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HEARNE: Sound from the Bench

CD Button T. Levine, J. Moore, electric guitars; Wiltrout, percussion; The Crossing, Nally. English texts. Cantaloupe CA 21126

Recording Sound from the Bench cover 917
Critics Choice Button 1015

TED HEARNE'S provocative new collection of pieces for vocal ensemble shows that he’s still the same panstylistic provocateur who came to prominence in 2008 with his bracingly original Katrina Ballads. “Consent,” the disc’s first work, culls its words from love letters (of both Hearne’s and his father’s) and text messages that were used as evidence in a 2013 rape trial. The choral singers intone different sets of words simultaneously, creating a blurred, sometimes unsettling interchangeability amid sonorities that, whether consonant or dissonant, always ring out vibrantly.

The eponymous, five-movement cycle Sound from the Bench derives its texts from poet Jena Osman’s book Corporate Relations. The first piece, “How to Throw Your Voice,” is what it sounds like—excerpts from an instruction book on ventriloquism. Less expected are the musical styles. First we hear a seemingly traditional chorale setting in D major (albeit with a distant, quietly jarring E-flat lingering in the air after the cutoffs). After a minute, the drums launch us into a slightly off-kilter gospel section, to the text “Don’t sound obvious”; when the chorale style returns, it’s accompanied by dreamy, discordant guitar chords (played by the very versatile Taylor Levine and James Moore).  

The cycle’s centerpiece, the dizzyingly kaleidoscopic, sixteen-and-a-half-minute “(Ch)oral Argument,” consists of excerpts from Citizens United v. F.E.C., the infamous Supreme Court case. Both driving and hallucinogenic, the piece reflects influences such as Leonard Bernstein, late-period Beatles and Frank Zappa, who were also all mash-up artists. In addition, we hear smatterings of John Adams, Edgard Varèse, the Swingle Singers, looping guitar effects and a Gilbert-and-Sullivan-style proclamation from the bench. A recurring chorale theme, the liner notes tell us, is a Tallis motet. (Presumably Tallis’s version did not include the rock groove, cheerfully provided by drummer Ron Wiltrout.) The whole thing comes off as a frontal attack on the self-seriousness (and sometimes unintentional comedy) involved in what Hearne clearly views as a disastrous decision that championed corporations over individuals. It alone makes this collection worthwhile.

The disc’s final cycle, Privilege, uses two of Hearne’s own texts, two from a Bill Moyers interview with journalist David Simon (creator of HBO’s The Wire)and one from an antiapartheid song, translated from the original Xhosa. The most striking entry is one of the Simon excerpts: “We pretend to need them / we pretend to educate the kids / but we don’t / and they’re not foolish / they get it.” Hearne adds contrapuntal layers as the singers repeat the phrases of text. This stratum of sound becomes quite lush, until a dominant solo voice emerges above the chorale, repeating the phrase “but we don’t” with sustained urgency that mocks us for being lulled by the pretty music. 

The marvelous choral singers of The Crossing navigate Hearne’s explosion of styles with fearlessness and authenticity, as does Donald Nally, their impressive conductor. Hearne’s multigenre mastery is impressive, and so is the dexterity with which he deploys his musical and rhetorical skills to advance his vision of social justice.  —Joshua Rosenblum 

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