Interview w/ composer Ted Hearne / by Liquid Music

By composer JP Merz

photo by Nathan Lee Bush

photo by Nathan Lee Bush

Ted Hearne is composer and performer whose music is infused with a love of pop, hip-hop, jazz, noise, rock and musical theater, often creating a raw sense of energy and urgency. His large-scale works deal with current political issues, such as oratorios about Hurricane Katrina (Katrina Ballads) or Chelsea Manning and WikiLeaks (The Source) which both set text from primary source documents surrounding the events. I wrote these questions for both Ted and Jace Clayton, who is also composing a work for this concert, and tried to address themes that draw connections between their works. You can see/compare/contrast Jace’s answers here.

In this interview Ted discusses his inspiration from Audre Lorde, the intrigue of Saul Williams and shares some of his favorite music.

JP: How did you first get involved with Saul, Mivos, and Liquid Music?

Ted: This is my third time at Liquid MusicI love coming up to Minneapolis and really love the programming and audience at Liquid Music. The last time was I came up was two seasons ago with Timo Andres, Gabriel Kahane and Becca Stevens in "Work Songs," and before that I had a new piece premiered with Ashley Bathgate and Ian Ding in 2013. Mivos and I go way back from our time together in the new music community in New York, and I've been a Saul fan for a long time, so am thrilled that we're working together for the first time.

Work Songs  2014   Liquid Music performance

Work Songs 2014 Liquid Music performance

JP: A huge variety of musical genres will often exist side by side within one of your pieces, placing familiar sounds in unfamiliar contexts. What interests you in this recontextualization and in drawing on such a broad musical palette?

Ted: The thing I love about music is that it communicates a place and a time, a perspective and a cultural context, without ever relying completely on the limiting specificity of language. De/recontextualization of sound from its origin, and the mixing of different mediums and genres, can cause us to re-examine governing frameworks we often take for granted.

There's a power to be found in the difference between genres or styles of art, and in the difference between the cultures they represent. Audre Lorde said: "Difference must not be merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic." I'm drawn to explore the ways music can point at, or even harness, those differences, as a spark.

JP: What aspects of Saul’s work do you find particularly fascinating, inspiring or moving?

Ted: Saul sings when he talks, and the rhythm of his performances seems to imbue his words with a meaning I wouldn't have gleaned if I had merely read them and not heard them. To be a musician who lives by the wordthat fascinates and moves me, and it mystifies me because I'm not a poet.

Also, Saul is an artist who confronts and embraces the world around him, with all its problems, and that's just inspiring.

JP: Text is often an essential element in your work. How did you approach the use and role of text in this piece? Does it differ than the ways you’ve approached text in previous works?

Ted: Yes definitely, it differs. I often use texts as lyrics, but have never before worked with a poet who will be performing as part of the piece. Saul's text was not only written by him, will be performed by him, and the music I'm writing is completely tied to his performance of that text. So in that way it's like writing for an improvising musician (which in many ways Saul is)there are many rhythmic and melodic elements of the piece that must be left up to him, in the moment, because they are his words, and he knows how to deliver them better than anybody.

JP: You worked with Saul’s poem “The Answer to the Question that Wings Ask” which asks a never ending series of deconstructing questions while weaving seamlessly between religion, reality, sex, morality and many other topics. What is this poem about for you and what themes were you drawn to?

Ted: The poem does weave and bob. And yes, it asks a series of questions. For me, the power of the poem is not found in the themes of the specific questions as much as in the way Saul portrays the unrelenting interrogation of the self. I feel bare when I read it, and I think part of its purpose is to strip away the artifice self-consciousness creates by confronting it head-on.

The music I wrote is based off a circular but somewhat confounding chord progression, sort of like the series of Saul's questions. There are many repetitions, but each is colored differently, implying slightly skewed modalities or tonal centers. And I tried to think of the string quartet's bowing motions as an image in a mirror–what would it mean for bowings that were first moving in lock-step to split apart and do their own thing? Can a path of individual discovery be mirrored in the physicality of Mivos's playing? (We'll see, I guess.)

JP: What are you listening to lately and what do you find interesting about it?

Ted: Jürg Frey, for dissected and disembodied sonorities; Tim Hecker, for a noisy but comforting continuum; Clipping for noisy and not exactly comforting; Robert Glasper In My Element for totally genre-bending and with the best voicings, Becca Stevens for always classy intellectual songwriting; Mingus, Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is so rich and rhythmically complex.

JP: What’s next?

Ted: I want to write a bunch of songs for me myself to sing...