Review: Ted Hearne's Sweet, Sad American Elegy

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Review: Ted Hearne's Sweet, Sad American Elegy
The Crossing choir performs Ted Hearne’s “Farming” at Caramoor in Westchester County, N.Y., July 9, 2023. “Farming,” with a patchwork text that includes the words of William Penn and Jeff Bezos, was sung by the 24 vocalists of the Crossing. (James Estrin/The New York Times)

by Zachary Woolfe

KATONAH, NY.- Google search results broke my heart this weekend.

Which was strange, because they didn’t include anything overtly emotional. They were lines like: “Yes, we are open. Call our consultants today.” And: “Reliable, seasonal work force.” The kind of thing you get when you look up “H-2A visa program,” which grants temporary admission to the United States for agricultural workers.

But set to soulful, almost retro, doo-wop-honeyed music by Ted Hearne in “Farming,” these bland fragments seemed to touch the very core of our country: its rapacious economy, its broken immigration system, its corroded politics.

Performed at Caramoor in Westchester on Sunday by the 24 vocalists of the Crossing, the precise and luminous new-music choir led by Donald Nally, it was the sweetest, saddest song.

A suggestive, chaotically ambitious, often poignant reflection on colonization, consumption, marketing, entrepreneurship — you name it! — “Farming” reaches well beyond that Google search. Its quilt-like libretto encompasses 17th-century letters by William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, and 21st-century musings by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, as well as absurdist out-of-context bits from UberEats’ Twitter feed and the Farmer’s Fridge customer loyalty program. (“Green are the Farmer’s Fridge reward currency,” the singers intone with maniacal severity.)

As he has in superb works such as “The Source” (based on the Afghanistan war logs leaked by Chelsea Manning) and “Sound From the Bench” (which set excerpts from Supreme Court proceedings), Hearne takes these found-text nuggets and gives them music that moves from lushly meditative to frenetic and obsessively repetitive — a visceral translation into sound of the information overload that is contemporary life.

The singing is sometimes pure and sometimes processed into exaggeratedly AutoTuned “Alvin and the Chipmunks” automation. On guitars, keyboards, percussion and electronics, the six instrumentalists also veer from moody industrial rock and elegiac synth drones to jittery, hypersaccharine pop. (Occasionally resting, as in “Search,” that Google section, somewhere in between.)

Not quite an hour long, the nine-part “Farming” is Hearne’s latest collaboration with the Philadelphia-based Crossing, which premiered it a few weeks ago in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and toured it to the Netherlands before this performance at Caramoor, its first in New York. The threat of rain Sunday forced a move inside and an adaptation of the staging and complex sound design.

Given the circumstances, the production and sound were impressively polished. A QR code included with the program linked listeners’ phones to the libretto; accessing it also involved signing onto Caramoor’s Wi-Fi, and it seemed that many in the audience weren’t doing it.

Without following the words, it would be nearly impossible to have any idea what was going on in this non-narrative but intensely text-focused work. I’m no fan of wasting paper, but this was an appropriate occasion to print out the libretto for everyone — and future iterations might want to experiment with supertitles.

And Ashley Tata’s perkily surreal corporate-parody staging, which put the performers in bright orange, magenta and white uniform-type costumes, felt like a complexity too many in a piece full of them. The attempt to tie together the work’s many thematic strands by enacting onstage what Hearne’s program note called “a new corporation, powered by quasi-religious fervor,” was confusing — though maybe things were clearer in the original, outdoor conception.

While this piece is less scattered than Hearne’s most recent major work, “Place,” a deeply personal reflection on gentrification, “Farming,” too, feels like a grab bag into which there’s always assumed to be room for yet one more idea. The central pairing of Penn and Bezos, the two pioneers — their vast differences, their essential similarities — would probably have been a more than sufficient subject here.

The Penn quotations conjure some of the fundamental, irreconcilable tension of our country’s founding: his efforts to maintain good relations with the Indigenous population, on the one hand, and the commercial interests he wanted to expand, on the other.

To what extent are Bezos’ manipulative doublespeak and high-minded invocations of empowerment through selling a break with Penn’s colonial promises? To what degree are they merely a continuation of what were sour lies to begin with?

These are the kind of huge, unanswerable questions that Hearne’s works have presented so enigmatically yet powerfully over the past decade, fired by his passionate, resourceful music. I found other parts here — the Farmer’s Fridge, the Twitter fragments, the staging — a distraction from that burning central point.

Yet I would have hated to lose “Search.” And Hearne’s earnest too-muchness, his eagerness to stuff as much as possible into each piece, has become such a central feature of his artistry that it’s hard to think of it as a weakness. It’s who he is.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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