This piece was originally published in Classical Post.
A remarkable aspect about Ted Hearne, Saul Williams and Patricia McGregor's 80-minute staged oratorio, Place, is that it holds so many stories and opens the door to numerous conversations. Writings about this work could be centered around how the performers in Place faced the effects of gentrification in their own lives, converting the work into a video piece during the pandemic, how Hearne composed the music, I could go on. But one aspect which gripped me is the collaborative process between Saul Williams and Ted Hearne in creating a libretto for Place. I spoke with Saul Williams and Ted Hearne separately about Place and this collaborative process and have created this piece in the spirit of that dialogue, allowing the reader to alternate between the perspectives of Williams and Hearne.
COLLABORATING BEFORE PLACE
Williams and Hearne first collaborated through the Twin Cities' Liquid Music Series, where Hearne composed music for the Mivos Quartet around Williams’ poem The Answer To The Question That Wings Ask. “I was familiar with his work as a composer, and appreciate his work as a composer, so the idea of what he might bring composition wise to a piece, I was wide open to,” says Williams. Hearne isn’t the first composer to work with Williams, who has collaborated with classical composers for well over a decade. “I really appreciate the world and ear of composers,” says Williams. “There were no second thoughts about that.”
Composer and performer Ted Hearne approached writer, poet, musician, activist and actor Saul Williams to collaborate on Place, which would be centered around the subject of gentrification. It was co-commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, The Barbican Centre and Beth Morrison Projects. Place was originally premiered in 2018 and was scheduled for a fully-staged west-coast premiere at Disney Concert Hall in March 2020. This west-coast premiere was cancelled due to COVID-19 and the creators and cast created a socially-distanced video version of the work in its stead.
TED HEARNE’S TEXT
The libretto of 80-minute staged oratorio, Place, is written by Hearne and Williams with music composed by Hearne and directed by Patricia McGregor. The work is divided into three parts and process is crucial as form follows function. Hearne wrote the libretto to the first part and then gave the text to Williams, who wrote the libretto to parts 2 and 3 in response to Hearne’s initial text. “In thinking of how I was going to start writing, I had to go really personal,” says Hearne. “I started to see the ways that growing up in a white supremacist society could not be disconnected from all of the events that were going on in my life -- how did my identity as a white person in this society reflect on my relationship with my family, and my own divorce, which was just happening at that moment. And how can I even begin to speak about my relationship to the neighborhood or my impact on displacement without really examining how the blind spots of being raised white has affected the people who are very close to me? In the first part of Place I quote some James Baldwin, from his incredible writings about whiteness, and about how white people looking critically at themselves is really key to seeing the impact of this system in their own lives. First you have to think, ‘how has white identity been an impact on me and my own values?’ Even when you look at this very conversation we are having now and how much I’m talking in circles haha, this circle of narcissism is also part of whiteness, guilt and paralysis. That’s why I felt like the form of this piece really needs to be: let’s create a space for me to spin out and let me be as vulnerable as possible, and then Saul can respond to it.”
SAUL WILLIAMS’ RESPONSE
The juxtaposition, dialogue and trust between Hearne and Williams in the collaborative process is, to me, the most thought-provoking aspect of Place. “In terms of responding to his text, I just took it as a launchpad. I understood where he was writing from, I understood the fact that he asked good questions and was coming from a sincere place,” says Williams. “Then on top of that I understood that even his reasons for asking me to participate were perhaps because he sensed that his voice should not be centered in this piece. The main thing is that I chose not to pay any sort of unnecessary allegiance to what was written beforehand. I started crossing things out and raising questions, not to him but in the writing, and moving full steam ahead with that in mind. That’s just part of the collaborative process, I love the collaborative process. There was no trepidation though and there was never a question of trust. I began this project trusting Ted’s intentions; that never came into question.”
