KATRINA BALLADS is a 65-minute dramatic song cycle by Ted Hearne, composed for a band of 11 instrumentalists and 5 singers, and set entirely to primary-source texts from the week following Hurricane Katrina. These are the words of politicians and celebrities, survivors and relief workers, taken directly from footage experienced by those of us outside the Gulf Coast, as it unfolded via a constant and real-time stream of national media. These are the raw and shocking words of Anderson Cooper, Barbara Bush, Kanye West, Dennis Hastert, and George W. Bush's iconic "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," set to an emotional and surprising multistylistic score that uniquely combines gospel, jazz, classical and electronic musical elements. Calling us to remember our shared history, Katrina Ballads conjures anger, shame, rebuilding and a commitment to truth in the primary source.
KATRINA BALLADS is the recipient of the 2009 Gaudeamus Prize for composition. The work was premiered at the 2007 Piccolo Spoleto Festival in a production by Yes is a World and Charleston's New Music Collective, received its New York premiere in 2008, and was included in the New York City Opera's 2009 VOX Festival.
A full recording of the work was released on New Amsterdam Records (with distribution through Naxos of America) in August 2010, and garnered rave reviews including a place on The Top 10 Classical Albums of 2010 of The Washington Post and Time Out Chicago.
A new theatrical production of the work featuring film by Bill Morrison, from Beth Morrison Productions, was premiered at New York's (le) Poisson Rouge and at the Hobby Center in Houston, Texas. The New York Times called this performance "barnstorming... [with a] tough edge and wildness of spirit."
If you are interested in programming a performance of Katrina Ballads, please contact Ted Hearne.
John Lennon used to say, during the period he was writing overtly political music, that his songs were a form of journalism. Ted Hearne, a composer who was born in 1982, two years after Lennon was killed, seemingly takes a similar view. He described his “Katrina Ballads” — an expansive song cycle about Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans, and the government’s inadequate response — as a “somewhat journalistic piece.”
Ted Hearne conducting “Katrina Ballads” at Le Poisson Rouge on Tuesday evening. His ensemble of 11 musicians and 5 singers included Nathan Koci on the French horn.
But where Lennon saw himself as an author of editorials couched as ballads, Mr. Hearne confined his editorializing to his music. The texts of the 10 “Katrina Ballads” are drawn entirely from news reports, mostly from the week of the storm. It is in the selection of those texts, and in the way they are set and accompanied, that Mr. Hearne’s sadness and anger come through.
What he was after was not a documentary about Katrina as the people of New Orleans experienced it, but rather an inflected, interpreted record of how the rest of the country watched it unfold — that is, as the news media presented it, complete with resoundingly famous sound bites. They include President George W. Bush’s praise of Michael Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency — “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” — which Mr. Hearne made into the full text of an extended jazz aria, and Kanye West’s declaration that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
To commemorate the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina — and to celebrate the release of the “Katrina Ballads” on CD (New Amsterdam) — Mr. Hearne and nearly all the musicians on the recording performed the full cycle on Tuesday evening at Le Poisson Rouge.
The contrast between the disc and the live performance was extraordinary: the fastidiously produced recording, though it delivered some of the work’s punch, left me cold. But the concert reading had a tough edge and a wildness of spirit that suited the music, and the subject.
It had an important visual element too. The four vocal soloists sat on high stools in front of a scrim, with the instrumental ensemble, conducted by Mr. Hearne, behind it. A film by Bill Morrison, using footage from New Orleans, as well as some of the television interviews Mr. Hearne set to music, was projected onto the scrim and a wall to the side of the stage.
Mr. Hearne’s Prologue uses part of a report from The Houston Chronicle about New Orleans’s vulnerability, originally published in 2001, and set as a slow blues number. René Marie sang it with a supple, evocative lilt, with the rest of the singers joining in for a staid, polyphonic rendering of the final line, “to some extent, I think we’ve been lulled to sleep.”
The melding of popular and classical styles begins immediately. The bluesy vocal line of the Prologue is underpinned by a score that seesaws between chamber scoring and rock guitar. The second ballad, “When We Awoke, It Was to That Familiar Phrase: New Orleans Dodged a Bullet,” is mostly an essay for French horn and electronics, and the two instrumental interludes take in some of the livelier elements of New Orleans jazz. “Dennis Hastert: 8.31.05,” given a dark, jazz-tinged rendering by the tenor Isaiah Robinson, is accompanied by a churning, almost Minimalist piano figure.
