Looking Back on a Surreal Interpretation of One of the Ugliest Periods in American History
By reflecting humanity back on itself and questioning the status quo, isn’t art subversive by definition?
Are those who merely mimic the inherently questioning nature of art selling themselves short…or, even worse, perpetuating an evil system by evading their duty to subvert it?
Was Emma Goldman any less of a revolutionary because she had limousine liberal friends who helped her out in a pinch?
Woody Guthrie and Roger Waters, two of the most popular antifascist artists of the past hundred years, dedicated themselves to concretizing their messages in the simplest, most impactful terms. Is an artist whose message is less straightforward missing an opportunity to create a powerful movement, or contribute to it?
Ted Hearne’s 2015 album The Source – streaming at Bandcamp – raises all of those questions. He’s singing as part of this year’s Resonant Bodies Festival of avant garde vocal music at Roulette on a triplebill on Sept 4 at 7:30 PM with enigmatic singer/percussionist Anais Maviel and indie classical star Kate Soper. Advance tix are $20.
There seems to be more autotune on this record than there is in the entire Disney pop catalog from the last two decades. But maybe Hearne is using autotune subversively – or at least sarcastically. Introduced slowly as a way for a rapidly shrinking corporate music industry to completely eliminate humans (other than computer programmers) from what was then salable product, autotune can also be used by used to evade speech recognition technology.
Mark Doten’s lyrics are a primarily a pastiche of Wikileaks Iraq War transcriptions and quotes from whistleblower heroine Chelsea Manning, set to Hearne’s sometimes kinetic, sometimes uneasily fragmentary art-rock, which often recalls the Bang on a Can All-Stars. The two grab the rope left behind by the (mostly) nameless war criminals exposed by Manning and Julian Assange and lets them hang themselves.
For those who’ve kept up with the news, this is a familiar, ugly story. The suite shifts dissociatively from Pink Floyd-style channel-surfing samples, to a verbatim account of failed American diplomacy in Asia, a fleeting mention of American troops buying prisoners from human traffickers, and graphic references to torture.
There’s a cruelly prophetic interview with Assange over stark, maddeningly syncopated strings and more than a hint of sarcastic rock bombast; a slowly cantering, quasi-metal dirge fueled by Taylor Levine’s guitar and Greg Chudzik’s bass; and a bit of faux disco floating from Nathan Koci’s keys along with the trio of violinist Courtney Orlando, violist Anne Lanzilotti, and cellist Leah Coloff. A similarly brief detour into quasi-renaissance polyphony is just as savagely snarky. The album winds up with an angst-fueled, crescendoing mini-epic told in Manning’s voice, tracing her life from preschool ousider to increasingly imperiled freedom fighter.
Obviously, Hearne and the rest of the crew on the record deserve credit for having the guts to tackle the issue at all. Whether they could have spread the word further if the music was more accessible is open to debate. However, it’s also important to consider that the indie classical audience Hearne has enjoyed for more than decade is largely Republican. Maybe this record has done more work for a vital cause that might seem apparent.