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Ted Hearne's choral work 'FARMING' raises food for thought

Composer Ted Hearne's new choral work, <em>FARMING</em>, takes its texts from Jeff Bezos and William Penn to explore connections between farming, colonialism and capitalism.
Peter English
/
Courtesy of the artist
Composer Ted Hearne's new choral work, FARMING, takes its texts from Jeff Bezos and William Penn to explore connections between farming, colonialism and capitalism.

At a time when dining options range from fast food to farm-to-table, comes a new, nine-part song cycle called FARMING. The music raises provocative questions about our food supply, big agribusiness and this country's original, Native American farmers. The composer Ted Hearne, a two-time Pulitzer finalist, engaged The Crossing, the Philadelphia-based choir known for championing new music, to give the piece its premiere on a farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Another free performance is slated for Sunday at the Caramoor Summer Music Festival.

Critic Nate Chinen (also the director of editorial content at WRTI in Philadelphia) was at the debut performance and talked with NPR's Scott Simon about Hearne's flamboyant music and how it connects farming, colonialism and capitalism.


Scott Simon: What was it like to hear modern choral music on a farm?

Nate Chinen: In a word, wild. The Crossing is known for working in a contemporary style, but Ted Hearne turned that dial way up. This music is twitchy, allusive, often synthetic and surrealistic. It delivers what I can only describe as a full sensory overload.

The libretto pulls not only from Jeff Bezos and William Penn, but also the social media feed of Uber Eats and the FAQ page for a startup called Farmer's Fridge. The direction, by Ashley Tata, really leaned into the surreal — the singers wore bright neon costumes and the lighting cues and choreography all played up this idea of a complex machine gone totally haywire.

Haywire as opposed to hay bales. What was the idea behind making a piece about farming so high-tech?

Usually the word "farming" calls up a more rustic idea — and Kings Oaks Farm, the Bucks County site where the piece was premiered, actually fits that idyllic vision. But modern farming and agribusiness spell a much more complicated sort of reality — and that's before we begin to factor in all the networks and interventions that go into our food system, all the way up to the DoorDash guy who delivers your order. These are some of the considerations that Hearne wanted to bring into this work, while taking advantage of a really tactile sense of place.

Some of the words come from letters written by William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania and a Quaker leader. How does he fit into a piece about farming.

One important step along the path to the commonwealth of Pennsylvania was Penn's Treaty — an agreement with the Lenape people, promising a perpetual peace. And on one hand it's an admirable compromise — no bloodshed, right? But there's a paternalistic impulse there. It led to his sons negotiating the Walking Purchase, which appropriated 1.2 million acres of land from the Lenape. One of the sources that Hearne uses in his libretto is a letter that William Penn wrote to a friend, in which he says "My country was confirmed to me," referring to the British rulers. And also "My God has given it to me." There's a kind of entitlement there. William Penn has a pretty good reputation, as a Quaker and a pacifist — but as Hearne put it when we talked, "There is no good colonist." In the piece, his part is assigned to a soloist whose voice gets processed through an aggressive, dystopian digital filter.

Another major character is Jeff Bezos. How do we go from the 17th century to the patriarch, if you please, of online shopping?

These are the two founding fathers of the piece, so to speak. Ted Hearne's research led him to the work of a former farmworker, crop scientist and author named Sarah Taber, who got him thinking about the origins of the word "farming," which was all about the leasing of land, not the cultivation of crops. Hearne told me: "This piece really should be about that definition of the word and that it would, of course, have resonance on an actual farm — but that the settler colonialist mentality of someone like William Penn has a lot of resonances with titans of big business and billionaires who run giant tech corporations right now."

And on opening night — this was interesting — inclement weather forced the performance into a small airplane hangar on the farm, which actually resembled a warehouse or fulfillment center. And the singer playing Jeff Bezos made an entrance by rolling up in a John Deere buggy, singing a hilarious text, pulled from a Bezos keynote address: "What does this have to do with selling books? And the answer: I say / First of all / We also sell groceries."

What does the composer, Ted Hearne, and The Crossing hope might come of this collaboration?

I think they want to provoke thought. They want to entertain, and this piece certainly does. I haven't mentioned how funny and engrossing it is. But they also want to get us thinking about these issues. If you admire The Crossing, as I do, and if you admire Ted Hearne as I do, you probably already have some thoughts about the exploitation of Indigenous people and the industrialization of the food supply and the state of our of our environment and sustainability. These are all top of mind issues for many of us. So, what kind of change can they can they enact with this music? You can only fight your battle with the tools at your disposal. Maybe not plowshares into swords, but maybe plowshares into experimental choral music.

Tom Huizenga produced this digital version of the radio story.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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