The work’s centerpiece is a setting of an interview conducted by an angry Anderson Cooper, the CNN anchor, with the calmly, almost robotically diplomatic Senator Mary Landrieu. It is presented first as a duet between Anthony Turner and Abigail Fischer and as a quartet when Mr. Cooper presses Ms. Landrieu to say she is angry, and at whom.
But an extended, jazzy riff built around President Bush’s “heck of a job” statement, sung with unbridled energy by Mr. Hearne, is also a clear highlight, as are Mr. Robinson’s barnstorming performance of Mr. West’s speech and Ms. Marie’s affectingly direct rendering of a long, reflective quotation from Ashley Nelson, an 18-year old resident of New Orleans.
The musicians gathered around the TV knowing what they were about to see and hear. They had spoken many of the same words themselves, over and over during rehearsals.
But this was the first time, after a shrimp gumbo dinner in Charleston, S.C., the evening before their first performance, that they'd watched the Hurricane Katrina video clips all together, all at once.
New Orleans "looks like a lot of that place should be bulldozed, " former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert said on the screen.
"Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job, " President Bush said.
The next day, the musicians performed the "Katrina Ballads", a concert based on original media reports from Katrina and its aftermath. Ted Hearne, a 26-year-old composer from Chicago, wrote the "Katrina Ballads" in the months following the storm, hoping to create music that would make people remember the devastation and the unique media moments the hurricane created.
"I started feeling like people wanted to forget what happened and what was said, " Hearne said.
Since its premiere last spring, the show has been performed several times on the East Coast and in Chicago. Digital recordings will be released online today on New Amsterdam Record's Web site, www.newamsterdamrecords.com; plans are to eventually make it available at online music stores such as iTunes, and on CD. Hearne hopes to find the financial backing to keep the show traveling and ultimately bring it to New Orleans.
In the 70-minute performance, singers give voice to famous quotes from the storm. The music fuses different genres. One singer incorporates a country twang while warbling Barbara Bush's statement that, "So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them"; another transforms Kanye West's angry "George Bush doesn't care about black people" into a triumphant, gospel-like release.
"What I'm trying to do is push people's boundaries a bit in terms of art, " Hearne said.
Jason DeCrow / AP PhotoHearne, far left, works with his four singers, from left, Anthony Turner, Isaiah Michael Robinson, Abigail Fischer, and Allison Semmes at a rehearsal in New York.
The combination of different types of music is in part an homage to New Orleans as a musical melting pot, Hearne said. He'd visited New Orleans twice before the storm and remembered music pouring onto the sidewalks.
"Band after band, they were projecting a joy in playing music, " Hearne said. "It's hard to put a finger on what they're actually playing because they move so easily from one genre to another."
As a musician, the disregard for New Orleans' cultural richness hit Hearne hard after Katrina, he said.
"There's art everywhere, " Hearne said. "There's a spirit of making music in that city that's unlike anything I've ever seen."
Hearne's mother is a singer, and he grew up singing in the Chicago Children's Choir. He graduated this year from Yale University's master's degree program in music and currently lives in New York.
He was in New York when Katrina struck. Watching CNN anchor Anderson Cooper blast Sen. Mary Landrieu, he was awed by how the disaster dissolved the typical relationship between politicians and the media.
"There's this layer of b.s. that was totally broken down, " Hearne said.
He began writing the Katrina Ballads a couple of months after the storm, recruiting musicians he had met throughout his career to form a 17-person ensemble that includes Hearne and four other singers. Instrumentation ranges from guitar, to piano, to trumpet.
The performance is essentially chronological. An instrumental movement about the infamous phrase "New Orleans dodged a bullet" leads to Anderson Cooper, which leads to President Bush's praise of FEMA Director Michael Brown.
"It takes these moments that could have been missed, " horn player Nathan Koci said, "stopping the tape for a second and being like, 'Did you guys hear that?' "
Baritone Anthony Turner sings the desperate cries of Hardy Jackson, a Biloxi, Miss., resident who was interviewed on television after the storm. "My wife, I can't find her body, she gone, " Turner sings.
Turner's performance is about "the idea of helplessness and looking for help, " he said. "It is deep despair, and just the passion, the yearning behind it."
