Composer Ted Hearne had been circling WikiLeaks and the details it divulged about America's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq when the figure of Chelsea Manning emerged.
In the series of chats between Manning (formerly Pfc. Bradley Manning) and a hacker named Adrian Lamo published on Wired.com, Hearne saw dispassionate military cables unfolding within the more human story of a distressed documents leaker — someone who was engaged in her own war of gender identity.
"It's a portrait of somebody in great emotional turmoil," Hearne said of the chat log, "and it's also a surprisingly intimate conversation."
That conversation now sits at the heart of the oratorio "The Source," which makes its West Coast premiere on Oct. 19 at REDCAT as part of Los Angeles Opera's "Off Grand" series of new works (and L.A. Opera's ongoing collaboration with Beth Morrison Projects). Four singers embedded in the audience, a live seven-piece ensemble and four looming video screens are employed to explore the content and human context of the Department of Defense cables that Manning leaked in 2009.
The idea for "The Source" really began to coalesce in late 2011, when Hearne and librettist Mark Doten made a pilgrimage to the public evidentiary hearing for Manning at Ft. Meade in Maryland.
"The Source" premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in late 2014. The first sung words introduce one of the oratorio's most striking ingredients: a digitally processed effect that turns vocals into a kind of cyborg self-duet. It's a process Hearne cooked up with Philip White, his bandmate in the electronica duo R We Who R We, based on a technology similar to Auto-Tune. It's explicitly political art, but Hearne said he and Doten are not interested in making propaganda.
"It was amazing to be in the same room with her," Hearne said. "The way that she carried herself, and the way that she was as an individual in real life, felt very different from the way that she'd been portrayed by the media. From that point, I think the piece really became: How did this individual deal with those texts that she was responsible for leaking?"
"I also play a lot with the wet/dry mix," Hearne said, "so that most of the time you're hearing not only the tuned voice, but also the real voice of the singer. You're really hearing two voices at once. Some people have mentioned that it makes them think of a computer voice, but I actually feel like there's a real human quality to it, or at least it approaches this very evocative, uncanny valley type of place."
The subject matter gave Hearne an excuse to defy the expectations and limitations of genre.
"The access that I've grown up with to all different types of music, just because of the explosion of digital culture, makes me want to write music that accesses many different stylistic vantage points," said Hearne, 34. "In setting the text, I was looking to use style itself as a moveable parameter."
He pointed to the song "Smoke When Bird Nears" — a phrase referring to a helicopter and air evacuation — which turns into an R&B slow jam. "Something about the R&B context just takes the text into a very different place," he said, "and I think frees up the imagination a little bit."
Hearne and Doten met at the MacDowell Colony, the prestigious artists retreat in New Hampshire, in 2009. Doten was working on his novel "The Infernal," published last year, which concerns the U.S. war on terror and the media's relationship to it. (Harper's Magazine called it "a ravishingly mad post-Bush riposte to the collaboratively written Internet text.")
"He's a really amazing voice," Hearne said of Doten, "and I always appreciated how he didn't shy away from density and from complications. For a long time I've been figuring out how to deal with those same ideas in music, so I think we worked really well together — on this project especially, because it does deal with just an unknowable amount of volume and complexity."
Doten, 37, said sifting through the mountain of military cables and the "elliptical," often jargon-heavy chats between Manning and Lamo wasn't easy. One trick was curating search results using terms such as "trust" to build songs around a theme.
"These are bureaucratic documents, and they're about events that are destroying other people's lives," Doten said. "So the challenge is trying to find the right pieces to suggest both the sort of impersonal, bureaucratic nature of these documents, but also the real stories and the real tragedies underneath."
The libretto mutated over four years, from a more dramatic narrative using, at one point, a journalist character as a framing device. "In the end, none of that felt right," Doten said. "We wanted the narrative, such as it is, to emerge from your engagement with the music and with the texts that are being sung in the piece, and for the audience member to construct their own story of what's happening."
The thick text and Hearne's genre-mashing, sample-heavy score are juxtaposed with director Daniel Fish's spare staging. The audience is surrounded by massive screens that display a mosaic of human faces. (A hundred people were recorded in Brooklyn reacting to the same, initially mysterious footage.) REDCAT has restructured its seating into two sections, so that audience members will face one another and see different portions of the screens.
"So even that design just reflects that you can never know everything, and different people have different experiences of the work," Hearne said.
"Sometimes there's an expectation of art that engages with a politicized topic for that art to sort of wear its opinion on its sleeve, or to communicate as directly as an op-ed piece," the composer said. "And I just rarely find art like that effective. Communicating something through music — it can be opinionated, it can be provocative or political or take some sort of stand, but that stand doesn't need to be something that you can boil down into a couple words."
Where: REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 19-21; 2 and 8 p.m. Oct. 22, and 2 p.m. Oct. 23
Information: (213) 972-8001 or LAOpera.org
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