the difficulty of harnessing the people in a community or the people at large to make the types of changes we need.”

The differences in spelling (the “Sun” that without text can be heard as “son”), are brilliant, says Hearne. “What is the difference between what you hear sung and what you read? It shows his ultimate knowledge of what the form is going to be. It speaks perfectly to listening to a piece of music and then you are rewarded when you look into it further. You’re rewarded by thinking about hearing it one way and then reading it another way. That’s clearly Saul’s design. That’s an incredible thing. It’s about depth and those maps. How deep do they go? Like right now, I’m looking over this intersection in Berkeley and you can look at this city as if it is a little grid. But if you think about every person moving through it and think about their network and relationships and then think about all of society and place at large? That’s deep.”

Another favorite line is found in What About My Son, a song that incorporates a sample of lyrics and melody from Sade’s Is It a Crime. “It’s a great example of what’s so amazing about sampling; the line works beautifully in the context of the poem,” says Hearne. “He’s re-contextualizing it and you’re rewarded if you know the song because the original lines are adjacent and are in dialogue with the lines of the new poem. That text—Sade’s and Saul’s—are then in dialogue with the music I set. That type of intertextuality is what music should be about.”

If music is to be about intertextuality, it also in Hearne’s world must be performed by musicians who represent a diaspora of traditions and cultures. Place was a Los Angeles Philharmonic commission granted in 2018 that was delayed by the pandemic but allowed him to include up to 18 musicians. “I wanted to write a sizable piece to have it feel like there was a small town onstage; enough of an ensemble where you could divide them into factions, have submerged groups emerge and recede. I wanted to pair similar instruments, three violins, three cellos and two clarinets and a small brass section. And of course I wanted there to be musicians who were of the orchestra culture but also musicians who weren’t. Same goes with the singers. Some are classically trained and some don’t even read music. Same with the band. They all read music, but some really don’t play music notated like this or play with a conductor. It was essential, even before writing the music, to have people from different communities who could work out their interactions while playing the piece. I also wanted a group that just sounds good.”

Listening to the recording and watching the pandemic video version made with the covid-separated singers shooting their own footage and performing in their living rooms, they do sound good. They sound honest, contemporary. In moments when Isaiah Robinson is yelling “mind your business,” projecting his voice over that of Sol Ruiz, the friction is palpable, but sonically rewarding. Why is that, I ask Hearne.

“When you go to an opera, it’s often you’re hearing wonderful singers whose training is similar and of course you hear that in the sound. What is bel canto technique? It’s related to white privilege a lot. When we listen to an opera singer, what I hear often—no matter how great they are—I hear the culture of the music training that they have. Voice, because it’s literally human, is individual to each person, very strong. In classical music and opera institutions there’s an implied neutrality to the sound when, in truth, it’s a very specific practice, very white, very old. It evolved in a time when there weren’t even microphones and it hasn’t changed very much. What is that sound communicating culturally? In Place, the musicians perform in different ways and the timbral evolution is different. Some of them perform the majority of the time with microphones; some of them don’t. There are many timbral, expressive, tone colors and cultural differences—it’s like real life.”

Hearne admires the words of essayist Eula Biss, who has said about confronting her inherited privileges, “I am wholly aware of my partial understanding.” When I ask him if the process of creating and performing Place makes him continually aware of his partial understanding of his White privilege, he says, “for sure.” He points out that so many things have happened since Place was completed in June 2019—the pandemic, George Floyds’ murder, Russia’s assault on Ukraine, and so much more. “Now, we’re presenting it in a completely different world. It’s fitting that the person creating the electronics, Rohan Chandler, who’s new to the production and the youngest musician, is a Gen Z-er through and through. He’s able to observe the work from being outside it and to comment on it and interact with the work as it’s occurring. We joke that he’s like an ombudsman of the piece. We can’t ever transcend the time that we’re in or the time in which a piece was written. I’m excited to see what will happen next.”
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