The performance ends with words taken from then-18-year-old Ashley Nelson, who lived in the Lafitte housing development. On the public radio show "This American Life, " she described starving as she waited for rescuers.
"She's so smart and she's so wise, " Hearne said. "The way that she succinctly calls everybody to task . . . it just totally floored me."
Hearne has focused on music with a social conscience since he was a student in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. Looking for a way to examine the tragedy through music, he started the nonprofit organization Yes is a World to bring young artists together and promote social change.
"I've always loved music, " Hearne said, but since Sept. 11, "I feel I need to use music in a way I feel like I am contributing to society."
Koci said he thinks the "Katrina Ballads" is a particularly successful example of music with a political point.
"It can get tricky when you're doing art and activism together, " he said. "Both of them can kind of get compromised."
So far, the concert has been performed mostly for other musicians, but Hearne and the other musicians hope to bring the show to broader audiences.
"We've got people that are crying, we've got people that are exuberant that someone is speaking out, " Turner said of the audiences at earlier performances. "We've got a whole range."
Hearne wanted to perform in New Orleans and Houston this year for the anniversary of the storm, but struggled to find sponsors without a high-quality recording. With today's digital release, they hope to raise enough money to bring the performance down South to the communities that might find it most powerful.
"Every time we do it, " Koci said, "we all want to do it more."
KATRINA BALLADS PIERCE THE HEART
by Melinda Tuhus, New Haven Independent, March 6, 2008
Composer and singer Ted Hearne led a performance of his "Katrina Ballads" that electrified his New Haven audience and powerfully reminded them that the tragedy in the Gulf Coast is far from over. Hearne, a graduate student at the Yale School of Music, assembled a dozen musicians and four singers at Trinity Lutheran Church on Orange Street Wednesday night for his Katrina Ballads, which set to music some of the most infamous words uttered in the days immediately after Katrina struck on August 29, 2005. Hearne wrote the music, conducted it, and sang a solo of a three-minute song using just the one sentence President George Bush uttered to his FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) director at the time, Michael Brown; "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." Click here to listen.
Other immortal statements included then-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert's question, "How do you go about rebuilding this city? It doesn't make sense to me. It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed." Also, the short speech by Kanye West at a Katrina relief telethon that ended with the famous phrase, "George Bush doesn't care about black people."
Baritone Anthony Turner sang the shocked and shocking words of a resident of Biloxi, Mississippi that began, "My wife, I can't find her body, she gone…I held her hand tight as I could and she told me, 'You can't hold me.'"Shocking in another way was Barbara Bush's comment that the thousands who sought shelter at the Houston Astrodome were "underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them."
In the program's introduction, Hearne wrote, in part, "It is my hope that setting primary-source texts from the devastating week in 2005 when Katrina hit will help us keep this time active in our memory, challenging us to cut through the spin that followed, and bringing us closer to an understanding of the true aftermath. New Orleans has long been a musical epicenter and a real crossroads of culture. The musical influences present in Katrina Ballads are plentiful and diverse. In that sense, this work is a tribute to the life of music, and its ability to shape and inspire us."
The audience, which included many connected with the School of Music, gave the performers a standing ovation. The applause trailed off and then burst out in another long round of enthusiastic clapping and hollering. John Sipher said, "It was really powerful. I got chills through my body countless times. It's a really mature work."
A DEEPLY MOVING TRIBUTE
by Joshua Rosenblum, Spoleto Overview Critic, The Charleston Post and Courier, June 2, 2007
With "Katrina Ballads," presented by New Music Collective on the Piccolo Spotlight Concert Series, Ted Hearne has crafted a flashy, 70-minute multi-stylistic song cycle about the 2005 hurricane disaster in New Orleans, using as his texts only primary sources—i.e. things people actually said. Hearne, a sophisticated composer with a songwriter's instincts, draws on blues (naturally, in a piece about New Orleans), gospel, grunge, electronic processing, and chance music, with homages to Varese, Glass, and New York's downtown new music scene. In Hearne's capable hands, somehow it all makes sense—it's really good stuff.
Hearne's amazing quartet of four vocalists—soprano Allison Semmes, mezzo Abby Fischer, tenor Isaiah Robinson, and baritone Anthony Turner — were just as adept at crossing between so-called serious and popular styles as Hearne. Turner and Semmes brilliantly recreated Anderson Cooper's well-publicized interview with Sen. Mary Landrieu, in which Cooper blasted politicians who were busy thanking each other, while Landrieu remained maddeningly unflappable.
