Discussing “The Source” With Ted Hearne and Mark Doten

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The Source, which has its world premiere tonight at the BAM Fisher Fishman Space and runs through the 25th, blends the use of the human voice with a politically resonant topic. The Source is described as “a multimedia oratorio,” and takes as its focus Chelsea Manning, and the media’s response to her. To learn more about the project’s origins, I checked in with two of the people behind it, composer Ted Hearne and librettist Mark Doten. 

What attracted both of you to Chelsea Manning’s story? How did the two of you begin working together?

Mark Doten: Ted and I met and became friends during residencies at the MacDowell Colony in late 2009. I was working on a weird political novel about the George W. Bush administration and Ted was coming off of a large-scale piece called Katrina Ballads, a song-cycle set to primary-source texts related to Hurricane Katrina. So we shared a political bent and an interest in formally innovative work. The following spring, WikiLeaks released a helicopter gunsight video that showed US Army personnel in Baghdad killing, among others, two Reuters journalists. And with that, WikiLeaks became a worldwide topic of discussion. Ted emailed to say he was thinking of doing something about WikiLeaks as his next big piece. He asked if I wanted to collaborate on the libretto. And I’d never worked on a libretto before, but I said Yes, of course. Now, this was before Chelsea Manning was arrested, so at the point we had no idea where the leaks were coming from. But a couple months later, Manning was arrested and the story shifted significantly.


What was the process like for figuring out the best way to approach your subject? Do you have a specific goal in mind for The Source, whether it’s analyzing Manning’s life or examining how the public and the media perceive her?

Mark Doten: The most challenging thing–in some ways this is the central goal–has been finding ways to grapple with the leaks themselves; to give a sense of the seven-hundred-thousand-plus documents that Manning leaked, and our relationship to those documents as individuals living in this world, as US citizens, etc.,  in whatever limited fashion we can within the constraints of a roughly hour-long piece of music.

It’s been a very fluid piece, and for the first years we worked on it, Ted and I explored a number of different directions. The piece continued to evolve as the other members of the creative team came on board in 2013–director Daniel Fish and video-designer Jim Findlay. And even very recently we’ve added movements and continued to work and rewrite.

To take one example of how The Source evolved, we experimented at first with a mixture of pieces collaged from primary source texts and others with original lyrics. For instance,  I wrote a song that imagined Manning’s background and childhood. But ultimately we realized that this was the wrong direction (it required to much invention and editorializing), and so, for the Chelsea Manning numbers, we restricted ourselves to her own words from the remarkable and extensive online chats that led to her arrest, which were subsequently published by Kevin Poulsen at Wired.

Ted Hearne: I liked thinking about the connections between classified documents and audio samples used in music. Both are sources of information whose “ownership” is often under dispute. In music, some astounding connections can be made when pre-existing sounds are appropriated by new artists and placed in foreign contexts. I wondered if the same might be true with respect to the classified documents Julian Assange was committed to making public, so that’s where my interest in this subject as a piece of music.

When Manning’s identity became known and she became a public figure, her decisions became more interesting to me than Assange’s. I started to imagine what she may have been feeling when she first encountered what we now know as the Iraq War Logs, and that helped me examine my own reactions to these documents.

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Did your perceptions of Chelsea Manning and the way that she has been depicted in the media shift over the course of working on The Source?

Mark Doten: Absolutely. What little information and reporting was available on Manning during the first months after her arrest tended to paint her as unstable, fragile, mentally ill. But when Ted and I went down to Fort Meade in Maryland to watch the first day of her Article 32 hearing (a military pre-trial hearing, the first time she was really visible to the public), she appeared altogether different: calm, centered, engaged. Very still. And at the risk of projecting, she seemed accepting of the situation, and not at all the sort of ragged, unstable caricature we’d been hearing about.


Mark, your forthcoming novel The Infernal also draws upon politically-charged real-life figures. Do you find any connection between your work there and your work for The Source?

Mark Doten: The great thing about working with Ted is that he brings such a broad range of styles and textures to his music. My novel also employs a number of distinct voices–from self-consciously literary voices to the language of video games or old comics, to take a few examples. That’s one thing that drew us together–I’d say that both Ted and I use a diversity of styles as a means of exploring underlying questions about the world and history and how we as humans process all that. But it’s quite a different experience writing the book, where the characters are all my own inventions. Even when they share names and attributes with real-world figures like bin Laden or Alberto Gonzales, I get to , well, basically, I get to do whatever I want with them. My role in The Source is different, more curatorial, though I hope without the fussiness that word implies (finding the right excerpts from the leaks, or the key lines from Manning’s chats, was often quite a thrilling job, and lit up my brain-board in all kinds of interesting ways). But the wild invention in The Source comes from Ted in his music, and from Daniel and Jim in their staging.

Ted Hearne: I wanted to work with Mark on The Source, because his writing doesn’t shy away from complexity. The Infernal finds inspiration in the messiness and absurdity and enormity of our world without trying to break it down. I love how Mark’s work highlights connections and strange adjacencies, and I hoped (correctly, it turned out!) that he would bring that sensibility to the libretto for this piece.


Images: Noah Stern Weber

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