Brooklyn-based composer Ted Hearne has turned Chelsea Manning's war logs into a full-on sonic experience
Four and a half years ago, Brooklyn composer Ted Hearne begun following the rise of Wikileaks four and a half years ago, intending to adapt the story of Julian Assange's vigilante media organisation into a theatrical production called The Source. Then Chelsea Manning happened. After the whistleblower leaked secret war logs that revealed widespread wrongdoing on the part of the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq, Hearne knew that he had found his real subject.
The Source debuts today in New York at the 2014 Next Wave Festival, with the performance described on its website as "four singers housed in a visual and sonic installation". Through computer-processed voices, the performers "inhabit a fever-dream assemblage of Twitter feeds, cable news reports, chat transcripts, court testimony, and declassified military video, shining a light on the massive information machine in which Manning, and our nation, has become ensnared".
Last August, Manning was convicted of 20 offenses, including espionage, and sentenced to prison for 35 years. "When Manning's identity became known and she became a public figure, her decisions became more interesting to me than Assange's," Hearne explains. "I started to imagine what she may have been feeling when she first encountered what we now know as the Iraq War Logs, and that helped me examine my own reactions to these documents." We find out what inspired him to make music from classified cables.
What is it about Chelsea Manning that inspired you to create The Source?
Ted Hearne: The Manning-Lamo Chat Logs show Chelsea Manning to be a person struggling to play the roles expected of her, both personally and professionally. In December 2011, Mark Doten (the librettist) and I traveled to Fort Meade in Maryland and witnessed part of Manning's hearing, and the individual we saw there seemed different somehow – calm, centered, engaged. Did her actions and eventual exposure to the world as the source have something to do with the change we saw in the courtroom? That's a question that really inspired me.
The music is pretty disconcerting. Is it deliberately unsettling to represent the troubling nature of the information leaked?
Ted Hearne: I write music that I want to hear, which may sound kind of selfish, but even if I wanted to I don't think I could control the way you feel when you hear a particular sound. That being said, I am drawn to the idea of unsettlement. I often like music that won't let me zone out. Something that does leave me unsettled is the distance between my life and the lives of people depicted in the Iraq and Afghanistan War Logs. The stories told about the citizens of those countries, and the Americans who were stationed there, show an experience that is at odds with my own, and I grappled with that as I wrote this music.
I’d like to know about the physical process of making this music. How did you do it? Who was involved?
Ted Hearne: I started by sitting down with a microphone and reading through sections of the Iraq and Afghanistan War Logs. When I encountered a section that especially drew my attention or curiosity, I sang through that text a bunch of different ways, emphasizing different words and experimenting with different contours. I found that patterns would emerge, and I started to feel like there were two texts existing: the words of the leaked material as they documented experiences of military personnel overseas, and the words as they were absorbed by me a million worlds away. That duality, that distance between me and the Logs, needed a sound to represent it, and so I started experimenting with vocal processing.
I have a vocal-electronics duo with the composer/performer Philip White called R WE WHO R WE, and we had been using a sort of modified auto-tune as a big part of our tracks, so I started singing and recording the logs using that technology and something really clicked. Many of the songs came out of this process, except instead of tuning the voices to a 12-tone or 7-note scale, I'll tune them to only two or three pitches. But then, I'll make sure you hear the singer's dry signal as well, so the music effectively sounds like a person singing a duet with herself.
Do you think the mainstream media has been biased in reporting the leaks?
Ted Hearne: The leaks given by Chelsea Manning to Wikileaks raise a ton of complex issues that resist easy answers. I think most mainstream media coverage about this topic has failed to address, encapsulate or even acknowledge that complexity. But this is just how we are now, right? There's a massive amount of information out there for us to process, so we have a lot of trouble absorbing anything thoroughly. I'd rather focus on our own relationship to the leaked material, because assigning blame to the media seems like a bit of a distraction. I wonder how many people have actually ever looked at the Iraq or Afghanistan War Logs. It's one thing to know that the US is engaged in war, but it's another thing to spend even a few minutes reading these texts.