The synthesis of art and activism is not a new concept; it has been taking place for centuries, as music has been the cornerstone of protest, celebration and mourning in all cultures. Yet, too often, in contemporary art, either the art or the activism must suffer for their coexistence: artist’s allow the
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actual artistry to suffer for the message, or the message suffers at the hands of artistry and neglects the intelligence of its audience. It’s a logical synthesis that is much more difficult in practice than in theory. In practice, art and activism tend to exist within a set paradigm on two separate planes.  Yet, Composer Ted Hearne’s newest collection of compositions, Katrina Ballads, does what a project like this should do. Instead of creating a direct statement it leans toward presenting the situation—the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—as seen by the artist and attempts to stimulate an ongoing dialogue, while simultaneously challenging the listener’s preconceptions of arranged music.

Synthesis is at the core of Hearne’s album.  As a classical recording it breaks the boundaries of what most people would consider “classical” music. It creates a synthesis with modern music, new technologies, and instrumentations that traditionally aren’t associated with classical composition. As a piece of art it strives for that often tenuous synthesis between art and activism.

Katrina Ballads uses primary source texts as its lyrical content: Ashley Nelson’s heartbreaking interview on This American Life, Anderson Cooper calling out Senator Mary Landrieu on the spin politicians unsuccessfully tried to feed Americans in that first week following the hurricane, Kanye West’s impassioned speech about social responsibility and the racism taking place in media coverage. The source texts speak volumes about the experience of most Americans who saw this tragedy take place through a media that lacked the governmental buffer that is normally present. Katrina Ballads joins beautiful compositions and activism, calling for tragedies such as this to remain in the political discourse.  And neither the art nor the activism suffers as a result of the other.  

I had the chance to have brunch with Ted Hearne at an Upper West Side café just after the digital release of Katrina Ballads. We talked about Katrina Ballads, activism, the challenges facing modern classical music, the wonder of eggs benedict, and the associative definitions of words (I’ll spare you the details on the eggs benedict, suffice to say they are highly regarded).

InDigest: How did you wind up choosing the musicians for this project, was there a special process, were you looking for something in particular?

Ted Hearne: Meeting awesome people who are willing to try new things in music helps me as a composer; it helps me try new things. The thing that I do not want to be is someone who writes music for a set idea of what music has to be. That’s the reason why the orchestra is kind of dead. Not that there isn’t awesome music you can do in an orchestra but I think a lot of orchestral ensembles are run in a way where all of the musicians have this thing that they know how to plug in and do. They are used to playing music from the nineteenth century. A lot of people who write orchestral music write it in this way where they are sure it’s going to sound good. “Good” meaning: people will be able to understand it easily. But I don’t think that’s that admirable. There is a lot of great music out there already, and that’s an old fashioned idea. The idea that you can just write music that gives people the least amount of resistance, giving the players the least amount of resistance, where they are most comfortable, the proportions are “correct,” and everything is “correctly done,” or orchestrated “well,” that’s really boring to me. So, the players that play on Katrina Ballads are basically all my friends. We bonded, each in our own way, with this idea that we create music out of resistance, a willingness to try new things. I think the same thing can exist in the jazz world, but jazz is in this period where some music is pushed into a box where jazz fans understand this music in a certain way. It’s square. Some people can play really well [that way]; technical players can play this really well, or historical players can play really well this way, but new things have been created. It’s devoid of this spark of new energy. That’s not totally true, there are some great new things in jazz. There are great jazz players, but there are a lot of players that understand it in this way that’s historical.

ID: Some styles have a sort of stagnation where people know certain classics and it can feel nearly archaic, and that’s the paradigm within which this style is largely understood.

TH: This is extra true in the classical world. Most people that I know, they think of classical music and they think of something old. There’s not too much appreciation for the historical, which is fine, it’s not really relevant in the same way it was when it was written. There is not much appreciation for the fact that you can do something new and relevant now. But you can. It’s not the problem of people who don’t think that way; it’s the musicians’ problem for not continuously pushing themselves. The other thing about the musicians in this group is that they all appreciate different styles of music. They play with a multi-faceted understanding of music.

ID: That seems to be something of a cornerstone with this piece: synthesis of genre.

