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Ted Hearne: Letter to my father

Last week when Kendrick Lamar was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music, my Twitter feed was instantly filled with woke-classical- music-twitter chastising anyone who complained that a rapper won rather than a classical composer. I still haven’t actually seen anyone complaining about the award, just a vociferous preemptive strike against traditionalists and/or elitists and/or racists who don’t approve.

Well, now they have an actual target to train their ammo on: me. I am disappointed that the Pulitzer did not go to a classical or jazz composer. I am disappointed not because I think that Kendrick Lamar isn’t one of the most important artists (as in “artists.” period) of his generation. I love the album Damn. and have been listening to it regularly since June. Also, Black Panther is maybe my favorite movie ever, and his soundtrack for it was a huge part of its appeal. I even risk my three-year- old daughter dropping f-bombs at nursery school because I am willing to corrupt her vocabulary and those of her little classmates because that’s how important I think her knowing something about Damn. and the Black Panther soundtrack in the year of their creation is. But that doesn’t mean I am excited about Kendrick winning the Pulitzer this year.

As long as I have been paying attention to the Pulitzer Prize in music, I have valued it for the attention it provides to American composers who spend careers toiling in obscurity to create genuinely new pieces of music. And yes, I am most certainly chauvinistic and self-interested in this because I choose to make performing new music a central part of the work of my career. But I have made that decision because I truly believe that in order for the body and culture of classical music to continue to grow, adapt, and speak to our time in our time, we must support composers and their works in whatever way we can. I believe this because times change and we as a species will always need composers taking on the huge challenge of creating something new that speaks to experience that we as a people have not known before. Mozart could never have guessed that the Turks and Kurds and Isis would be at war 230 years after he wrote Abduction from the Seraglio. Schubert had no notion of how climate change might impact a February hike when he wrote Winterreise. Wagner never knew a world with Hitler in it when he wrote Meistersinger. My point is that such masters and their masterpieces are treasures indeed, but although their beauty and genius is immutable, their inspiration, context, and meaning cannot expand beyond the borders of the time within which they were conceived. So we will always need classical composers to innovate a musical language that can speak to its time in a way that no piece written before could have.

The Pulitzer prize has always been—in my view—the single most powerful tool (by a long shot) in American culture to turn attention to and confer a mark of excellence on classical composers who have no other comparable way to become known by the wider public. Kendrick Lamar is one of the most famous and celebrated musicians and composers in America, if not the world. Hip Hop is one of the most popular, if not the THE most popular genre of music in America. Damn. is Kendrick’s third consecutive no. 1 selling album. Kendrick has won 87 music awards, including 12 Grammys. He has been a guest at the White House multiple times, and is one of the most powerful people in the music industry thanks to his genuine accomplishment. So why the hell would the Pulitzer Prize Committee confer its prestigious honor on one of the most feted, successful, and famous musical stars of 2017? Why point your spotlight at the sun?! In my opinion, the Pulitzer Prize can do something so much more valuable by bringing attention to classical composers who are creating great new music but who do not have large audiences.

My song of the day is by one of the finalists for this year’s Pulitzer in music, Ted Hearne. I picked this piece, “Letter to My Father” from Coloring Book not only because I think it is brilliant, truly original, superbly written and beautiful, but also because I came to know it because I got interested in the music of another Pulitzer winner, Caroline Shaw. Coloring Book was written for the vocal octet, Room Full of Teeth, of which Caroline Shaw is a member of and for which she wrote her 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning composition Partita for 8 voices. I started listening to Caroline and following her career because I learned about her and her music from the Pulitzer award. She has been given so many opportunities to create new work thanks to the stamp of excellence that the Pulitzer conferred on her. Without the award, I and (much more importantly) many people in a position to commission new works may never have even heard of her. But she has taken great advantage of the opportunities the Pulitzer afforded her and has be able to grow hugely as an artist since 2013.

And it is because I follow her that I came to know today’s song of the day.

I won’t say much about Ted’s amazing song here, but please check out this description of the work from his website.  The way he writes for this unique ensemble creates a harmonic and sonic beauty unlike anything I have ever heard before. Of course, it harkens back to polyphonic vocal writing such as one of my all time favorite songs, Perotin’s “Viderunt Omnes.”

Ted’s song plays a role in the tradition of what we call classical music going back to its origins, and yet is startlingly fresh and original. He uses the human voice and this specific ensemble with imagination and a language that is his alone. This is the kind of work that I think the Pulitzer Prize should use its prestige to lift up and draw attention to. By doing so, it not only helps the composer who wins the prize, but offers guidance and connectivity to the classical music world at large, fosters engagement and a conversation among the entire community about artists that generally do not have a major platform to display their work.


