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The Wikileaks Story Is Even More Dramatic Thanks to This Composer's Auto-Tuned Opera

The Source's Ted Hearnes talks about his musical take on the human cost of war and the many faces of Chelsea Manning.

by Shawna Kenney
21 October 2016, 9:00am

Craig T. Mathew/LA Opera

In early 2010, a US Army intelligence analyst stationed in Iraq sent three quarters of a million military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks, a non-profit founded by Julian Assange dedicated to sharing official documents "alleging government and corporate misconduct," according to their website. Private Bradley Manning, the analyst behind the biggest intelligence leak in US history, then confessed to his deed in an online chat with a known hacker named Adrian Lamo. In May of 2010, Lamo reported the confession to US Army counterintelligence, the chat logs were published by Wired.com, and Private Manning was arrested and charged by the US government with 22 offenses, including "aiding the enemy." After pleading guilty to 10 of the charges and the trial finished on August 21st in 2013, Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

On August 22, 2013, a day after sentencing, Manning announced that she would like to publicly be known as Chelsea Elizabeth Manning, pursue hormone therapy, and be referred to with female pronouns.

Many didn't seem to know what to make of the story—should we consider her a traitor or heroic whistleblower?—and Manning's coming out as transgender added fuel to the public's mixed reaction. But composer Ted Hearne chose to make art with it, writing a multimedia opera about the entire turn of events called The Source with librettist Mark Doten and director Daniel Fish. Hearne's oratorio covers the time between Manning's initial leak in 2010 and subsequent trial in 2013—but not her more recent distress. Atypical of traditional operas, there's no singing in Italian, the set and costumes are minimalistic, and the audiovisual composition of the show is a collage of text from Twitter feeds, cable news reports, chat transcripts, and classified military video.

What came to be known as "the Wikileaks opera" debuted to rave reviews at the The Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival in 2014, and the New York Times hailed its subsequent recording as "one of the best albums of 2015." This week, it enjoys its West Coast premiere with six nights in Los Angeles at the REDCAT presented by LA Opera and Beth Morrison Projects (BMP). The show will continue with a San Francisco run early next year.

On opening night at the REDCAT on October 19, the audience packed into a dark square room and sat in rows of folding chairs facing one another, with four singers embedded among us. Giant screens visible from every viewpoint projected previously recorded videos of ordinary people viewing leaked cables and video. Snippets of text from the war logs and the Manning/Lamo chats occasionally flashed on the screens as the vocalists sang in robotic, heavily-processed voices, backed by a seven-instrument chamber ensemble.

Printed programs offered lyrics and footnoted citations to help the audience follow along while intense moments of viewing classified video shot from an Apache helicopter gun-sight in Iraq elicited tears and audible gasps. The people in the videos were filmed absorbing the same information we were presented with, and the confusion and horror written in their faces reflected our own responses—an eerie hall-of-mirrors effect that forced each of us to confront our own feelings as Americans embroiled in war.

Hearne spoke with THUMP during rehearsals last week about how he composed the music behind the opera, the connections between music genres and gender binaries, and the beauty of Auto-Tune.

Ted Hearne (Photo by Nathan Lee Bush)

THUMP: Tell us about how you went about creating an opera from such a massive amount of info related to the Manning story, including war logs, chat transcripts, and three quarters of a million documents. How did you pick and choose what was to be included and what was not as interesting?

Ted Hearne: The Twitter feed and news reports are isolated in different movements but most of it is from the Chelsea Manning chat logs, the Iraq War logs, and the Department of Defense cables. That is a massive amount of stuff. It was a huge process and I worked with librettist Mark Doten on that.

WikiLeaks has archived all of it [Manning's leaked documents] and it's all searchable, so we did a lot of searching with different terms to create this selection of texts that were filtered by some word, phrase or idea. A lot of the piece is about looking at text from different angles and trying to examine the frame in which it's presented. Some of the text ideas came from musical ideas and vice-versa. One example is that the week Manning was arrested, there was a new recording of "Mack the Knife" [an influential song from a music drama called Threepenny Opera] that was released. I took the tiniest hook from the beginning of that [song] and embedded it in [a song in The Source called] "Oh the Shark." Then I thought, "how many war logs have the word 'shark' in it?' It turns out there's a lot of them, so I ended up finding ways to set [use] that. The first movement of the piece is actually the setting of some war logs that have the word 'shark' in them, and every time you say the word 'shark' there's a blast of that sample. On one hand it doesn't mean anything, but it [that word] is one tiny slice that can go through the insurmountable amount of info, and when you see them [the words from a song and government document] next to each other it creates some kind of connection.