SINCERELY HOPING FOR PUSHBACK
When Hearne received Williams’ libretto, it was an eye opening moment. “I just felt so grateful for this person who has such a brilliantly intertextual approach to words and their meanings. And the challenge was really cool. I hoped for pushback -- that was the idea of the piece. But it wouldn’t have worked if the thing that I had given him wasn’t vulnerable and true,” says Hearne. “But the libretto he then wrote in response, it was such a gift to receive that. Saul is a person who uses words with an intentional knowledge, incorporating multiple meanings and all the different ideas and associations words point to. That’s where the art is, in the adjacency of these different perspectives, what each points to and what that combination means. Saul's work embraces that complexity, and lyrically.”
WHAT ABOUT MY SON
When Hearne initially approached Williams with the project, Erykah Badu’s name was floated as being potentially associated with the project due to Hearne’s previous collaborations with her. “I essentially thought of Black women and tried to approach my lyrical response engaged with the sort of things that I identified with through my mother, my sisters, my daughter and my wife. I felt there first so that the first piece I wrote for Place was What About My Son. That was the main thing I had in mind,” says Williams. “After that, there was a change and we started talking about Indigenous women who might be taking the lead and then I started thinking of the voices of Indigenous women. Those were my key points of reference.”
TED HEARNE & STEVEN BRADSHAW: WEIRD MIRROR
Hearne places himself as a character within Place, the work has an autobiographical element. Steven Bradshaw, who is a friend and close collaborator of Hearne’s, plays the role of Ted. Hearne is also a vocalist, he’s an incredibly engaging performer. While they have slightly different ranges, the two sound eerily similar and watching Bradshaw perform in Place is quite shocking as he imitates Hearne’s inflections, body language and mannerisms to a tee. The main musical aspect that made my hairs stand on edge is that Bradshaw is the only character to use the autotune effect, which Hearne has extensively developed over the past years so that it now registers to my ears as a musical thumbprint. “It is supposed to be this weird mirror,” says Hearne. “In the production we did at BAM there are moments when I am conducting right next to him and he’s moving in parallel with me. The autotune reflects that uncanny parallel; we are seeing in Bradshaw's performance this composer who takes music and processes it. And a question I wanted to provoke here was: when does the filtering, processing or abstracting of an idea help an artist get at honesty or vulnerability, and when does it distract or obfuscate that intention? That distraction thru abstraction and reprocessing, perhaps as a strategy to avoid confrontation with himself, is what his character is doing in a lot of the piece.”
Thinking about this too much results in a bit of head spinning. On the one hand, yes the character is autobiographical. But by the time of the production it’s also Hearne’s and McGregor’s reflection on Hearne’s reflection on Saul’s reflection on Hearne’s reflection. The character also plays a narrative role within the work and is designed to be imperfect, with the hope that this character will call audience members to reflect on gentrification in their own lives, while revealing authentic reflection points for Hearne. The topic of 'gentrification', which is a buzzword, was up for debate and dissection throughout the creative process. Hearne found that “histories-long patterns of displacement and capital (the "roots" of gentrification) are maybe more important to dig into”.
PUTTING WORDS INTO THE MOUTHS OF OTHERS
Unlike Hearne, Williams did not write an autobiographical character into Place. In fact, Williams actively pushed back against the idea of Place being a double mirror. “The main thing that I could probably say to you is that Ted and Patricia were really hoping that I would perform in the piece. That was the main thing that I really didn’t feel like I needed or wanted to do,” says Williams. “What inspired me about this commission, because as an artist of course we give ourselves challenges and try to execute certain challenges, was that I wanted to put words into the mouths of others. But I constantly came up against me delivering text and them saying, ‘Oh my god can we have a recording of you saying it? What if you came on stage and said it?’ And although I always felt that it was well intentioned, I also always felt that it was not my place. And that it was going to be a stronger experience for me if it were not like that. That was the main behind the scenes, I wouldn’t call it a fight, but it’s been a constant proposition. ‘Would you be willing to join the cast?’”
