Paul David Flood

Paul David Flood on the Political Music of Ted Hearne

Last year, 21CM partnered with the award-winning music blog I CARE IF YOU LISTEN to hold the second annual “New Voices” essay contest, inviting college students of any age to submit essays on the theme of the 21st century musician. We are thrilled to congratulate our third place winner, Paul David Flood of the University of California, Irvine. Reflecting on the question of whether artists have a responsibility to facilitate conversations on political and social issues, Flood discussed the choral pieces “Consent” and “Animals” by Ted Hearne, capturing his musical experiences on the page. His evocative language and probing analysis helped show how musical works can offer unique perspectives on political issues. 


On the day after the 2016 election, my choir director said something at the beginning of rehearsal that has stuck with me since: “As artists, it’s our job to counterbalance injustice and hate with truth and love.” This made me realize that maybe our role as musicians in the 21st century is inherently more salient than we may understand at face value. In a society which has embraced music as an expressive vehicle, our duty as musicians is not simply to express, but to inquire and elicit inquiry.

American composer Ted Hearne takes this notion of inquiry to the extreme without raising questions about the sociopolitical issues directly. Moreover, his music raises poignant questions about ourselves and our society in relation to these issues. Topics of coverage in Hearne’s repertoire have ranged from divisions of power informed by race, gender and economics (“Privilege,” 2009) to the governmental response to the flooding of New Orleans (“Katrina Ballads,” 2007). Hearne is not writing to make a statement about these issues, but rather to provoke discussion. I believe that two of Hearne’s most recent choral works, “Consent” (2014) and “Animals” (2018), effectively encapsulate this ethos.

“Consent” is set to texts from five different sources: love letters written by Hearne in 2006, love letters written by Hearne’s father in 1962, the Catholic Rite of Marriage, the Jewish Ketubah and the text messages used as evidence in the 2013 Steubenville Rape Trial. Despite being written beforehand, the piece is often programmed with reference to the 2017 #MeToo movement.

From the beginning, Hearne depicts gender inequality: The tenors and basses sing repeated alterations of “I want to” and “I want you,” provoking malicious senses of pressure and desire. The lower voices take hold of the situation while the sopranos and altos are instructed to inhale through clenched teeth, sustain the breath over the lower voices, and exhale into the succeeding silence. What follows are brief spurts of text from the lower voices: “I was thinking penetrating thoughts about you” comes from the first tenors, followed by the sopranos and altos singing “I” before being cut off by the lower voices. This repeats until we hear the upper voices’ first “I do,” which creates a textural whirlwind leading to the declamatory “declare your consent” from the whole choir.

“Consent” is predominantly dense in texture, with overlapping rhythmic, melodic and textual layers that seem to overwhelm the audience, not knowing whether to listen to the tenors declaiming “all of it shall be mortgageable and bound as security,” the alto 3 and 4s’ mocking repetitions of “she looks dead lmao” or the painful cries of “I do” from the first and second sopranos above the hostile texture. This peak in the texture’s density, in which the choir eventually transitions from sung to spoken lines, represents the height of sexual violence. This is Hearne’s challenge for society: to consider our use of language and its relationship to perpetuating rape culture.

“Animals” powerfully evokes an equally daunting challenge with only one sentence: “These aren’t people, these are animals,” stated Donald Trump, referring to undocumented immigrants, in May 2018.

Howls, screeches, yelps, moans and sniffs are just some of the sounds which open the piece and pervade throughout. The choir takes the form of a group of animals in distress. The text of the topical sentence is broken apart amid the interspersed sections of animal noises. As the animals move between silence and outcry, they are suddenly silenced. Two singers repeatedly speak the sentence in its entirety, as more singers enter and crescendo. The sentence is eventually shouted by the whole choir, with occasional jolts of laughter from individuals.

The choir’s preaching “these aren’t people, these are animals” is representative of a morally corrupt society, aggressively asserting that those seeking refuge are inhumane. When the shouting stops, one member of the choir, who was previously making animal noises, cries for her “papa” amid a minute of silence. Hearne’s depiction of this child, trapped in a cage and longing for their father, made akin to an animal is his questioning our perception of humanity.

Both of these works have been recorded and frequently performed by The Crossing. Donald Nally, The Crossing’s conductor, charged the Westminster Choir College Class of 2019 by advising the graduates, “In your art, speak truth to power and challenge authority.” Ted Hearne’s music challenges a societal authority by making powerful statements without having to make direct statements, dismantling the divide between our approaching the issue and our being the issue.

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Paul David Flood

Paul David Flood is pursuing his master’s degree in musicology at the University of California, Irvine. His research focuses on cultivations and perceptions of national identity and ethos in the music of late 20th-century Denmark and 21st-century United States. …more 

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