I had the pleasure of hearing Ted Hearne’s Katrina Ballads live two and a half times last week: one and a half times in New Haven and again last night in New York. It’s an album-length oratorio, of sorts, which mixes instrumental numbers with vocal settings of primary-source texts taken from the week following Hurricane Katrina.
Music that tries to make a political point rarely convinces me— which is probably my personal failing, since the two seem to have gone together since the dawn of time, or at least the dawn of politics. What makes Katrina Ballads surpass the category of political music is that its politics are almost beside the point; it feels more like a work about understanding than one about propaganda. If Dennis Hastert happens to come off as a cold-hearted lunatic, or George W. Bush as a stuttering blockhead, that’s because they actually did that week. Katrina Ballads has a message, certainly, but it’s given to us with admirable perspective and remarkable selflessness; I never once felt I was being preached to, or emotionally manipulated. (Incidentally, I wonder if the choice of the word “Ballads” has anything to do with Rzewski’s North American Ballads; the last piece of that set, Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, is the only other politically-motivated work I can think of that is as successful and affecting.)
Perhaps another reason Katrina Ballads feels so different from other political music is that the music itself is always the first priority. I’ve always known Ted is a good composer, but what I hadn’t known is that he has the ability, chameleon-like, to blend his style into practically any musical genre that suits his purpose, and he makes them all work together as a consistent whole. He sets Barbara Bush’s infamous “This is working very well for them” quote (from an NPR interview—it’s still shocking to hear it) to easy-breezy but harmonically subversive ragtime, Kanye West’s impassioned tirade (from a live NBC telethon) to slowly-building gospel/R&B (though it’s not made explicit until the climactic line “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”), and Anderson Cooper’s blustering anger in high operatic style. Though most of this music is quite accessible, it never sounds cliché or facile. The instrumental writing is beautifully handled, skillfully employing more “new music‑y” tricks (multiphonics, looping pedals, piano-drumming) to serve the greater dramatic purpose.
Of course, the piece wouldn’t be such a hit if the performers weren’t so intense and dedicated. Ted’s hand-picked band (including many Manhattan School new-music stalwarts) clearly love the music, and love playing together. The five singers are pitch-perfect, navigating Ted’s difficult passages and stylistic shifts with aplomb. Mezzo Abby Fischer was eerily, smarmily composed as Barbara Bush; soprano Allison Semmes was in turn preternaturally unflappable as Sen. Mary Landrieu, then vulnerable and affecting as flood victim Ashley Nelson. Tenor (maybe countertenor? that stuff was pretty high) Isaiah Robinson really stole the show in the Kanye West movement; the climax of the song was an almost joyful release of angry passion. Ted himself took a break from conducting to deliver the virtuosic “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”, a Nixon-esque disintegration of the president’s comment to former FEMA head Michael Brown. And baritone Anthony Turner, singing the text of another hurricane victim, conveyed utter desolation and despair in “My wife, I can’t find her body”.
I’m pretty much in awe of Ted right now. He’s expended a tremendous amount of time, effort, and money to bring all these people together and perform (and in a couple weeks, record) this huge, difficult piece, which he not only wrote, but also conducts and sings. I think Katrina Ballads has a great future, and I can’t think of anybody better to advocate it than Ted. I hope it makes him famous.