TH: Absolutely. The drummer you can tell is a total jazz player. He has amazing jazz chops. He listens to all sorts of music; he plays a lot of contemporary music and classical music. He played classical music in college, timpani and whatever, but that’s not what he does. He plays jazz gigs every night. For him to bring that sensibility to the piece was entirely crucial. The french horn player, there is the part with french horn loops, in the second movement. He’s a jazz player too, he plays a million instruments, but he plays horn on this and brings an understanding of many styles to this piece.

ID: Is that something you actively experiment with in your compositions? Utilizing this technology that is not traditionally associated with classical music?

TH: Yeah. I’m trying to do more of that. I saw a way that it could represent the water, the physical nature of the flood. So, I wanted to utilize that. I’m writing a piece now that uses a lot more electronic stuff. I’ve been slow to go there. This is one of the first things I’ve done that uses a live electronic element. I think it’s important to get into that stuff.

ID: It seems like I’ve seen an increasing number of classical musicians doing that lately, it’s something that seems to be slipping into the genre more and more: Musicians trying to expand what they may have initially learned was possible.

TH: Right. It’s one of those things that is dangerous in the classical scene. I have problem even using that word for modern music because as soon as I use it to start classifying my music I start to think of music from the nineteenth century. I go to Yale School of Music right now, in my last year, thank god. But all the musicians who are there—and there are some fucking awesome musicians there—but with the exception of the percussionists and a couple of other people, it’s nineteenth century or eighteenth century all the way. And they are specialists. Some of the best there are, in terms of students, and they are all going to get great jobs, but they’re not going to be doing contemporary stuff. They are going to be doing museum music. Hopefully they’ll do it well and that’s great music, but…

ID: it has it’s place.

TH: Right, it has it’s place. And it’s great that people can still appreciate that, but a lot of times people who do that have a certain mentality. They don’t understand contemporary music. They don’t understand the ways that new music can be relevant to us. Sorry, I got off on a rant there. You were talking about electronic music. I think that there are a lot of composers who try to integrate electronic music. One big thing is the drum set right now. There are a lot of composers who are trying to incorporate the drum set into classical arrangements. It’s really hard to do that and make a synthesis that makes sense, because people have been using drum sets for a long time. The drum set is a totally oral instrument and everyone has their own feel to it and if you try writing it down it’s very difficult to do and have it make sense. I feel like there are so many concert pieces that have a drum set in it and the drum set sounds so stupid. It doesn’t make sense in the piece. It sounds like someone is trying to make a pastiche of rock music or jazz.

You know John Corigliano? I think he’s a pretty popular classical composer in America, and he has this piece called “Circus Maximus.” It’s this huge piece, for surround sound, he did it at Carnegie Hall, a marching band, people everywhere. It’s supposed to be this great post-modern piece about all the kinds of music. It’s maximal. There is a drum set, and it’s dumb. When the drum set comes in it’s doing this tsss-t-t-tsss. It’s this 30s jazz reference, it’s like the smallest sound bite that can represent jazz. Anyone who likes jazz now would be like, ‘What are you saying?’ It’s like music from the 30s, ok, thanks. Thanks for bringing that little sound bite in there. It’s not meaningful. It’s the same with rock. There are all sorts of interesting things going on in the indie scene, the ways people are using electric guitar; the evolution of rock music is very much alive, very cool shit is happening. But when you see it integrated into classical music very often it’s like, ‘just throw some distortion on the guitar, make it sound like rock music.’ It sounds like Led Zeppelin.

ID: It seems like another antiquated notion of what that music “should be.”

TH: Right. It’s an old idea. It’s a pastiche again. It’s a little sound bite that makes people think “rock music.” It dates a composer who tries to do that.

ID: When you see a drum set in an orchestral setting it seems that they are trying to comment somehow, make a reference to their own modernization. But the ways in which it is used are still so far behind what is actually taking place in modern music, it’s just a twist on that antiquated notion of genre.

TH: Now, I feel like there are a lot of people who think that’s dumb, that doesn’t make sense. So they say ‘don’t integrate a drum set, don’t integrate electronic music, push in a direction that doesn’t synthesize.’ Then there are a lot of people who don’t think it’s stupid and they do it. The synthesis makes sense. Synthesis itself makes sense. It has the potential to be great, to resonate with people. It can push people to new understandings of music and themselves. I think that synthesis is the way to go. I’m trying to synthesize, but in a meaningful way. It’s meaningful to me.

Art & Activism: An Interview with Ted Hearne
By: Dustin Luke Nelson