“George Bush doesn’t care about black people”.
Composer and singer Ted Hearne includes this ad-lib comment Kanye West made on NBC in 2005 in his politically sharp-edged musical narrative Katrina Ballads. It’s just one of a number of controversial utterances made during the chaotic week that followed the deadly tropical cyclone Hurricane Katrina that make up the piece’s libretto.
“When I watched [Kanye West] I was super, super moved because you could tell he went off the script,” Hearne says from his hotel room in Florida. “He was clearly worked up. After hearing it lots of times I just felt like I had to sing it.”
The natural disaster killed 1833 people, affected 90,000 square miles surrounding New Orleans, and cost around $135 billion in damage, becoming one of the most destructive hurricanes in the history of the United States. Although the causes were initially natural, Hearne focuses on the aftermath – mainly the media uproar in response to the lack of disaster relief. Tens of thousands of people were left to fend for themselves without food, water and shelter, which Hearne says was down to political incompetence.
“It was the beginning of me coming to terms with the reality of racism and inequality ... and feelings of helplessness from the people being so mistreated. It was the beginning of me developing a consciousness as an artist,” he says.
The piece is arranged into a series of songs, or ballads – performed by an ensemble and vocalists – that include comments, which often conflict, made by flood survivors, relief workers, politicians and celebrities. Kanye’s lambaste is contrasted with 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.”
The work’s centerpiece plays out the interview between a calm and diplomatic senator and a passionately angry CNN anchor. The duet reflects the raw anger of the nation’s citizens, and the government’s shambolic struggle to respond to the humanitarian crisis, which is reflected, Hearne says, by the unlikely juxtaposition of the blunt text with indeterminate instrumentals.
“By imbuing text from some other context, or [imbuing] political, social reality with music, there is a possibility to see things in a different light ... There’s a lot of room in music for exploring the grey areas, for reflecting on things that we can’t completely put our finger on,” says Hearne.
Although Hearne is classically trained the ballads push stylistic boundaries by blending a number of genres – jazz, gospel, blues and rock – common in the cultural melting pot of New Orleans. The performance’s elusive style is more like something created by musical experimenters such as Bjork and Radiohead than by a classically trained composer. “Most of my influences were people making non-classical music,” say Hearne. Obscure chords, experimental percussion, piano tinklings, rock guitar and ominous harmonic inflections conjure up images of calamity and strife. The at-times instrumental chaos demands attention, asking audiences to confront unpleasant truths rather than ignore them.
“I feel like there’s an imperfection and a struggle in our world right now. As I become aware of those patterns, I feel like it’s a lie to write music that doesn’t reflect that reality,” says Hearne.
As part of Fremantle Art Centre’s Soft Soft Loud program, Katrina Ballads’ one-off show will exhibit an accompanied video by Bill Morrison, who’s combined documentary footage of the flooded city with TV interviews and other media coverage. It will be the first time Hearne has brought the show to the Southern Hemisphere.
“I’m curious to see how this perspective, a snapshot from a very particular place and time, resonates a decade later on the other side of the world,” he says. “In a place and time that nonetheless grapples with the same issues in only slightly different ways.”
Katrina Ballads is playing at the Fremantle Arts Centre, 1 Finnerty Street, Fremantle on Thursday February 15. Tickets are available here.