Robinson sounded glorious delivering then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert's tone deaf suggestion that maybe we should bulldoze the whole place—it was a rolling, rhythmic rock number, punctuated by angry chords from electric bass and guitar, and gradually submerged in instrumental chaos. To a deliberate but cheerful groove with music-hall style piano tremolos, the deft, versatile Fischer implicitly skewered Barbara Bush for her infamous remarks on how lucky the refugees were to be in the Astrodome.
Hearne, who conducted his own complex work with great skill, saved for himself an extended bravura riff on "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job," repeating the phrase obsessively and in wild, stuttering transformations while the razor sharp, eleven-piece ensemble lurched rhythmically on around him.
"Don't forget those poor folks down there," Hearne is urging us, in the best way he knows how. The audience responded with an instant standing ovation.
Much to my eternal chagrin, I never visited pre-9/11 New York City. (My excuse now, as it was at the time of my first visit in 2002, is that my upbringing was at first international, in Asia, and then rural and isolated, in Maryland, some four hours from Gotham. Geography was an obstacle.) Not visiting pre-Katrina New Orleans makes more sense, especially in terms of geography, but my sense of regret was perhaps even greater when I visited the city for the first time last month. It’s likely different now in ways I cannot understand, but I know this much: New Orleans has roughly 100,000 fewer residents than it did before the storm, and the insignia of rescuers - X’s with dates, letters and other indications of triage efforts - can still be found on the outsides of homes throughout the city. In some cases, when the X’s were painted over, residents drew new over the fresh paint, though whether out of pride or remembrance I can’t say.
Before my visit, I listened extensively to Ted Hearne’s Katrina Ballads, an hour-long song cycle of contemporary-classical music inspired by the aftermath of Katrina in 2005. In its sonic inventiveness, as well as in its settings of soundbites from politicians, talking heads, and one distraught, rambling hip-hop artist, I already found it exemplary. But now, having heard the stories of people who lived through the storm, the album stands out to me even more, both in its artistry and in its treatment of its subjects. For this composition, Hearne [pictured below, right] had to overcome the words he chose to set; many of them, more than five years later, are still overly familiar. The ultimate measure of this composition’s success is how ably Hearne transforms these indelible sayings and, in a sense, redeems them through art.
I was immediately struck by how even the infamous phrases that emerged from the Katrina disaster were reanimated and revivified; long strings of words that announce doom and despair are transformed into Morse code-like patter in “Prologue: Keeping Its Head Above Water,” taken from a 2001 article in the Houston Chronicle, and in the affectingly portrayed duet based on Anderson Cooper’s interview with Senator Mary Landrieu. The urgency of many of these lines, though, is informed by New Orleans’ native musical styles; languorous blues, jitterbugging swing, and sinuous horns and woodwinds temper the anger roiling beneath many of the sung words. Hearne even wrings all the dramatic and linguistic possibilities out of “Brownie, you’re doin’ a heckuva job,” a phrase surely at or near the top of the All-Time Political Boners list. Hearne sings the line himself, over and over again, in a madcap number that pairs a manic delivery with crunchy guitars and horn blasts.
Not every song in the cycle is so sonically jam-packed, though, and it’s the slower, more meditative numbers bring to mind both the laidback ease of “The City That Care Forgot” and the pace of the government’s response and the city’s recovery. Hearne shows a sharp ear in the leaner, more spare numbers, like the fragment of “Old Man River” that leads into a laid-back lounge number that puts tinkling cocktail piano behind a languorous, blues-y setting of Barbara Bush’s off-hand racism, delivered amid the squalor of the Superdome. Mezzo-soprano Abby Fischer sings “almost everyone I talk to says ‘we’re moving to Houston’” like it’s a line from Bing Crosby and Bob Hope’s “The Road” series.
Many sounds on the album — gnarly, distorted guitars and torqued-up drum set, for example — wouldn’t sound out of place on a hard-rock or heavy-metal album. Others will sound classical to you — baritone Anthony Turner’s wide vibrato in “Hardy Jackson 8.30.05″ or the creeping, dissonant string figures like something out of Stravinsky or Schoenberg. I find the album speaks most eloquently when the genre is harder to pin down: The pain evident in “Hardy Jackson” — “My wife, I can’t find her body, she gone,” Turner sings — could come from anywhere, as could the tumbling piano behind “Dennis Hastert 9.1.05,” a setting of the speech where the former House speaker says the city looks like it should be bulldozed. What a loss it would have been if it had, though you’ll find no judgment of Hastert’s words in the music.
