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Ted Hearne On Exploring Gentrification Through The Music Of 'Place'

Aug 16, 2020

Composer Ted Hearne is known for tackling big social themes through his music. His modern classical works have put a spotlight on issues of race and justice, inequality, natural disasters and other social issues.

His latest work, a collaboration with the poet and musician Saul Williams, is called Place. It's 19 songs or movements combining jazz, indie rock, modern classical, electronica and spoken word — and it's described as a "rumination on gentrification."

"It's a buzzword," Hearne says, "and in a way, I've come to see it as a surface level problem for something much deeper."

Hearne began thinking about the impact of gentrification when he moved to Brooklyn, N.Y. in the early 2010s. At the Pratt Institute in his neighborhood, he heard Fort Greene native and acclaimed film director Spike Lee giving a speech.

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"He talked about how people moved into this neighborhood but had no respect for the culture that existed before them," Hearne recalls. "That was something where I felt like, well, I am living in this neighborhood and my relationship with the space I was in felt one-dimensional at that moment. I hadn't thought enough about the place I was moving to and the history in it. I felt indicted by what Spike Lee said and I recognized it; I recognized the sentiment behind it as being true.

"I started thinking about 'how could this neighborhood be mapped differently?' If I looked on Google Maps I would see it in one way," he says, "but if I could start to understand the cartography in deeper way that was more related to the experiences of everyone who was living around me and had lived in that neighborhood and the history of the neighborhood, what greater understanding I could come to in that neighborhood? And how would that sound like if I tried to map that in music?"

Place premiered in October 2018 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as a theatrical production directed by Patricia McGregor, and the LA Philharmonic was gearing up to perform the piece in March before its entire season was canceled due to the pandemic. Instead, Place was released as an album featuring an 18-piece orchestra and six vocalists alongside Hearne and Saul Williams. Hearne also created a visual version of Place, in which the six vocalists in the piece recorded their parts all from their own quarantined spaces in the first months of the pandemic.

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"To me, that showed something new about the piece and new about the subject matter that I couldn't have imagined," he says. "To see all performers in their spaces at this moment when the impacts of the pandemic really highlighted the disparity of their experience, that was something that was really moving to see."

NPR's Leila Fadel spoke to Ted Hearne about asking Saul Williams, a former long-time resident of Fort Greene, to join the project, reading James Baldwin to challenge his perspective and reckoning with his own privilege. Listen in the audio player above.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Modern classical composer Ted Hearne is known for tackling big themes in his music. In the past, his compositions have put a spotlight on issues of race injustice, inequality and the environment, to name a few.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLACE")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #1: (Singing) Keep on searching, self.

FADEL: His latest work is called "Place," and it's a collaboration with poet Saul Williams. The 19 songs, or movements, are a combination of electronica, jazz, indie rock and spoken word. This time, Ted Hearne is taking on the very thorny issue of gentrification.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLACE")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: Gentrification is...

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #3: Gentrification is a generational conversation that has gone by many names. We should not discuss what brings you back to the city without acknowledging why you left.

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: White flight, white flight, white flight. Now that winter is over...

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #3: Now that winter is over...

TED HEARNE: I started thinking about it when I moved to Brooklyn. And I guess it was right around the last term of the Bloomberg administration in New York. And I moved to Fort Greene, which is a neighborhood that I really loved and which was a neighborhood that I think had the highest disparity of income in the whole city, the ZIP code that I lived in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLACE")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: What led you here in the first place? Why did you leave in the first place?

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #3: Migration - was it war? Was it poverty? Was it persecution? Was it dreams? White flight, white flight, white flight.

HEARNE: The thing that really, like, spurred me to write the piece was a speech that Spike Lee gave. And he talked about, you know, how people moved into this neighborhood and didn't have respect for the culture that existed before them. My relationship with the space that I was in felt very one-dimensional at that moment. I hadn't thought enough about the place that I was moving to and the history in it. I felt indicted by what Spike Lee said, and I recognized it.

And I started thinking about, you know, how could this neighborhood be mapped in a deeper way that was more related to the experiences of everyone that was living around me and had lived in that neighborhood and the history of the neighborhood? How would that sound like if I tried to map that in music?

FADEL: Ted Hearne has mapped other events with his music that exposed racial fault lines or political hypocrisy. His cantata "Sound From The Bench" about the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Music. His oratorio "The Source" was inspired by Chelsea Manning and WikiLeaks. And his hour-long dramatic song cycle "Katrina Ballads" is set entirely to media footage collected in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

HEARNE: I think that music is always a reflection of the place and time that it comes from. And, of course, it also reflects the people that are hearing it. We're lucky to be in a time where there is heightened political consciousness. But, of course, we know that lots of Americans, lots of people around the world have been conscious this entire time, right? So, you know, for me, I don't know how to make music without thinking about the relationship of myself and the world to the people around me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #4: (Vocalizing). Get on your knees. I need a million miles. I need a million miles.

HEARNE: I think that because music is abstract, we can often use music as a way to help free up our thinking about real things and about ourselves. We can freely associate. And we can hear a beat that comes from one place. And we can hear, like, a sound that comes from another place. And in our minds, there's nothing that stops us from hearing them together. And in a way, that's a metaphor for a world where there is more understanding and when there is more dialogue between people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IS IT OK TO SAY?")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #5: Is it OK to say? Is it OK to say? Is it OK to say? Is it OK to say?

FADEL: Composer Ted Hearne. His latest studio album is called "Place." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.