Some musicians are inspired by history, literature, nature, art, or even philosophy—but American composer and vocalist Ted Hearne prefers to get his inspiration straight from the source.
The primary source, that is. Never one to shy away from the political, Hearne’s compositions tend to favor preexisting, primary-source texts portraying the tragic, troubled, and otherwise politically-turbulent parts of America’s recent history.
His latest album, aptly titled “The Source,” takes as its basis the Iraq War Logs and Afghan War Diary—two of the biggest leaks in U.S. military history. Hearne matches the massive scope and political significance of these documents by creating a likewise chaotic, dense, passionate, and poignant patchwork of musical maximalism.
The album is an oratorio of sorts, based on Private Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning) and her disclosure of hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks in 2010. Manning—who was 22 years old at the time and stationed in Iraq—was reported to the authorities by Adrian Lamo, an online acquaintance and former hacker. Manning had spoken to Lamo about a number of taboo topics, both political and personal: the document leaks, life in the Army, U.S. foreign policy—but also about her personal feelings, her gender identity, and her hopes that her actions would create “worldwide discussion, debates, and reform.”
In 2013, Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for espionage, theft, and computer fraud, as well as numerous military infractions. Shortly afterward, she made public her transgender status and her intent to transition to a woman.
Suffice it to say, there are countless political, social, cultural, and personal threads woven throughout this historic event—and Hearne explores as many as he can in just over one hour. Scored for five vocalists, interactive auto-tune, electronic processing, and small chamber ensemble, the album features the vocals of Hearne himself along with Mellissa Hughes, Samia Mounts, Isaiah Robinson, and Jonathan Woody. Their voices, auto-tuned and processed in real time, take on an eerily mechanical effect, underscoring the technological aspects of the leaked documents in addition to the political.
Ted Hearne sings a sparse, live version of “Criminal Event”
Mark Doten provides the chilling patchwork libretto, drawn from various primary-source texts dating from 2005-2010—including the leaked documents, the conversations (both political and personal) between Manning and Lamo, and selections of interviews, radio, social media, and popular music of the period.
The result is an abstracted and completely idiosyncratic musical mashup which exists somewhere between the very separate realms of classical collage, fringe theatre, rock opera, and robotic electronic. Bouncing violently back and forth between a thousand different musical worlds, Hearne explores the full range of human emotion through a fragmented recap of both political and personal wars.
Shards of text and melodic fragments are layered, transformed, and repeated again and again, circling into a frenzied tornado of sound and emotion that refuses to settle down for more than a moment at a time. And while it’s difficult to find communicative meaning amidst of the crescendoing chaos and confusion, the emotions behind the music are perfectly tangible and utterly visceral.
Because ultimately, “The Source” does not tell a linear story—it takes a snapshot of our world, in all its political, social, and cultural complexity. It does not offer up a solution or remedy but rather, it leaves the listener with a whirlwind of reflections and questions that echo long after the oratorio has ended.