Ted Hearne ‘Source’ Finds Music In Din Of Info Cacophony

Unidentified persons watch a leaked video of a U.S. helicopter attack on a Baghdad suburb in 'The Source.' (Photos courtesy of LA Opera)
Unidentified persons watch a leaked video of a U.S. helicopter attack on a Baghdad suburb in ‘The Source.’
(Photos courtesy of LA Opera)
By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES – Following LA Opera’s performance of Ted Hearne’s The Source on Oct. 19, the house lights at REDCAT went on, and there was dead silence from the audience for what seemed like forever. There were no performers to watch in order to know when to applaud. It was strange, uncomfortable; no one knew quite what to do. Eventually, a few feeble signs of applause from some brave folk could be heard, then the rest of the audience joined in, but the ovation was muted, self-conscious, perhaps even intrusive.

Ted Hearne, composer of 'The Source.'
Ted Hearne, composer of ‘The Source.’

I had never seen an audience react quite this way before, and I’m not even sure the creative efforts of composer Hearne, librettist Mark Doten, and director Daniel Fish should be held responsible. As a theater piece, The Source was innovative, confusing, daring, fragmented, sometimes overwhelming the senses, sometimes tediously sparse, and now and then, seemingly irrelevant to its subject matter — Pfc. Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning of Wikileaks notoriety. But it definitely made an impact live.

First seen in 2014 at the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Source is not an opera in the traditional sense; there isn’t even the pretense of a plot. Rather it is a 13-part compendium of classified U.S. military documents leaked by Pfc. Manning, chat logs between Manning and the hacker who informed on him (Adrian Lamo), questions from interviews with Wikileaks chief Julian Assange, and a lot of other contemporary flotsam, assembled into what can loosely be called a video song cycle or oratorio.

The audio component of the piece was released on a CD by the New Amsterdam label last year, and it allows one to sort out the jumble of idioms in the score while wondering how in the world something like this might be staged. As it turned out, not much on the visual end was added to the score itself; it’s what’s not in the score per se that I think provoked the unusual audience reaction — and I’ll get to that in a bit.

Four screens planted around the space projected videos and texts.
Four screens planted around the space projected videos and texts.

The grandstands within the black-box REDCAT theatre were removed, and we were seated flat on the stage floor on folding chairs, with half of the audience facing the other half. Four vocalists (Mellissa Hughes, Samia Mounts, Isaiah Robinson, Jonathan Woody) were seated among the audience in front of microphones. A seven-piece ensemble (violin, viola, cello, electric guitar, electric bass, keyboards, and trap drums) directed by Nathan Koci played behind one of four video screens planted on each side of the room.

On the screens, a succession of unidentified persons of all ages and ethnic groups appeared one by one, all staring straight ahead somberly, motionlessly as they were being filmed watching a leaked video of a U.S. helicopter attack on a Baghdad suburb. The room felt claustrophobic and hemmed in — probably a deliberate ploy.

The singers often were subjected to auto-tune, an electronic process commonly heard in pop and rap music these days that gives vocalists a robotic quality. In rap music, auto-tune is a crutch that allows non-singers to “sing,” after a fashion; here, it was used to give the libretto of leaks an other-worldly, distancing, dehumanizing effect.

Hearne’s score moved freely without a trace of self-consciousness through a mosaic of idioms, utilizing an M-Base jazz groove, some lugubrious hard rock, classical string trio passages, soft-rock, and other ingredients. Sprinkled into the mix were samples of American life — audio clips from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and an NBA sportscast, the first three words from “Mack the Knife,” words from Stephen Hawking, pop records released in 2010 (the year of the Wikileaks release), fragments of Dinah Washington and possibly The Platters singing “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” It is the work of a millennial-generation composer immersed in his times, with a few ironic looks backwards.

Jonathan Woody was one of four vocalists participating in the production.
Jonathan Woody was one of four vocalists participating in the production.

The sounds, the auto-tuned voices, the strong bass, and the private musings of Manning come at you in a delicious rush of sensory overload in the segment entitled “Oh the Shark” and in the Assange interrogation of “Julian in a Nutshell.” Other times, though, the piece just crawls along so slowly and sparely that it creates impatience.

If the point of The Source was to overwhelm the listener with document leaks so numerous that no one could possibly absorb it all, then Hearne and company have succeeded. If, however, all of this is supposed to make some sense of the U.S. role in Iraq, or whether or not to feel sympathy for the brave, embattled, personally troubled Chelsea Manning, neither the patchwork score nor the libretto of bits and shards did the job.

But the video appendix at the conclusion of the piece does. As the score (heard on the CD) ended, the screens showed the 11-minute, black-and-white leaked surveillance video of the real war, seen by the onscreen people earlier. The video is called “Collateral Murder,” and it is punctuated by the hardened, casual dialogue of U.S. servicemen as they seek and destroy human beings and rolling targets. Now the brutality and insanity of the Iraq war was right in our faces — and that, I believe, was the reason for the collective silence at the end of the piece, rendering all that preceded it as prologue.

Chalk up another provocative, avant-garde production for Beth Morrison Projects, and for LA Opera which – for the fall of 2016 at least – looks like a bastion of nervy progressive programming. The production runs through Oct. 23. It travels to San Francisco Opera next, at the Taube Atrium Theater, from Feb. 24 through Mar. 3, 2017.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.