These days, I find that I either want to engage with the news directly, getting a serious rage buzz on, or disengage completely by staring at photos of International Space Station repairs on the NASA app. How to wrestle with our current reality with the hues of gray that are necessary to inspire anything resembling a nuanced discussion? Well, since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, one composer has never disappointed in his attempt to ask just the right questions at just the right time, like a one-person Oblique Strategies deck.
Ted Hearne’s arms must be exhausted, carrying around that giant mirror that he so effectively holds up to the horrors and hypocrisies of modern life. And miraculously, he does so without soap-boxing, as is often the danger with music of this sort, “this sort” being Hearne’s new collaboration with Philadelphia’s The Crossing, led by Donald Nally. Sound from the Benchlays bare rape culture, Citizens United, military-sanctioned murder, and white privilege … somehow fusing entertainment and bewilderment, beauty and hideousness in a sonic space in which it is safe to laugh, cry, foam at the mouth and rejoice … all within an hour.
“Consent,” which launches this extraordinary album overlays the lines “I want to” and “I want you,” the texts extracted from Hearne’s personal love letters/texts and those of his father, as well as transcripts from the 2013 Steubenville rape trial. The intermingling of earnest professions of love with malicious ones exposes a central theme: all of these declarations are directed, imposingly, from the male perspective. The heart-rending outro is a cycle of the Catholic wedding phrase, “Who gives this woman?” Four words that I’ve heard hundreds of times, and yet in this context reveal themselves to be indisputably transactional. I’m late to that particular party, and happy to have been led there through such riveting music.
Hearne mines traditional harmonies across this album, not shying away from but exploiting the historical contexts of choirs and choral music, and The Crossing proves itself an ensemble of exemplary flexibility across the entirety of Sound from the Bench. Soak in the way this ensemble unleashes the word “money” in track four’s “(Ch)oral argument” or the delivery of “occupants” at 6’50” into “Ripple” (text surrounding the firing of marines on a vehicle in Fallujah). These aren’t just vocalists expertly executing challenging scores. It is more akin to watching an actor forgetting that they exist outside of this role. The ensemble, balance and tonal variety are choice, but the vocal embodiment of these often emotionally complicated themes is something quite rare.
The composer’s omnivorous musical tastes are on display here, especially with the eponymous “Sound from the Bench” suite, in which liturgical cadences bump up against proggy guitar interruptions and exuberant drum fills. The musical vigor of the writing plays trades with the rise of corporate power, illuminated here through Jena Osman’s poetry. It is exasperating and enthralling, and this alchemy, found throughout his music, leads me to believe that Hearne is one of the essential composers of our era.
- Doyle Armbrust