A little over a year ago, transgender Americans were granted the right to serve openly as such in the U.S. Military. This was a decision that allowed an estimated 2,500 people the freedom to be themselves. Following the repeal of this decree four days ago, I felt it necessary to share just one more selection by Ted Hearne. He explains his project The Source, which saw its LA Opera premiere last year, below:

The Source is a modern-day oratorio, and a patchwork of songs based on American primary-source texts. The subject is Chelsea Manning, the US Army Private who infamously leaked hundreds of thousands of classified military documents to WikiLeaks in 2010.

The text, culled and arranged by librettist Mark Doten, sets Manning’s words and sections of the classified material known as the Iraq War Logs and the Afghan War Diary.

The music, like the text, draws from diverse sources. Auto-tuned recitatives, neo soul ballads, icy string trios and moments of cracked-out musical theater are peppered with (and sometimes structured around) samples that bridge sonic worlds.

The first movement of The Source:



Improvised Explosive Device
Explosion Report:

Zero Injured / Zero Damage

1STB in the vicinity of Route Shark

Oh, the shark

December 21, 2007

An IED detonation was reported by C co 1-327 INF to Task force SPARTAN, in the Salah Ad Din Province, Ad Dawr, vicinity. 38S LD 8930 1490. 1st Platoon/Aco/1st STB was traveling north on Route Shark when an IED detonated on their convoy

Oh, the shark


Improvised Explosive Device
Found / Cleared

Zero Injured / Zero Damage

Classification: Secret
November 7, 2005

At 1348C, 224 Enemy ATTACHED TO 4-14 discovered an IED on Route Bridle, 16km W of Rawah, North of the Shark-Fin

Oh, the shark


Improvised Explosive Device
Explosion Report
Baghdad Police Ops:

2 Civilians Killed in Action / 3 Civilians Wounded in Action

Classification: Secret
August 10, 2008

The explosion occurred when a car was passing in front of the Central Bank of Iraq

2 Local Nationals killed and 2 Local Nationals wounded
All were employees of the bank
Checkpoint in the Bab Al Sharke Area

Improvised Explosive Device
Explosion Report

1 CF Wounded in Action

November 22, 2008

The casualty has a suspected broken left foot, with no feeling
They are going to require Air Evacuation
Smoke when bird nears
Tiger Shark 57 has been pushed to support

Ted Hearne: Letter to my father

Today’s selection comes from Ted Hearne’s 2015 composition Coloring Book. He describes the work as such: “I set the words of three great black American writers of different generations (Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Claudia Rankine) in texts dealing with identity, not because I could ever pretend to speak for them, but because I wanted to know: Could I better understand their words by speaking them in my own voice? Could I better understand my own perspective—my own identity, my whiteness, my relationship to racism—by appropriating the perspective of someone different? What are the boundaries that separate me from not-me? And what does it mean to hold myself apart?” Below is the text, a poem by Zora Neale Hurston.

Letter to my father
Him. He
He has only heard what I
I felt. He
He is far away but I
I see him.
Him but dimly across the ocean and the continent that have fallen between us.
Us. He
He is so pale with his whiteness then and I
I am so colored.
Music. The great blobs of purple and red emotion have not touched him.
He is so pale with his whiteness then and I
I am so colored.

—Zora Neale Hurston
from “How it feels to be colored me” (1928)

Ted Hearne: Kanye West 9.2.05

This week has been a wonderful and necessary time for reflection in Orient, NY.

The past 7 months have been a challenging time for many of us as we have seen the people whose job it is to unite our country make one polarizing speech after another. We have begun to become numb to the warning signs that the bigotry that governed our society only decades ago is alive and well, acceptable even. The mounting frustration felt by those of us concerned about our future appeared to culminate 2 weeks ago in Charlottesville. Our president’s response to this, while predictable, was nonetheless shocking. In a search for understanding how people with the power to do good choose evil, I turned to music—particularly the music of Ted Hearne.

In this first selection, from his Katrina Ballads, Ted sets a transcription of Kanye West’s famous plea to the US government and the American people for understanding following Hurricane Katrina, ending by interrupting actor Mike Meyers to say in a live broadcast: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

Song of the Day: February 10


from Michael Barrett:

On Feb. 4, at NYFOS Next, composer Ted Hearne was on hand to sing two of his songs, “Intimacy and Resistance” and “Protection”. These songs have popular “easy rock” qualities on the surface. Their root position chords and steady pulse set you up for what you think will be a beautiful pop tune. While they are indeed beautiful, there is much more art and not much commercialism involved. Ted is a rhythm machine, and he is always subverting the potential easy going rhythms that your ears tell you lie ahead. In Protection, his direction for the performers is “Groove Avoidance”. Ted also has  a beautiful command of harmony which he uses to his advantage.

Along with being a fine singer, he is also an excellent conductor. I recently attended his performance with Room Full of Teeth in a new (and rather complicated) work. His excellent sense of time, and rhythmic clarity seem to be at the heart of his music making. Below  is “Protection” by Ted Hearne. Keep your eyes and ears open for his future work. He has the goods.

Be sure and attend or listen to the live stream on Feb. 11 for the next installment of our series.

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