For all my fascination with Hearne’s sensitivity to text, I keep coming back to a purely instrumental track, “When We Awoke, It Was to That Familiar Phrase: New Orleans Had Dodged a Bullet.” It starts with stately, eloquent brass figures — a French horn, though I couldn’t identify it when I first heard it — that, through electronic manipulation, loops and turns on itself. Other instruments pile on — guitars, clarinets, a clanging cowbell — and though the French horn loop persists, it all leads to disintegration. No words are needed.
Between Katrina and my visit, of course, there’s been yet another tragedy in the Gulf Coast. I don’t yet know of plans for a “BP Ballads” album, though I’d keep an open mind if Hearne were to try to set Tony Hayward’s bafflement or Congressman Joe Barton’s toady-ish apology. For now, whether you knew New Orleans before the storm or not, there’s Katrina Ballads. It has all the humanness of this decade’s great human tragedy, and enough of the tragedy that it feels close at hand, like an X or a high-water mark on the front of a house.
Like the Ground Zero chamber-music impromptus by Juilliard students during the September 11 rescue operations, composer Ted Hearne’s Katrina Ballads is an act of artistic empathy. Whereas the former sought simply to offer solace, Hearne’s song cycle serves as an exquisitely written, if caustic, reminder of the inert and fatuous responses by government officials in the wake of the hurricane.
Fans of Antony and the Johnsons may hear parallels to the singer’s high-frequency vibrato in mezzo-soprano Abby Fischer’s arresting “Prologue,” but with its cabaret-style vocals and politically charged libretto, Katrina Ballads resembles more of a Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht collaboration.
For the text, the Chicago-born composer keenly includes only direct quotes taken from national media interviews, a decision that allows then Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, First Lady Laura Bush and the President to indict themselves far more damningly than any commentary might. “Anderson Cooper and Mary Landrieu: 9.1.05” weaves a duet between the CNN interviewer’s restrained vexation and the Louisiana senator’s incomprehensible responses, underpinned by anxious eighth-notes on viola and cello. The interchange ends in an inextricable knot of piano, strings, electronics and flute every bit as baffling as the words.
Hearne’s greatest success lies in his interweaving of New Orleans brass, blues and gospel with phrases such as “FEMA” and “supplemental bill” in a manner utterly convincing and musically compelling. Amid an abundance of expertly composed numbers, a turntablist-like breakdown of George Bush’s infamous line “Brownie, you’re doin’ a heck of a job” stands out as a miniature masterpiece.
Hurricane Katrina, to those who were out of the range of the wind and the water, manifested as a tempest of voices in the media. Ted Hearne's 2007 song cycle KATRINA BALLADS, re-issued on the fifth anniversary of the storm, gathers the barrage of testimonies from rooftops, as well as comments by former President Bush ("Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job") and Kanye West ("George Bush doesn't care about black people"). Hearne casts these narratives into song: West's diatribe becomes an impassioned jazz ballad that gives way to a gospel revival. Dennis Hastert's plans for reconstruction get lost in the calamitous machination of the eleven-member chamber orchestra. Hearne bangs on the "Brownie" comment like one does a coffin nail.
