If U.S. politics is all just a puppet show, then who’s pulling the strings?
That’s the big question behind Ted Hearne’s probing new choral work, “Sound from the Bench.” The sprawling 40-minute political cantata casts corporations as the grand puppeteers: after the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision back in 2010, businesses and the multimillionaires who run them were free to funnel their corporate money into politics—and to directly influence the course of history.
But of course, the answer is not so simple. In fact, court decisions like this one merely raise a myriad of other questions—questions of power, privilege, politics, and perspective.
“Sound from the Bench” is the title track and centerpiece of Hearne’s new album, a collection of four choral works which examine many of those unanswerable questions. Performed (and co-commissioned) by Philadelphia’s contemporary chamber choir the Crossing under the artistic direction of Donald Nally, the four featured works delve into the depths of our current political climate, stitching together historical political texts and haunting literature in gripping musical settings.
The title track, for instance, combines text from landmark Supreme Court cases with words from ventriloquism textbooks and poetry from Jena Osman’s Corporate Relations, a collection which explores the history of corporate personhood in the U.S.
Scored for choir with two electric guitars and percussion, the five-movement work is a kaleidoscope of influences: ethereal choral polyphony, infectious rock grooves, dense harmonies, and dramatic utterances color the dry legal language of Citizens United—reminding us of the humanity at stake in these formal and detached court documents. The manic fantasia boomerangs between conventional choral settings and heavily distorted rock riffs in a fiery exploration of opposites: individual vs. corporation, man vs. machine, and puppet vs. puppeteer.
“Guitars are loud and they can growl menacingly,” Donald Nally said of the work. “Machines can always speak louder than individuals—even louder than a whole lot of individuals combined into a unified voice. Drums keep beats, but the beat that you hear may not be trusted. And harmony tells stories.”
Another story is at stake in the album’s opening track, “Consent” for 16 unaccompanied voices. The haunting motet takes its text from love letters, religious wedding rites, and text messages used as evidence in the 2013 Steubenville Rape Trial. The piece begins with tense breathing in the soprano and alto parts, deeply contrasted against obsessive advances in the tenor and bass. But as the work progresses, the women begin to sing—and yet the men still do not listen. The drama climaxes in a chaotic clash of voices and ends with sweet choral harmonies singing the Catholic wedding phrase, “Who gives this woman?”, leaving us to reflect on how, even in the 21st century, our society still conditions us to treat women as property.
“Ripple” for unaccompanied choir uses simple, sweet harmonies to underscore another type of discord: America’s blissful ignorance. The piece ruminates on a single, haunting sentence of the Iraq War Logs across eight short, continuous movements—each becoming progressively more introspective with the quiet and overwhelming realization of the tragedy at hand.
The album closes with “Privilege,” a collection of five short pieces exploring generational privilege, the deep class divide, and the unjust erasure of the poor. The movements shift between clashing perspectives: Hearne’s own personal reflections, Bill Moyer’s 2009 interview with The Wire creator David Simon, and an English translation of an anti-Apartheid song from South Africa. Hearne spins the listener through a dizzying maze of musical styles, sporadically shifting between densely harmonized, mechanical rhythms and airy, organic melodic lines: a musical representation of our search for meaning in an ever-shifting media landscape.
“Hearne’s work is fundamentally about asking questions—questions about the world we live in, about art, and about language and music,” Nally said. “He asks questions that don’t have easy answers, and his art makes artistic demands that are not easily reached.”
Yet the Crossing reaches every single note on this album, shifting effortlessly from warm, immersive harmonies to disembodied and detached percussive textures when the music and libretto call for it. Each court case, war log, letter, and poem comes alive through the choir’s stunning vocal precision, balance, and depth—and the result is a visceral and deeply moving mosaic of the horrors of modern America.
It’s a story that couldn’t be told quite so compellingly in any other musical medium: choral music in itself represents community, harmony, and humanity. In this album, the Crossing’s voices become all of our voices, blending together to tell both individual and universal stories of our humanity.
Because for all the probing questions Hearne asks with this album, this is perhaps the most central one:
Who has a voice in the U.S.—and more specifically: how do they use it?