Arts & Events

The Source: A Cacophonous, Confused Opera cum Video Installation

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday March 04, 2017 - 11:36:00 AM

There’s a rule of thumb one ought to keep in mind when dealing with art. Beware of artists who talk a better game than they show. Ted Hearne, the composer of The Source, an opera cum video installation whose ostensible subject matter is the material provided to WikiLeaks by Chelsea Manning (né Bradley Manning), talks a good game. In interviews or discussions with New York Times music critic Zachary Woolfe and Ryan Kost of San Francisco Chronicle, Ted Hearne manages to say a few things that sound reasonable and measured. Take this quote for instance, gleaned from Hearne’s interview with Zachary Woolfe that appeared in The New York Times on February 25, 2017. When asked how The Source fits into the contemporary world of Trump’s attacks on the media and “fake news,” Ted Hearne replied, “We have a huge need for real journalism, for good reporting and for truth. It’s totally under attack. But the power of art and music to blur all those boundaries and enact a sort of feeling, to free words from their need to be specific, that is a totally different type of truth.”  

Sounds reasonable. Yet think about this quote. Hearne seems to be saying that blurring the boundaries between facts and non-facts is good, that feelings are what really matter. Would Donald Trump disagree? I think not. This kind of thinking, with its emphasis on feelings, fits in all too well with Trump’s illusions and delusions about the media and “fake news.”  

In any case, I went into a performance of The Source, which opened at San Francisco Opera Center’s Taube Theatre over the weekend of February 24-6, with an open mind and a fair dose of curiosity. On entering the Taube Theatre, I was struck by the seating arrangement. Half the seats faced one way, while the other half faced the opposite way. On all four walls of the theatre were large video screens. It was not clear where the musicians would be placed, neither the instrumental ensemble nor the singers. When The Source began, it became clear that the instrumentalists were on a raised platform behind the huge video screen on the west wall of the theatre’s interior. One caught glimpses of the conductor’s hands and a violinist’s bowing of his instrument that were visible behind the images projected on the west wall’s screen. As for the singers, they were dispersed throughout the audience.  

Visually, this nearly 75-minute work offers almost nothing but mute, expressionless faces of people in varying degrees of close-up. The faces were projected on all four walls. The people filmed seem intent on paying close attention to something; but it wasn’t clear what they were attending to. I ran through several alternatives. Were they were listening to the score of The Source? Were they watching their own face on a video monitor? Most of the faces were utterly expressionless, offering no clue whatsoever to what they heard or saw, much less how they felt about it. Occasionally, however, one person might wince or slightly shake the head in apparent disapproval of something. This response seemed to occur in tandem with a particularly loud and abrasive bit of music. But what it was they were reacting to wasn’t at all clear. Was it the music, or something else? The Video Designers of The Source were Jim Findlay and Daniel Fish. Mr. Fish was also listed as Director. 

Ted Hearne has stated that The Source is about the confusion one faces when trying to comprehend the mass of data leaked by Chelsea Manning. These leaks, of course, contained classified material from army field reports from Iraq and Afghanistan and 251,000 diplomatic cables. All of this material was released by WikiLeaks and its media partners in 2010. The libretto of The Source, credited to Mark Doten, draws scattered words and phrases from these leaks, but also intersperses more scattered words and phrases from online chats Chelsea Manning had with notorious hacker Adrian Lamo, who eventually turned her in to the authorities, which led to Manning’s conviction in August 2013 and her sentencing to 35 years’ imprisonment. (In December 2016, in the last days of his presidency, Barack Obama commuted Manning’s sentence to seven years, meaning her release is scheduled for May 17, 2017.) 

Thus far, note that I have said nothing about the music of The Source. This omission is purposeful. From beginning to end of this 75 minute work, the music is cacaphonous in the extreme. Singers’ voices are distorted by electronic interference 

(a system called Auto-Tune) in such a way as to be almost incomprehensible. This is a pity, for vocalists Melissa Hughes, Samia Mounts, Isaiah Robinson, and Jonathan Woody all have fine voices. The instrumental music is heavy on percussion, with drums, guitar and keyboard blasting away in chamber-rock style. If The Source is about confusion, its score and vocal delivery certainly add to the confusion. It’s all a mish-mash of confusion, with random bits of sampling from such widely diverse sources as Mack the Knife by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, a song by the Dixie Chicks, Christina Aguilera singing from her album Bionic, and an interview with Stephen Hawking. The score itself might, I say, might, have been interesting in itself, if only it were not trying so hard to imitate or reproduce the confusion Hearne feels is at the heart of all the Chelsea Manning leaks as well as at the heart of Chelsea Manning’s troubled gender identity. (In case you haven’t read the papers in years, Bradley Manning underwent a sex change while in prison and became Chelsea Manning, eventually obliging the Army to provide her with hormone therapy.) 

At one point in The Source, the seemingly endless expressionless faces give way to black and white images of Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, who is identified as “a crazy white-haired Aussie who can’t seem to stay long in one country.” This seems a flippant, highly prejudicial way to identify Julian Assange. But whose words are these? Do they reflect the views of Ted Hearne and Mark Doten? Or are they simply quoted from some unidentified source? Nothing is clear in The Source. Voice-over snippets ensue with questions asked of Julian Assange by journalists.  

Soon, however, the video screens returned to their tedious display of expressionless faces, and the music kept on assaulting us with its cacophony. At many times, the vocalists did not so much sing as shriek. Quite a few audience members simply got up and left at various stages throughout the performance. I stayed till the end. Finally, after more than an hour’s onslaught of expressionless faces, we were shown a lengthy piece of footage leaked by Chelsea Manning. This footage was perhaps the most notorious and damning video material leaked by Chelsea Manning – footage of a US Army helicopter attack in Baghdad in which ten to twelve innocent Iraqi civilians were shot and killed by helicopter gunners who thought they saw weapons, which turned out to be cell phones and cameras. In the course of this footage, Army gunners repeatedly ask permission to open fire. “Come on, let us shoot!” one impatient gunner screams into his headset. Permission is eventually given. Ammunition rounds are fired, people fall dead in the street. Dust rises everywhere. “Fuck!” exclaims an Army gunner, “I was following that guy but lost him in the dust. He was headed for that building.”  

The shooting stops momentarily. Passers-by step forth to check on the fallen men. “Look at the dead bodies of those bastards,” exults an Army gunner. “We got ‘em good!” A van pulls up at the scene of the shooting, and dead bodies are placed in the van. The Army gunners think they see weapons being loaded in the van. They request permission to shoot at the van. Permission is granted. More ammunition rounds ring out. The van is disabled. “Got ‘em right through the windshield,” brags one Army gunner. “Good shot,” says another. “Thanks.” 

Rumor has it that the expressionless faces seen throughout The Source were shot while viewers watched this video footage of a misguided Army helicopter gunship’s killing of civilians in Baghdad. (I can’t confirm this rumor; but in retrospect it seems plausible.) When this grainy, black and white video footage of our US Army massacring civilians was over, The Source came to a close.  

House lights came on, and the audience sat there, stunned and unsure how to respond to what they had just seen and heard, much less how to respond to all the confusion and cacaphony that preceded this bit of leaked video material. Only when a male voice came over the intercom thanking us for coming to this event did the audience respond with polite, hesitant applause. It had been announced before the show that we were invited to stay afterwards for discussion with the creators of The Source. I passed up this invitation. As I said at the outset of this review, beware of artists who talk a better game than they show.