The endless trek depicted on "Bridge to Gretna," one of three instrumental interludes, is laid out in shuddering guitar, confused woodwinds, and the occasional scream from the strings, culminating in a ragtag, prog-rock stalemate—dense and impenetrable as the people escaping the flood upon arriving in the suburbs across the river. Collecting the din of Katrina into an easy narrative is impossible, but Hearne does an excellent job offering this artful sample of what this tragedy five years later still has to say. (New Amsterdam, 2010)
Katrina Ballads, a 10-song, 70-minute orchestral cycle by Ted Hearne, should come with a Surgeon General's Warning. Anyone who watched in horror as New Orleans devolved into a state of madness that first week of September 2005 — which is to say, almost everyone — will be flooded with severe emotion at Hearne's creation. For those who lived through it, this powerfully evocative piece could prove at times unbearable. Doubtless the most ambitious musical homage to the hurricane and its aftermath, it also may be the most successful. Hearne, an award-winning 27-year-old composer, debuted the work in 2007 as a stage performance for 11 players and five singers (including himself). An alternately tense and exalting melange of woodwinds, brass, keys and strings, its lyrics are drawn entirely from interview transcripts, turning each track into a nightmare flashback: A prickling opener by mezzo-soprano Abigail Fisher sets the tone, comparing the fates of New Orleans, New York and San Francisco; the most heartbreaking moment, an interpretation of Mississippian Hardy Jackson's cries on camera for his missing wife, is presented as an operatic spiritual by baritone Anthony Turner. But Hearne's most impressive accomplishment is his use of music as a sardonic commentary on government response. He makes Anderson Cooper's curiously dodgy interview with Sen. Mary Landrieu into a dramatic game of cat and mouse; repeats George W. Bush's "Heckuva job, Brownie" speech until it's a scale-slipping, comical absurdity; and sets Barbara Bush's Houston remarks to bright, biting ragtime piano. Expertly sequenced, it somehow manages personal and cultural empathy, political mockery and Hitchcockian suspense.
(CD Review of Ted Hearne's Katrina Ballads)
Step Tempest, August 24, 2010
Katrina Ballads - Ted Hearne (New Amsterdam Records) - This week, New Orleans, Biloxi and other communities in the Gulf Coast area commemorate the 5th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. To this day, the towns and cities have been slow to recover and, when you add to that the horrific oil spill of 2010, some wonder if it will be decades and not just several more years before an sense of normalcy descends upon the region.
2 years ago this week, New Amsterdam Records issued a digital-only recording of composer/vocalist Ted Hearne's "Katrina Ballads." (my Hartford Courant review is here.) On August 31 of this year, the label releases the CD. With texts taken from television and radio interviews as well as newspaper articles, the piece served as a powerful reminder of how bad the government, local, regional and national, reacted to the catastrophe. The music combines elements of modern classical music, jazz, rock music, and opera (but no "rhythm and blues") and is a punch to the stomach of those who care for their fellow man. Setting to music President Bush's compliment to Michael Brown of FEMA "Brownie You're Doin' A Heck of a Job" is both humorous and a caustic reminder of the ineptitude that characterized the Federal Government's original reactions to the hurricane. There is a stunning orchestration of the Anderson Cooper interview with Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu; it highlights the reporter's on-the-ground visions with the politician's tiptoeing around the subject of why facilities have not been set up to deal with the dead and the dying, never mind those who are healthy yet without food, water or power. The music surrounding Cooper (whose work was stellar during the tragic days and weeks following the storm) is dark, angular and foreboding while, for Senator Landrieu, the music is sweet and harmonically rich. The "Barbara Bush" piece blends the New Orleans musical influences of Louis Moreau Gottschalk and the classical side of Randy Newman with the former First Lady's insensitive comments.
The score, orchestrated for 11 musicians and 5 vocalists, never overpowers the words, instead placing them upfront, continually in the face of the listener. The 2 instrumental "Interludes" are short yet also contain the anger, frustration and sadness that the other pieces convey. Because the images we saw during the days of late August and September 2005 are still in our minds (thanks to the work of many documentarians, including Spike Lee and, more recently, Tavis Smiley), the "Katrina Ballads" rings loud and so true. For more information on this superb work, go to www.katrinaballads.com or www.newamsterdamrecords.com
In the late 1970's, Chanel, Inc. took a bold step in advertising for their flagship fragrance, Chanel No. 5. Employing a cool bland of arthouse elan and surreal literary images, the campaign set a new standard for advertising creativity. The Ridley Scott-directed “Share the Fantasy" ad—"I am made of blue sky and golden light...and I will feel this way forever" remained in viewers minds for years to come.
You might not think that there would be much of an intersection between a natural disaster and the world of television advertising, but hurricane Katrina managed to push the envelope of human suffering and non-entertainment surrealism. The stream of images was endless—from people stranded on rooftops to bodies floating down fully submerged streets. The stories amplified the darkness that descended over the shattered lives—certain deaths, disappearances of loved ones, houses destroyed, rising anger at the failure of plans (and the inevitable finger-pointing that followed). The sense of hopelessness and despair was overwhelming.