Mark Doten, the Librettist, helped me find some really poetic fragments of the logs, too. There's this one he highlighted—it says 'smoke when bird nears.' That refers to an air evacuation—'smoke' is a signal flare, 'bird' is a helicopter, so it's quick military speak but it's also such a perfectly poetic and ambiguous sentence. There's a movement in the piece where the singer sings it over and over and over again, and the music underneath changes. The purpose is to provide a frame to look at the information and to imagine all the different uses of those words.

Have you had any contact with Manning?

She has heard it. She's aware of it. We've been in touch through the support network.

The Source being performed in LA (Photo by Craig T. Mathew/LA Opera)

Auto-Tune plays a huge role in the score. Was this influenced by your previous work with Philip White as the duo R WE WHO R WE?

Yes! On our first album we worked a lot with interactive use of Auto-tune. Philip is an extremely influential artist for me. I loved the sound, particularly this patch we were using that's kind of glitchy and bright and a little abrasive. It's this fine line between human and not human. I love that sound. The way we were using it was so that it would process my voice but then, we could fix the wet/dry mix so you're also hearing the raw signal of my voice. Essentially you're hearing two voices at once and it's like singing a duet with yourself.

I started to imagine Chelsea Manning at this period of her life when she's very much alone, going through this crisis of identity and reading these logs in that state. When I read these logs, I thought, "How am I reflected in them? They are US actions. How distant is my bougie life in NY from the lives of the people being described in this war, both the military and the citizens?" I was looking for a way to find some sound to capture that distance.

What are your feelings on Auto-Tune in general? It has been a tool used to artificially improve human voices, but you're doing something different. These sounds you're creating are wildly and obviously inorganic and inhuman.

A lot of hip hop and R&B artists have done that, too. Sure there's the bubblegum pop use of it, too, that creates "this voice." It can't stand in for a voice anymore—you're not fooling anybody. T-Pain and Kanye do amazing work with it, in certain tunes especially. The way it's blended with distortion on Kanye's song "Runaway" is really gorgeous.

The "s/as boy/as a boy" song with text from the Adrian Lamo/Manning chats is so moving. They way it opens with the sounds of frantic cello and repetition of the phrase... one can just feel Manning's struggle as a soldier with access to secrets regarding human lives lost in this war and her own identity crisis.

Thank you. It's in what [Manning] said—that she was okay with going to prison but the thing that is least comfortable is representation of "myself as a boy." That's a courageous statement.

(Photo by Craig T. Mathew/LA Opera)

That song is pretty punk-sounding. It stands out. Was that intentional?

It's totally inspired by punk and also Liz Phair—there's a little sample of her song 'Girls Girls Girls.' Genre and gender have the same [Latin] root and I was absolutely thinking about genre and the sort of binary distinctions that we use to herd different styles of music into arbitrary categories. I was thinking about [these binary distinctions] as a metaphor for gender distinctions and the boxes that we're asked to fall into. Gender identity is something real people have to live with everyday. I'm not trying to compare some intellectual argument about musical genre to humans. But when we hear certain music, we expect certain things to unfold. And when they don't unfold as planned or certain sounds exist in the "wrong context," it can cause us to question the context itself. I wanted to use those ideas to approach the idea of gender and the false binaries that define it.

You work with a lot of "found material." It's very Duchampian.

I have done a lot of work with primary source material. I enjoy the tension that happens when you aestheticize something that's not meant to be aestheticized because it's ephemeral, spontaneous, vernacular, or bureaucratic, like these documents. If you sing these words in a certain way, the bureaucracy can fall away. If you sing it another way, it's totally highlighted. I think that's interesting... personifying bureaucracy in sound is kind of a cool idea to play with.

The thing I love about sound is that it's not specific, like text. There's mystery and ambiguity to it, so you can create a constellation of ideas and it can make everything problematic and I like that. It helps us look at something from a different angle.

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