Ted Hearne is a renowned composer, singer and conductor from Los Angeles. His latest album Hazy Heart Pump is being released tomorrow and one of the tracks from that collection is a collaboration with the poet/musician Saul Williams called “The Answer to the Question That Wings Ask.” The track features Williams giving a spoken-word performance of his poem while the Mivos Quartet provides dynamic backing instrumentation.
“Saul Williams and the Mivos Quartet were booked to play a show together in the Twin Cities, co-presented by the eclectic series Liquid Music and the Givens Foundation for African-American Literature,” said Hearne. “These presenters asked me to set one of Saul’s poems to music, and he chose this poem which I immediately fell in love with, ‘The Answer to the Question That Wings Ask.’ I asked Saul to send me a recording of him reading the poem, and the sound of his voice and his interpretation of his own work inspired me to write the music.”
Hearne wrote this piece of music specifically with Williams’ voice in mind. This process allowed him to capitalize on Williams’ strengths as a poet and spoken-word performer, breathing a distinct new life into his words.
“I always prefer to know which specific artist(s) I’m writing for, so I can tailor the music to them as much as possible,” he said. “I like to write toward people’s strengths and weaknesses, to let an artist shine but also to find ways to coax them out of their comfort zone and bring them new challenges. And I find that by writing for an individual, the music I make becomes more specific, individual and expressive.”
In some places the musicians work in unison to give the poet a canvas over which the meaning of his words can resonate. In others, a single member of the quartet plays along with Williams’ speech patterns, mimicking the rise and fall of his inflections. At other points, the music nearly falls away completely to nothing more than a single sustained chord. While the initial vocal recording that Williams sent over to Hearne was just a minute long, the composer stretched that performance into a 10 minute piece of chamber music.
“Saul’s reading of the poem was super fast — the entire audio file he sent me was under a minute long, a rapid-fire barrage of questions,” he said. “I chose to set the text in a sort of opposite way, with each question being given consideration and space to breathe. In the middle of the piece, you’ll hear that the cello plays the same rhythm as Saul, at the same time that he’s speaking — the words are ‘Are we talking to ourselves?’ and this sets off a section where each string instrument goes off on their own separate course, responding in different ways to Saul’s spoken text.”
As far as the meaning of the poem “The Answer to the Question That Wings Ask,” that answer will be left to its author. Williams had this to say about the meaning of this expressive, existential piece of poetry that challenges what and how we view our place in the world.
“It is a pondering of questions and a birdseye view on all of those things that are running through the mind—and that societal mind,” Williams said. “The questions surrounding identity, the questions surrounding society, the questions surrounding time. All of those questions, all of that pondering — while simultaneously being dazzled by birds, the question of The Butterfly Effect. And it has to do with kind of what I’m doing now: sitting in the park, watching this guy walk his dog…At the end of the day it has to do with our ability to dance through things. This is life and life is a dance. And it’s a dance through all these wonderful and not so wonderful realities. And I have some questions.”
In addition to the 10 minute composition featuring Mivos String Quartet and Williams, Hazy Heart Pump features many other collaborations. The opening track, “For The Love of Charles Mingus” has Miki-Sophia Cloud on violin. Later on the record, Ashley Bathgate and Ron Wiltrout perform on the four piece composition “Furtive Movements,” while it closes out with another four-movement composition called “Exposure” by Argus Quartet. In between those two movements are a pair of songs, “Nobody’s” with Diana Wade on viola and “Vessels” with Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti on viola, Miki-Sophia Cloud on violin and Hearne himself adding piano.
Hazy Heart Pump track list
01. For The Love of Charles Mingus – Miki-Sophia Cloud, violin
02. The Answer to The Question That Wings Ask – Saul Williams, voice, Mivos String Quartet
Furtive Movements – Ashley Bathgate, cello, Ron Wiltrout, drums and percussion
07. Nobody’s – Diana Wade, viola 4:07
08. Vessels – Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti, viola, Miki-Sophia Cloud, violin, Ted Hearne, piano
Exposure – Argus Quartet
09. I. Adjacencies
10. II. Everyone keeps me
11. III. Overlay (for David Lang)
12. IV. Everyone keeps me