Observing this from afar was surreal enough. My heart went out to all involved. Not long after the incident, I read an article describing the efforts to round up people who were determined to stay in their homes, despite the unsafe conditions. One man had already lost his wife, and the rescue personnel were trying to convince him to get in their boat. The man didn't want to leave his dog behind. In the end, he did walk away from his storm-ravaged house...and his dog. Your wife? Your home? And your dog? There's almost nothing left. I'm not sure I could have stepped into that boat.
Ted Hearne's Katrina Ballads brings back all of the tragedy and all of the surrealism inherent in such an epic event. Written for an ensemble of eleven musicians (piano, horns, woodwinds, strings, electric guitar, bass, and drums) and five voices, the work uses as source material many of the words we came to identify with Katrina. With quotes from Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, Anderson Cooper, Senator Mary Landrieu, Barbara Bush, George Bush, and Kanye West, the unhinged nature of the event is brought back into full relief. Yes, it was not easy to forget things like “Brownie, you're doin' a heck of a job" (President Bush) and “George Bush doesn't care about black people" (Kanye West). I tried to forget them, but they wouldn't go away. And maybe they shouldn't.
Perhaps the most moving Katrina Ballads piece is “Hardy Jackson 8.30.05." This, from an interview on ABC Television:
My wife, I can't find her body, she gone. The house just split in half. We got up the roof and the water came and just opened up, divided. I held her hand tight as I could and she told me “you can't hold me." She said, “take care of the kids and the grandkids."
The musical presentation is wide-ranging and provides a wealth of commentary via sly aural asides. The opening “Prolog: Keeping Its Head Above Water" features mezzo-soprano Abby Fischer singing words from the Houston Chronicle, set to music that morphs from minimalist soundscape (the spooky piano string-rake at the start) to a kind of chamber jazz to a moving and scary vocal presentation that uses the word “lulled" (from “To some extent, I think we've been lulled to sleep") as a pivot point. Fischer completes the sentence and then the complement of voices begin to sing “lulled" using an dark, descending ostinato. Fisher repeats the entire sentence over this and the resultant harmonic collisions are stunning.
The choices of musical “density" are quite interesting. The conversation between Anderson Cooper and Mary Landrieu is presented mostly in acapella, while “Brownie, You're Doing A Heck Of A Job" reminds the ear of Philip Glass if that composer took a short step away from his signature repetition. At the less serious end of the scale is “Barbara Bush: 9.5.05," again sung by Abby Fischer and accompanied by a slightly goofy country swing. Kanye West's comments need rock, third-stream jazz, and a kind of busted Thelonius Monk vamp. They needed all of that, though I'm not sure they deserved it.
There so many intriguing moments on Katrina Ballads that it's difficult to take them all in during a single session. The first run through, lyric sheet in hand, was more than enough to bring back all of those memories, both of the actual weather event and of the successes and tragic failures to follow. Clearly, this the kind of work that will reveal more of its inner detail as time passes. It will make you remember, even if you don't want to.
Katrina Ballads debuted at Charleston's Piccolo Spoleto Festival in 2007. To commemorate Katrina's 5th anniversary, this recording will be released on August 31, 2010.
At the beginning of Katrina Ballads, Ted Hearne’s remarkable, omnivorous musical masterpiece, a finger slides along the strings on the inside of a piano. A woman’s voice hauntingly warns us: “Nawlins… Nawlins is sinking.” The full band gradually joins in, adding keening strings and an uptempo percussion line tapped out like morse code on a high hat. The woman’s voice continues:
And its main buffer from a hurricane
The protective Mississippi River Delta
Is quickly eroding away
Leaving the historic city
Perilously closer to disaster
Wait a moment, you might be asking yourself at this point. These are lyrics? Well, yes and no. This remarkable song cycle’s libretto is taken entirely from found text surrounding the events that shook our nation three years ago.
The flooding of New Orleans is such a dense and complex moment in contemporary American history that completely unpacking it may take decades. On one level, we have the disaster itself, the raw human drama, and epic tragedy of a city underwater. On the next, you have the unspeakable way our nation treats its poor — the disaster that the hurricane both revealed and exacerbated. Then you have the second disaster of those urban poor attempting to survive in the midst of flooding and bureaucratic incompetence. Woven throughout, you have the media reporting on and becoming the story: Anderson Cooper projecting his empathy in full HD, weathermen being knocked down by Katrina’s wrath, photographs of George W. Bush observing aloof on Airforce One, and the unforgettable heckuva job that Brownie did.
