When Perth composer Eduardo Cossio chatted with US composer Ted Hearne he discovered the intensely personal genesis behind the modern day oratorio Katrina Ballads. Hearne’s expressive, socially engaged music features in the Perth Festival this week and we are delighted to be able to share his exclusive interview with Noted readers.
Hurricane Katrina left in its wake the unprecedented destruction of cities and lives when it befell the Caribbean in August 2005. As media coverage unfolded the picture of a country further divided along the lines of race and wealth began to appear. Witnessing the disaster from New York City, then 23 year-old music student Ted Hearne was confronted with issues of privilege and responsibility, but also rage at a government seemingly out of touch with the reality of millions of Americans.
Katrina Ballads is an oratorio for small ensemble, voices, and video projection that uses media coverage of Hurricane Katrina as its primary source. Snippets of dialogue by real-life characters, including Kanye West and George W Bush, are used to present a portrait of America that is at times too close to home.
Hearne will be conducting the WA premier of Katrina Ballads at the Fremantle Arts Centre on February 15th as part of the Perth Festival, supported by a cast of international and national musicians, and featuring the visuals of avant-garde film-maker Bill Morrison.
Hearne says the genesis for writing the song-cycle was his sense of bereavement and not knowing where to put his feelings of anger and sadness.
“We were all pretty shocked at this manifestation of inequality and racism in our country. For a lot of people my age, who were separated from the event, it served as a wake-up call, an awareness of the stark differences between my life and the life of people that went without assistance for days and days, in what might be the greatest city in our country.”
The individual and social concerns in Katrina Ballads come to the forefront in ‘Brownie, you are doing a heck of a job’, one of the most caustic songs in the oratorio. It starts with video footage of George W. Bush congratulating Federal Emergency director Michael D. Brown. The president’s words are then taken by a singer who raps relentlessly over big band style arrangements. The music has a jolting quality, with stops and starts that follow the vocalists’ lead.
Hearne has often performed this number himself, delivering an unhinged performance repeating the same phrase over and over as if to seek physical and mental exhaustion.
“Performing that piece has been a very cathartic experience,” he says. “I had a lot of anger about what passed as aid, and of course, the face of that government was George W. Bush.”
A diversity of musical styles help carry the use of source text in Katrina Ballads. Among its vocal numbers there are finely crafted instrumentals where Hearne’s knack for avant-garde sonorities brings out rarefied moods. But the oratorio’s musical language is firmly planted in the American vernacular: rock, hip-hop, and jazz.
“New Orleans is a model of hybridity, a mix of cultures that to me represent America at its best. Without quoting that music specifically – because I am not from New Orleans – I made a piece that is as much about New Orleans as it is about America. This sense of hybridity also aligned with my thinking about music at the time. The music I think is most cutting edge and inspiring is not classical music. There is incredible progress being made in all these other genres. So this piece is about exploring that idea of hybridity, and relating it to the subject matter.”
Hearne’s mentors include Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, and David Lang; a generation of American composers that extended the legacy of Phillip Glass and Steve Reich with popular idioms. Katrina Ballads uses a myriad of musical references without being sentimental or pastiche. Rather, the lean arrangements provide focus and drive to the textual vignettes.
The oratorio also marks the start of a series of vocal and instrumental works with political connotations. The Source is about Chelsea Manning, while Sound from the Bench centres on the Citizens United case from 2010. Hearne traverses these contemporary topics with music that is evocative and heartfelt, but also infused with mordant satire.
Works based on current events could be seen as easily outmoded, or not being transcendental enough in an ‘Art Music’ sense, but the composer is not worried about this. The Source, his latest song-cycle, is built around leaked communication by whistle-blower Chelsea Manning. It recreates a dystopian labyrinth with Manning at the centre, grappling with her own sexuality and fearing for her personal safety. Like Katrina Ballads, Hearne juxtaposes source material with music as a way of broadening points of view. For him, music has the ability to elicit empathy, or at least bring new perspectives during overwhelming circumstances.
“Using a specific text and juxtaposing it with music can help you see an entire situation, an entire political reality, a shared experience. These are complex issues and we need to take a lot of time to consider the nuances and grey areas. The world doesn’t need another piece of art prescribing another person or specific opinion. Artists shouldn’t be pundits.”
Eduardo Cossio is a composer and improviser active in the Perth experimental scene. His music reviews appear on Cool Perth Nights and RealTime Arts; he hosts Difficult Listening on RTRM; and organises Outcome Unknown, an experimental concert series at Spectrum Project Space.