In response to this, I asked Williams if this was because he was trying to showcase the feminine, wanted to maintain control, and felt like it would be performative if he went onstage. “Well partially yes in response to your first question. And also because I thought it would be too easy. When I think of the largest problems facing society today, gentrification is not at the top of my list,” says Williams. “I’m not interested, like you said, in delivering a performative sort of interpretation of an idea or playing with this idea of delivering this powerful whatever in relation to something that has not risen organically in me. Which is a weird thing to say, because of course I’m an activist as well, and I’m hired in the theatre to work as an actor and that’s a different thing. Because in those places also I’m not asked to write. But as a writer, I was interested, and remain interested, in writing a libretto. That was the point of interest for me.”
There’s power in putting words into the mouths of others, a point I raised to Williams. “Yup, and that was the point that I had to defend constantly,” says Williams. “Like nope, nope, nope, nope. Even up until this quarantine I was just asked repeatedly, ‘could you tape yourself?’ (laughs)
It’s not even a blatant no, my response was just actually ‘yeah if I have the time and the spirit to do it’. I never found that spirit. That spirit never even came close. It’s not how I approached this piece, as something that needed to come out of my mouth in order for it to carry its weight.”
SHOWING THE FORM OF PLACE
My conversations with Williams and Hearne were back to back, and I spoke with Williams first. So I naturally asked Hearne about this constant proposition. “He’s an incredible performer! To have Saul in a performing role and to have me in a performing role, to somehow make that clear, could possibly show the form of the piece in a really cool way,” says Hearne. “It was an open question and Patricia wanted that too. However, it’s also really interesting to not do it that way. And in the video I think it’s pretty clear what the form of the piece is, we see a video of Saul but he’s not reading his own text.”
SITTING IN THE AUDIENCE
“They snuck those images of me. That’s the deal,” says Williams on the images of him in the video version of Place. “But I had a great deal of fun working with the cast, writing the piece, and following through with the ideas that I wanted to in terms of delivering text and hearing it come out of other people’s mouths. The first time I saw those characters dive into What About My Son I was like yes. I’m so glad to be sitting in the audience for this.”
A GREATER UNSAID BEYOND THE WORDS THEMSELVES
Saul Willliams’ libretto is densely and richly brimming with easter eggs. These references act as a reflection pool, you discover what you’re familiar with while simultaneously being aware that there’s so much more underneath the surface. One that jumped out to me is the Joan Didion “New Faces” reference. Williams reframed how I see Didion’s short story in the track New Faces, leaving me with a new perspective while also giving me a door into the libretto. “I’d love to do some abridged version of a poem with footnotes,” says Williams. “I’d be more interested if someone else did it though because it’s so much work. (laughs) Those easter eggs are something that I’ve always played with and had fun with over the years. It’s not just in this piece. There’s always some references that some will get and others that they will not. I’m aware of the fact that some references are more easy to pinpoint, like ‘forgive them father for they know not’. I can cover a large group of people who get that reference point. There will also be those who have to have it pointed out to them, but that’s across the board. All of it really is in the emotion of it, beyond the references. There’s a greater unsaid beyond the words themselves. So sometimes it’s the emotion within it that carries the greatest meaning, beyond the fact that you see that I’m referencing whomever.”
ME, YOU AND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN
Ted Hearne is known for setting politically charged texts that question systems in his dramatic works. His work Sound From The Bench (2017), with a libretto by Jena Osman, combines language taken from landmark Supreme Court Cases with words from ventriloquism textbooks; the piece was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Music. His Katrina Ballads (2007) uses as its libretto primary-source texts from the week surrounding Hurricane Katrina.
