Genre Counterpoint: An Interview with Ted Hearne

Ted Hearne’s work The Source is a critically acclaimed modern oratorio about Chelsea Manning. Over the course of an hour, Hearne uses a wide range of musical genres to dramatize primary sources connected with Manning’s leakage of classified documents to WikiLeaks in 2010. His work Law of Mosaics is being performed by Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic New Music Group at the Barbican in May. Leo Mercer talked to him about The Source, his inspirations, and the use of sampling in his work.

Where does your music come from? Who has influenced you the most?
The type of music I wanted to make – and still do – came into my head while I was in college. Like many composers in my generation, I was influenced by hybridistic artists. I was totally infatuated with Bjork’s music: Vespertine and Homogenic were really important albums for me because of the fusion of styles and sounds, and the way they’re so sonically specific and formally interesting. And being an 18-year-old composer in the year 2000, when Radiohead’s Kid A comes out, was a seminal experience. Added to that, I grew up with Hip Hop and RnB. Radiohead’s Black Star, D’Angelo’s Voodoo, Erykah Badu – they were all important for me. Take progressive hip hop artists like Wu-Tang Clan in 36 Chambers. They used sampling to make a whole different type of cut-and-paste music that was important to me. Trying to find ways to fuse these influences is something that started me thinking about what sound I wanted to put together, especially since I wanted to get choral/vocal music into that mix.

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Ted Hearne © Nathan Lee Bush

Who are your influences on the more classical side?
Well, Stravinsky, Ives and Ligeti, they’re huge to me… But in a more contemporary sense, I’m part of this fashion of American composers for whom Steve Reich and Philip Glass loom large. Reich isn’t the first person I bring up, because a lot of what I do is different from what he does. But I do think that the minimalist movement completely changed the game in America in a way that completely affects me and my music.

The Bang-On-A-Can composers (Julia Wolfe, David Lang and Michael Gordon) are hugely influential, but also on a personal level are great mentors of mine. Julia and Michael are like surrogate parents to me in New York, and their philosophy about music has permeated my thinking too. It’s anti-canon, non-hierarchical, a bottom-up philosophy which is very refreshing for classical music. They are composers who never prioritised notation, who put rhythm before harmony, who borrowed from non-classical music in a way that most other composers were not doing at that time.

Michael Gordon has some pieces that use electric guitar and electric bass – they’re seminal pieces that sounded radical at the time. It was unheard of to integrate a somewhat rock-style guitar into notated harmonic and rhythmic structures. Because of that progressive mentality, the development of the electric guitar in a classical music idiom is now way more developed: there’s a sense of color and style, more depth. Michael’s older music from the 80s and 90s almost seems like a baroque use of the electric guitar in comparison to a current style, but the choice to use it at that time was a big deal.

When you sample, are you trying to do something different from regular sampling? In ‘Oh, the Shark’ (from The Source) you seem to shuffle between samples as opposed to fusing them.
I’m really interested in sampling because of the way the context of the origin of a sample can be incorporated into a new piece – it’s full of possibility. Sometimes a sample is treated as a melting pot. If there is such a thing as purely sonic qualities, it can be used that way. But samples come from somewhere, and if you know they do that, they point to something. I think artists playing with sampling in the most interesting ways integrate the awareness of the origin into the music, and the patchwork nature of it becomes very clear. I mentioned 36 Chambers – that album’s incredible, because it’s so obvious what the samples are. For example, it repurposes old jazz which, whether that’s Thelonious Monk or On Green Dolphin Street, has a socio-political undercurrent which being integrated into something completely new.

In The Source, all the samples are meant to point back to their origin, to be used in a conversation about something that is present. The title The Source really refers to that consideration of the origin or history of something. The ‘Oh the shark’ sample [from Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera], is the first in the piece, and already in the first movement it’s integrated a few times. That’s perfect because The Threepenny Opera so political, it’s a great example of using music to talk about the world around you. But then the second track is full of a million samples, in your face completely, from Jon Stewart, Bjork’s Bachelorette, an NBA finals game. Because you can place the origin you have to consider why it’s in the piece. In many ways it’s far too bright, but I wanted it to encourage a certain type of thinking when you watch The Source.

I liked the fearlessness of it. The brightness is what makes it cool.
Thanks. It’s gaudy, but I think there’s a place for gaudiness right next to things that aren’t gaudy. It’s really important to have that type of contrast. Kanye does that really well, and I love his music.

