For the last six of his 14 years in New York, Ted Hearne was part of the lively, eclectic Brooklyn new music scene, and though he moved to Los Angeles a year ago to join the faculty of the University of Southern California, his heart still lies there.
“I do totally feel attached to that world,” said the 33-year-old singer, conductor, composer and bandleader, who was born in Chicago. “I have not found the same type of scene [in L.A.], and the classical music people here, the composers, it’s a different vibe at the moment. I think it might be changing out here in L.A., but it’s different. The thing about Brooklyn that I loved was the insane diversity of musicians. There were so many different people who were at the top of their game.”
Hearne, whose Law of Mosaics will be performed Nov. 23 as part of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW series, is part of a growing convergence of classical music, indie-rock and jazz that has gained such labels as alt-classical or indie-classical. Rather than being defined by a particular sound or style, this subgenre, which is closely associated with Brooklyn and labels such as New Amsterdam Records, is more about a shared spirit of experimentation. It is driven by a generation of composers in their 20s and 30s, who are used to streaming or downloading any kind of music past or present. They see bridging musical genres as prime source of inspiration, and they use their well-honed skills and imagination to pull off such stylistic fusions in meaningful and compelling ways.
Hearne’s music-making radiates in multiple directions simultaneously. As a singer, he recently performed songs by Timo Andres and Matt Marks, and appeared in such avant-garde operas as Jacob Cooper’s Timberbrit and James Ilgenfritz’s The Ticket That Exploded. He served as resident conductor of the Red Light Ensemble, now defunct, and has led such groups as the Wet Ink Ensemble and Ensemble Pamplemousse. In addition, he performs with Philip White as the vocal-electronics duo, R WE WHO R WE.
But Hearne is best probably known as a composer, having won such honors as the Charles Ives Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2013 and a New Voices Residency from the international music publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, in 2014. Among the qualities that set him apart is his interest in broader social concerns and his desire to address them through his music. “I feel like all music, just like all arts,” he said, “is a product of the time and place where it was created and the culture it emerged from. Essentially that makes all art political in one sense, and it’s a part of it no matter what. So I want to use that, I want to be able to harness that quality, and help bring about an awareness of that aspect of it and use it as a tool for communication.”
He gained national attention in 2010 with Katrina Ballads, a kind of oratorio that used texts from news footage of the hurricane that devastated New Orleans. A recording of the work from New Amsterdam Records was named one of the best albums of 2010 by Time Out Chicago and the Washington Post. His latest theatrical work, The Source, which premiered at the BAM Next Wave Festival in 2014, incorporates texts from Iraq and Afghanistan war logs as well as the words of Army documents leaker Chelsea Manning. New York Times critic Zachary Woolfe called it an “ambitious, bewildering, stealthily shattering” new work: “It offers a fresh model of how opera and music theater can successfully tackle contemporary issues: not with documentary realism — television and film have that covered — but with ambiguity, obliquity, even sheer confusion.”
While growing up in Chicago, Hearne was a member of the Chicago Children’s Choir. He graduated from the Whitney M. Young Magnet High School on the city’s Near West Side in 2000. “I’m proud to have gone there,” he said. “It’s a great school — very racially and socio-economically diverse — and I think that had a huge impact on my world view. And Michelle Obama went there, though not with me, of course.” He then attended the Manhattan School of Music and earned his graduate degree from the Yale School of Music.
Although he has long admired the CSO, he has had no direct connection with the orchestra before the upcoming MusicNOW program, which will feature his Law of Mosaics, a 2012 work for a 20-piece string orchestra. “My relationship to the symphony is as a kid and as a high school-aged, aspiring musician going to hear them and being in awe of what was possible,” he said. “You grow up in choir, and there is a certain aesthetic and certain way of thinking about music that is bred into you that way. The symphony was extremely important to me to see another side of things. When I got to college, that was a real music conservatory, and I thought about the CSO a lot, because the education, especially at that time, in musical conservatories was geared much more to the instrumental side of things. And my mom is an opera singer, and she had great a respect for the symphony. So this is a big deal for me to have them play a piece of mine.”
Law of Mosaics was commissioned by A Far Cry, an experimental, self-conducted chamber orchestra based in Boston. In 2013, it presented the world premiere of the 30-minute work and released a recording of it in 2014 that made many top 10 lists, including that of influential New Yorker music critic Alex Ross. It has since been performed by the San Francisco Symphony and Ensemble LPR.
The piece was inspired by David Shield’s 2010 book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, which was written in a kind of assemblage style using snippets of his writings and those of a host of other authors. It explores the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction, and raises questions about the ethics of plagiarism in an Internet-driven culture.
“So that’s the idea of the Law of Mosaics,” Hearne said. “It’s essentially built from material that existed in other places. A few of the movements come from different pieces of mine that are sort of lifted and messed with, and then there is a lot of material from other pieces of classical music – string music. It’s a piece that deals with the history of string playing and constructs them in a different way. For me, it was really interesting because it was an exercise of making the piece wholly about form. If I’m not really inventing any of the material outright, then all the inventiveness of the piece has to come through form and arrangement and other ideas.”
Among the six quirkily titled movements is Climactic moments from Adagio for Strings and The Four Seasons, slowed down and layered on top of one another. Hearne was a big fan of Samuel Barber’s familiar Adagio for Strings as a child, but the work has lost much of its appeal for him and no doubt other listeners because it has been over-played in concerts and on movie soundtracks. “I thought it would a cool challenge and try to find another side of it to look at, to renew a classical-music veteran’s energy about that piece,” he said.
Though perhaps not as explicit as those in Katrina Ballads, a range of themes runs through Law of Mosaics as well, including what creation means in today’s grab-and-snatch Internet world and society’s fickle relationship with classical music. “People who don’t have a history with classical music,” Hearne said, “they hear [this piece] in such a different way than the people who are totally enmeshed in [the field].”
With this work and everything else he has done, the keen-minded, ever-adventurous Hearne is trying to bring new dimensions to classical music – both in the way it sounds and the extra-musical messages it delivers.
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts writer.
AUDIO: To listen to or purchase on iTunes Ted Hearne’s Law of Mosaics, as performed by A Far Cry, click here.
TOP: Ted Hearne in Los Angeles. | Photo: Nathan Lee Bush