The Curious Case of Ted Hearne

Listen to Ted Hearne talk about his music and hear samples from his work.

When conversing with Ted Hearne, you can almost see each synaptic volley go off. There’s an energy to his thinking, a sign of the powerful curiosity he has fomented. He takes pains to both understand the perspectives of those he disagrees and explicitly put forth his own views. It’s clear that a broad spectrum of understanding is a critical virtue to him. “Diversity is a word that people use all the time,” he admits, “but I do think that you can learn in a very different way when you’re not just exposed to your family or your family’s friends.”

The resulting omnivorousness is, thus far, the most defining characteristic of Hearne’s music. His work Katrina Ballads, winner of the 2009 Gaudeamus Prize, is an hour-long cycle based on primary texts taken from the media coverage of the devastation of New Orleans in 2005. It combines a full scope of postminimal techniques with everything from electronic to (especially) jazz influences, taking the listener on a stylistically varied and emotional journey.

It’s an approach that was both philosophical and utilitarian. Hearne admits that it would probably have sounded pretty terrible if he just mimicked the many New Orleans traditions in his own written parts, being that he didn’t have much of a preexisting relationship with the music. Instead, he uses his particular blend of syncretism as more of an emblem for the city’s musical diversity. Hearne’s rejection of easy faux-nativism helps make the piece into something more distinctly from his own perspective. During Katrina Ballads‘ best moments, Hearne is able to turn his role as observer into a conduit for the sort of anger and frustration the rest of us felt.

Portraying this compositional process as a sort of natural genrelessness doesn’t present a fully accurate portrait, however. Some of the most interesting art is motivated by a fascination and confusion regarding just how to make it work, and Hearne is clearly motivated by such challenges. “I think that a lot of composers who have an interest in [synthesis] shy away from it because it’s so easy to mess it up,” he explains. “But once I started getting interested in what different genres could offer, and how I can express my interest in everything, I started to see those people as being a little scared. And that’s not the kind of composer I want to be; I want to take those risks, and if it sounds stupid, then I can always try again later.”

And certainly some of his best work has an unpredictable quality to it where it seems like composer, performers, and audience alike are taking mutual delight in something unexpectedly working. One such piece is Illuminating the Maze, written for and performed by his band Your Bad Self. An energetic 4/4 drumbeat persistently tries to break through a pack of insistent unison horns; the instruments slowly mend their shattered rhythm to create a boozy swing, before the textures disintegrate into a floating detritus of soft keyboards and clarinet. It’s by turns messy, exciting, and beautiful, and some of its success rests on the fact that the audience has little idea what Hearne is going to do with any of the materials he introduces.

In fact, Hearne seems to feed off of his own discomfort as a creative source, not satisfied with his work unless he is uncertain how it will turn out during performance. Certainly his voracious curiosity gives him ample opportunity to be uncomfortable, but it also gives him a lack of dogmatism that’s perhaps even more pure than many others who claim such a trait. There are some surprising juxtapositions among his influences—the cognitive dissonance of Peter Evans, Alex Mincek, David T. Little, and Bjork being mentioned in the same breath is actually kind of delightful. (How many people are there who actually have a strong familiarity with each of those artists’ work?) In addition to his own music, he actively works on a wide range of other projects, from conducting Red Light New Music in works by e.g. Grisey and Feldman to singing in “pop operas” such as Jacob Cooper’s Timberbrit and Matt Marks’s The Little Death. While there’s certainly a lot of talk about breaking down aesthetic barriers, Ted Hearne is one of the few who really walks the walk.

So though it may initially seem easy to place Hearne in a particular scene or aesthetic, it’s not totally congruent with reality. In five years, who knows what type of music he’s going to write? “I don’t want to be a composer who works really hard at a sound, and has a breakthrough with that sound, and then feels obligated to stick to that sound so that they’re then recognized,” Hearne explains, “because I think that in most cases that’s a formula for writing really boring music as you get older. I’m all for exploiting an idea for as much as you can, as long as it’s artistically viable or interesting, but then when it gets to be boring and you’ve done it, then you yourself are done with it. You’ve mastered your own game, and you have a choice: if it’s popular you can keep doing it, or you can take a risk and create something that’s totally new.”