What do you love about Kanye?
His use of difference in music, and his integration of samples, is really bold. He engages in a really cool dialogue by the way he integrates samples into texture. Compare the following two examples: at the end of ‘New Slaves’ there’s a sample from a pretty obscure Hungarian psychedelic rock band, and it’s used for this massive contrast to the music that precedes it. It’s not like Steely Dan, or something that most of his audience would know. Rather, it’s used for its sonic qualities. But then a couple of tracks later is ‘Blood on the Leaves’. It begins with Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruits’, as sung by Nina Simone. It’s the most political song of the 20th century, easily placeable into a historical context. You sing that and you reference slavery and lynching. When Kanye uses that in this way, he’s bringing all of that history into the music, and then creating contrast with his words. It’s stark, interesting – and very controversial. And I love that these two ways of using sampling, on two opposite sides of a spectrum, are on the same album. He’s subtly playing with that as a sort of fader. Kanye’s totally aware that context and style is a malleable parameter in music.

In The Source, you use a very striking electronic manipulation of the voice. How did you create this?
In The Source, we have all of these war logs, all this material from the Department of Defense. How do you process this, whilst being so distant from it? I regularly work with Philip White, an amazing composer and electronic artist. We’ve known each other since 2005, and we were trying to figure out what we’d do together, as our aesthetic worlds were pretty different. He plays with no-input feedback [a way of generating sounds directly from a mixing console, without the input of purpose-built musical instruments]. That’s essentially been his instrument for several years now. At some point we came up with the idea of appropriating sounds from the pop landscape, and adding autotune and vocal processing, which led to our duo R WE WHO WE R.

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© Seth Gadsden

Philip is great with Max/MSP [a programming language for music], and generally well equipped on the electronic sphere. He developed an interactive use of vocal processing, playing with the wet/dry mix of autotune in such a way that you can always hear your real voice accompanied by a processed one. It became this really cool feeling of singing a duet with your self. The patch that we use has this incredibly glitchy sound. It has a beautiful degradation to it, which became a fertile metaphor for me to think about processing in the context of The Source. With this sound, it felt like I was able to hear my own voice but have it clouded and reflected back at me in a way that was both human and not human.

In many of your works, especially The Source, you have mixed classical / non-classical instrumentation and vocals. Why?

In The Source there’s a violin, viola and cello, pitted against electric guitar, electric bass guitar, and drums. In terms of vocals, there are four singers. Two are classical – not operatic, but more like a straight-tone early music style. Then there’s another who’s completely rooted in pop, and another rooted in gospel/R&B. I’ve written a few pieces like this. I’m really interested in how music is interpreted depending on various styles – for example how singers from different backgrounds produce the same notes and vowels – so I’ve written a number of pieces where there are specifically different styles in the piece.

In the movements where they sing Chelsea Manning’s words they sing without vocal processing. But style is a big part of those movements, and they switch regularly between them. Where can the boundaries between genres be crossed? That’s a big question, and it’s especially relevant when you note that genre and gender have the same root. In ‘War Logs’, which come from the Department of Defense leaks, all the voices have autotune. In ‘Smoke When Bird Nears’, there’s a singer who’s doing a very austere singing with autotune. That music underneath goes from something that’s very angular new music classical to something that’s essentially R&B. In ‘Julian in a Nutshell’, style is used to show the way in which journalists develop a narrative about Julian Assange. They sing in a clearer straight-tone style for some of it, then it morphs into something poppier, and then into gawdy musical theatre when a scandal arises.

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The Source © Stefan Cohen

You coined the term ‘genre-counterpoint’. What do you mean by this?
I was talking with a friend who was asking me about teaching advanced counterpoint. The composers at University of South Carolina, where I teach, have a big requirement of counterpoint. It’s like the old conservatory model. I think it’s great to learn as a composer, but it’s rooted in a old tradition that is very culturally specific, and it’s my opinion that there are many other techniques that could also be taught in the core curriculum. The students have to spend the first two years doing counterpoint, and in my opinion that’s too much. I’m teaching the last section of course, and I suggested that I could expand the definition of counterpoint for that class, to not only talk about how notes interact with each other in time, but also counterpoint of genres or styles. I don’t use it as a catchphrase, but I do like it.

Take ‘Oh the Shark’, for example. There’s a sequence of samples, everything from Dixie Chicks to Christina Aguilera, to quotes from Stephen Hawking and The Daily Show. What gives each of these clips their identity? It’s something about style, which we are increasingly attuned to because of the amount of recorded music we listen to. This means genre is a progressive experimental parameter, and music can play with that. Different genre signifiers can interact with each other. Of course, this begins the question, what is genre? Ultimately, it’s a demographic tool, reflective of a culture, or an audience. The actual rules of what makes up a certain genre are completely flexible and determined by the artist. Most artists don’t concern themselves with genre, so much as expression and communication. But when you’re working with certain genre expectations, and then cross those boundaries – then there’s huge potential.

For more information about Ted and his work, please visit his website. Tickets to Law of Mosaics are available from the Barbican.

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