Katrina Ballads provides new space for us to investigate all of the above and our feelings surrounding it, by setting the events to music. The 11 songs utilize text of both famous moments and lesser-known first-person accounts of the storm. Most haunting of these is Hardy Jackson, who lost his wife in the storm and was unable to find her body. It is one thing to read someone discussing his wife’s death; it is quite another to experience Anthony Turner singing, “I held her hand tight as I could / And she told me / You can’t hold me / You can’t hold me / She said / Take care of our kids,” as the music gradually breaks apart, leaving just his rich Baritone climbing into its upper register, the melodic equivalent of a man breaking down into tears.
Lest you think that the entire album is nothing but difficult, off-kilter harmonies, arrhythmic string arrangements, and grief, there’s a wide variety of musical and emotional experiences within Katrina Ballads. Like the city of New Orleans itself, Hearne’s songs treat music expansively, breaking down the boundaries of genre with little regard for rules or trends of music. When a song needs to switch genres, it does. When pure beauty is called for, it happens. The wordless “When We Awoke, It Was To That Familiar Phrase – New Orleans Dodged a Bullet” uses electronic looping of a French Horn track to slowly build a beautiful, haunting jazz rendition of a giant storm that is both thrilling and terrific (in the literal sense) at once. The song “Barbara Bush – 9.5.05″ hilariously renders her out-of-touch assertion that things are “working out pretty well” for Katrina refugees as a light jazz softshoe number, heightening the irony.
Two tracks stand out for their formal ambition and balls-to-the-wall power. The first is “Brownie, You’re Doing a Heck of a Job,” in which Hearne himself sings different configurations of George Bush’s inept phrase over and over again. It changes from hilarious to outrageous to ugly to angry and back, as the band punctuates with horn and percussion stabs, while the piano (played, full disclosure, by an old friend of mine) launches us briefly into more straightforward jazz territory before the whole thing wrecks itself all over again. What seems at first to be barely controlled chaos is revealed in under three minutes to be a tightly controlled mini-masterpiece. Like Bush’s statement, the song is horrifying and outrageous while remaining shot throughout with gallows of humor.
The second standout is “Kanye West – 9.2.05″ in which West’s impromptu speech — you know, the one that ended with “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” — is rendered in a tour de force that must be heard to be believed (you can hear a live excerpt here). What starts with simple, lilting piano and a monotone voice builds gradually into a huge spectacle of echoing harmonies complete with hand claps, foot stomps, and complex spiraling horn arrangements that call to mind Quincy Jones’s score for In Cold Blood and 1970s Stevie Wonder. The song is held together and kept aloft by Isaiah Robinson’s crystal clear tenor vocals, and although we’ve heard West’s indictment before, the musical recontextualizing demands that we listen in a new way.
What follows is the album’s final track, “Ashley Nelson,” a first person account of (barely) surviving the storm amidst dehydration and delirium. Taken from an episode of This American Life, Ashley Nelson’s story functions as a kind of epilogue, as it looks back on the storm and her experience in the past tense. After the catharsis of Kanye West’s outrage rendered in jubilant vocals and full band, “Ashley Nelson” also functions as a corrective, deliberately frustrating our desire to wrap up the album with a tight little bow and dismiss it. The song never settles on a groove for very long. Hearne keeps the listener off balance, never knowing quite what’s around the corner — his music mimicking Nelson’s madness as she hallucinates “water bottles” and as she tells us, “I would sit and rock and think, `is the world going to turn to hell and we all gonna burn?’” Ending with the heartbreaking — and heartbroken — question for George Bush: “What do you mean by that? He’s doing a good job?” The reeds echo the keening melody written for Nelson for a minute and then, just as suddenly as the album begins, its over.
Hearne’s denial of closure for the listener is vital to the album’s success. Katrina Ballads finishes with an open-ended question that, to this day, has never been resolved, just as the disaster of Katrina has left our society with a number of questions it doesn’t want to face. How should we treat our poor? What role should the government play in the survival of its citizens? Who should be held accountable? As we move forward with the reconstruction of New Orleans, even more questions arise. Who will benefit from the rebuilt city? Why is the Government destroying public housing? Why will we spend $85 billion dollars without blinking to save AIG while New Orleans seeks foreign aid to rebuild? Have we no decency, at long last?