In Tune

How ‘The Source’ Makes a Musical Out of Chelsea Manning and WikiLeaks

Composer and singer Ted Hearne isn’t interested in audience members judging Manning for leaking information, so much as thinking about what they might do in her situation.

SF Opera Lab/Stefan Cohen

Probably the strongest response to the oratorio The Source, which deals with army private Chelsea Manning who gave hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks, says librettist Mark Doten, is complete silence.

“I find it interesting how people react to the piece,” he said. “Sometimes at the conclusion they applaud, but other times there’s silence for a minute or two minutes. Just sitting in that silence together like that is probably the most powerful for me in terms of audience response.”

With a layered score influenced by jazz, pop, and electronica, video projections, and a libretto drawn from primary sources such as Twitter feeds, cable news interviews, personal chat transcripts, and declassified military reports from Manning, it’s no wonder some audience members aren’t sure how to react.

Composer and singer Ted Hearne, who recently collaborated with Erykah Badu and teaches composition at the University of Southern California, says though she is at the heart of The Source, it’s not “about” Manning, who was sentenced to 35 years in 2013 on counts of espionage, theft, and computer fraud—a sentence then-President Barack Obama commuted shortly before the end of his term.

Hearne says he’s not interested in audience members judging Manning for leaking the information so much as thinking about what they might do in her situation. He has read good arguments both condemning and praising what she did, Hearne said. But he’s not writing an op-ed.

“I want to make art to ask those questions,” he said. “Music can help make the boundaries between right and wrong more porous.”

Hearne used a type of vocal processing that mixes the human voice with a tuned voice, which he calls “evocative and beautifully glitchy.”

“It felt like the best way to deal with texts coming from distant lands and a distant experience,” he said. “It was a way to set Chelsea’s words and give them a contemporary context and place us in America. For instance, we use a chunk of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes with text about an air evacuation happening, and the smoke is a signal flare. It doesn’t mean anything super specific, but it evokes something.”

The Source comes to the San Francisco Opera on Feb. 24, after performances in Brooklyn and Los Angeles. Matthew Shilvock, the director of the San Francisco Opera, calls mixing human voices with electronic ones ethereal, and he thinks the use of a collage style in the libretto and the music sampling tells the story in a powerful way.

“It’s taking the fragmentation of contemporary life,” he said. “The sound bites of the news cycle and social media create a tapestry that delves into something as contemporary as Chelsea Manning and WikiLeaks.”

It can make people uncomfortable, Hearne says, to think about Manning and war.

“Our country has been engaging in these wars for a long time, and our taxes pay for them,” he said. “Some information Chelsea Manning leaked was about actual war crimes covered up by the government, but it’s not like every document is about a murder or an act of violence. It’s a record of war day to day. So asking people to look at content of the leaks is asking them to look at war and what it makes them feel about the war.”

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Hearne says he was originally interested in Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. But when Manning, who announced she was transgender after her sentencing, emerged as a public figure, he switched his focus to her.

In her online chats with Adrian Lamo, the hacker who later turned her in, Hearne saw authentic reactions in the midst of an identity crisis.

“She was feeling so frustrated, and no one was taking her concern seriously. She felt there were ethical and moral dilemmas in our actions in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Hearne said. “It’s pretty clear from reading the chat logs that her actions were very close to the heart, and she was experiencing a crisis. It felt very real and not distanced, and she seemed to hold herself responsible and to connect her work and personal life. It made me think about what my role is in war when living my bougie artist life in Brooklyn and able to feel distance from it.”

Hearne met Doten, author of the novel, The Infernal, at the MacDowell Colony, an artists’ retreat. “Ted came to me with the idea for project in part because I hadn’t written a libretto before,” Doten said. “He didn’t want a traditional approach, so we tried to push on the form.”

Doten says some of the language about war, which made its way into the libretto, he found poetic.

“They describe for example, a young boy released several pigeons, which can be a signaling device,” he said. “It’s incredibly full of meaning and it’s a beautiful image, or it could be seen as a potential threat by the people who created that report.”

Doten also says he didn’t want to judge Manning, but hopes people seeing it will ask themselves questions—about war and the military and information.

“We hope the piece does capture the scope of the leaks and people try and grapple with how our current system of media and technology shapes our lives and the way we interact in the world,” he said. “Our ability to create these massive documents and the ways we use them shapes the wars themselves, and we wanted to explore what these vast amounts of information mean and what they have to say about wars in Middle East.”

The Source is tonight (Weds), Thurs, and Fri at San Francisco Opera. Book tickets here.