Ted Hearne – Katrina Ballads (2010)

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In the late 1970s, Chanel, Inc. took a bold step in advertising for their flagship fragrance, Chanel No. 5. Employing a cool bland of arthouse elan and surreal literary images, the campaign set a new standard for advertising creativity. The Ridley Scott-directed “Share the Fantasy” ad — “I am made of blue sky and golden light…and I will feel this way forever” remained in viewers minds for years to come.

You might not think that there would be much of an intersection between a natural disaster and the world of television advertising, but hurricane Katrina managed to push the envelope of human suffering and non-entertainment surrealism. The stream of images was endless — from people stranded on rooftops to bodies floating down fully submerged streets. The stories amplified the darkness that descended over the shattered lives — certain deaths, disappearances of loved ones, houses destroyed, rising anger at the failure of plans (and the inevitable finger-pointing that followed). The sense of hopelessness and despair was overwhelming.


Observing this from afar was surreal enough. My heart went out to all involved. Not long after the incident, I read an article describing the efforts to round up people who were determined to stay in their homes, despite the unsafe conditions. One man had already lost his wife, and the rescue personnel were trying to convince him to get in their boat. The man didn’t want to leave his dog behind. In the end, he did walk away from his storm-ravaged house…and his dog. Your wife? Your home? And your dog? There’s almost nothing left. I’m not sure I could have stepped into that boat.

Ted Hearne’s Katrina Ballads brings back all of the tragedy and all of the surrealism inherent in such an epic event. Written for an ensemble of eleven musicians (piano, horns, woodwinds, strings, electric guitar, bass, and drums) and five voices, the work uses as source material many of the words we came to identify with Katrina. With quotes from Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, Anderson Cooper, Senator Mary Landrieu, Barbara Bush, George Bush, and Kanye West, the unhinged nature of the event is brought back into full relief. Yes, it was not easy to forget things like “Brownie, you’re doin’ a heck of a job” (President Bush) and “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” (Kanye West). I tried to forget them, but they wouldn’t go away. And maybe they shouldn’t.

Perhaps the most moving Katrina Ballads piece is “Hardy Jackson 8.30.05.” This, from an interview on ABC Television:

My wife, I can’t find her body, she gone.
The house just split in half.
We got up the roof and the water came and just opened up, divided.
I held her hand tight as I could and she told me “you can’t hold me.”
She said, “take care of the kids and the grandkids.”

Surreal, indeed.

The musical presentation is wide-ranging and provides a wealth of commentary via sly aural asides. The opening “Prolog: Keeping Its Head Above Water” features mezzo-soprano Abby Fischer singing words from the Houston Chronicle, set to music that morphs from minimalist soundscape (the spooky piano string-rake at the start) to a kind of chamber jazz to a moving and scary vocal presentation that uses the word “lulled” (from “To some extent, I think we’ve been lulled to sleep”) as a pivot point. Fischer completes the sentence and then the complement of voices begin to sing “lulled” using an dark, descending ostinato. Fisher repeats the entire sentence over this and the resultant harmonic collisions are stunning.

The choices of musical “density” are quite interesting. The conversation between Anderson Cooper and Mary Landrieu is presented mostly in acapella, while “Brownie, You’re Doing A Heck Of A Job” reminds the ear of Philip Glass if that composer took a short step away from his signature repetition. At the less serious end of the scale is “Barbara Bush: 9.5.05,” again sung by Abby Fischer and accompanied by a slightly goofy country swing. Kanye West’s comments need rock, third-stream jazz, and a kind of busted Thelonius Monk vamp. They needed all of that, though I’m not sure they deserved it.

There so many intriguing moments on Katrina Ballads that it’s difficult to take them all in during a single session. The first run through, lyric sheet in hand, was more than enough to bring back all of those memories, both of the actual weather event and of the successes and tragic failures to follow. Clearly, this the kind of work that will reveal more of its inner detail as time passes. It will make you remember, even if you don’t want to.

Katrina Ballads debuted at Charleston’s Piccolo Spoleto Festival in 2007. To commemorate Katrina’s 5th anniversary, this recording will be released on August 31, 2010.

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at [email protected]
Mark Saleski
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