ALBUM REVIEW: The Hands Free

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Over the course of the past decade, the four composer-performers who make up the Hands Free have performed together in a variety of contexts. They found that what they loved doing the most was holding informal late-night jam sessions—which is what led to the quartet’s inception.

James Moore, who plays guitar and banjo for the group, became interested in a 1937 book that combines the poetry of  Paul Eluard with Man Ray’s line drawings. It’s called Les Mains Libres (Hands Free), a phrase Eluard and Ray used to describe allowing the imagination to play freely. Inspired to make music based on this concept, Moore thought of his late-night jams and invited Pulitzer Prize-winning Caroline Shaw (violin), Nathan Koci (accordion), and Eleonore Oppenheim (bass) to join him for imaginative musical play, creating The Hands Free and their debut self-titled album, out now on New Amsterdam Records.

The ensemble likes to perform unamplified, sit in a circle, and incorporate improvisation in almost every piece so performance feels like play and the sound is especially organic. For The Hands Free, they’ve also worked to integrate a mix of genres from folk music to jazz while drawing from the contemporary classical scene as well.

By making use of the cultural associations of genres and instrument colors, The Hands Free transports you to different parts of the world. Drawing themes from folk songs, the lively violin melody in “Kellam’s Reel/Rusty Gully” takes you to the Scottish countryside for a jovial dance. The gentle, romantic melody in “Lirr Bleu” conjures up images of Paris. With its bittersweet quality and the bass’s soft, melancholy countermelody, the piece seems to depict a broken heart in the City of Love.

In other pieces, The Hands Free challenges your perception of instruments and genres by combining them in new ways. “Lost Halo” begins with a banjo pattern that evokes the stereotypical twang of rural folk music—but when the violin enters with legato melodic lines, the banjo becomes more versatile than we often imagine it to be, intermixing tender consonant chords with dark, suspenseful dissonance for a surprisingly modern sound.

“Sade” almost sounds as though it could be from a horror movie soundtrack, with unpredictable percussion and blares of sound leading the piece into a creepy folk melody variation. Eerie tone clusters form as accordion slides clash against the rest of the ensemble. Alternately, in “It’s She” the violin transitions from another Scottish jig into a rich, lyrical melody. Beneath the violin quick, quiet bursts of tone and soft melodic humming add depth to the texture, creating something hopeful and grandiose.

With its complexity and variety, The Hands Free takes you on a journey around the world while maintaining the warmth and spontaneity of an impromptu jam session. With their beautifully eclectic mix of sounds that depict an immense variety of places and emotions, the quartet invites you to join in their play and let your imagination run free.

ALBUM REVIEW: “The Source” by Ted Hearne

by Maggie Molloy


Ted Hearne – photo by Nathan Lee Bush

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.

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Librettist Mark Doten

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.