Hearne leaves two kinds of easter eggs in Place. There are literary references in the libretto to authors that he greatly admires, like Eula Biss and James Baldwin, and musical references to his previous works. “I am interested in the tension that occurs when the work itself makes clear the difference between my (the composer's) voice and the voice of whoever the words are from. This is why I love setting text by other people,” says Hearne. “Katrina Ballads feels so old now. I wrote that piece when I was so young and there are elements of that text setting that I would absolutely not do now. For me the essential part of the piece was anger with the racist federal response, but there are parts of the work in which I didn’t think hard enough about what it means to aestheticize the tragedy or trauma of another person. Setting the words of Barbara Bush when she toured the Astrodome does not do that, but setting the words of Hardy Jackson the moment he was caught on TV after his wife drowned...I'm not saying that a composer should never set the words of a person who has experienced trauma, but I don’t think that I was mature enough at that time to be equipped to contextualize it in a way that was truly respectful of his experience, and the difference between his experience and mine.”
“But it did set off an interest in me about setting other people’s texts,” says Hearne. “Because if I sing it, what does it say about me and what does it say about you and the difference between? And I think Place is just another example of playing with those ideas. But because there’s an autobiographical sense to it, it’s reflective. And it’s self critical. There’s little quotes of things that I’ve done before, which you’re picking up on.”
THE CLASSICAL SPACE
A huge consideration when writing the libretto for Williams was the fact that Place was scheduled to be performed at Disney Concert Hall, the pinnacle of the classical music space. Williams has been working within the classical realm since collaborating on his first symphony in 2003. “I’ve spent time being the only Black person or Black voice in a space. I know very much what that feels like and I’ve been forced to ask questions and think about stuff that a majority of people in those spaces never thought once or twice about,” says Williams. “I’ve had to entertain questions. And it goes real simple. From someone giving a supposed compliment to some prose piece that I’ve written and saying, ‘That’s a great rap!’. I’ve been dealing with that since I started reciting poetry. It’s been well over a decade that I’ve been working in the classical realm collaborating with classical composers and I think that without modern Black voices it’s a dead space. I see these kinds of collaborations as necessary, more so for that world in itself.”
“All I do know, based on my points of interest, is that if you’re exposed to the work then maybe you can take a leap into a perspective that you may not have considered. That’s a great thing in the arts, a necessary thing in the arts. Of course I’m someone who has thought a great deal of entertainment merely as escape,” says Williams. “The work that has inspired me the most in my life from the time I was a kid was the work that made me confront myself or work that I witnessed as confronting the system, a paradigm where you were forced to reckon with a broader reality and acknowledge your role in that reality. So when Ted approached me and said this is going to be performed at Disney Concert Hall, yes I’m thinking very much of the people who will be in those seats, their comfort levels and basically how to obliterate them.”
Saul Williams has been breaking ground since his debut album, Amethyst Rock Star, was released in 2001 and executive produced by Rick Rubin. After gaining global fame for his poetry and writings at the turn of the century, Williams has performed in over 30 countries and read in over 300 universities, with invitations that have spanned from the White House, the Sydney Opera House, Lincoln Center, The Louvre, The Getty Center, Queen Elizabeth Hall, to countless, villages, townships, community centers, and prisons across the world. The Newburgh, New York native gained a BA from Morehouse and an MFA from Tisch, and has gone on to record with Nine Inch Nails and Allen Ginsburg, as well as countless film and television appearances. Most recently, Williams’ released his latest music works entitled, Encrypted & Vulnerable (July 2019), which acts as the score to his forth-coming directorial debut musical, Neptune Frost.
Composer, singer, bandleader and recording artist TED HEARNE (b.1982, Chicago) draws on a wide breadth of influences ranging across music's full terrain, to create intense, personal and multi-dimensional works.
The New York Times has praised Mr. Hearne for his "tough edge and wildness of spirit," and "topical, politically sharp-edged works." Pitchfork called Hearne's work "some of the most expressive socially engaged music in recent memory -- from any genre," and Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker that Hearne's music "holds up as a complex mirror image of an information-saturated, mass-surveillance world, and remains staggering in its impact."
Hearne's Sound From the Bench, a cantata for choir, electric guitars and drums setting texts from U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments and inspired by the idea of corporate personhood, was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize. He will perform In Your Mouth, his evening-length song cycle set to the text of Dorothea Lasky, at Carnegie Hall in 2021.