Members of the Northwestern community filed into Galvin Recital hall on Friday, Feb. 3 to listen to the Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble (BCE) bridge the gap between government and music through Ted Hearne’s Sound from The Bench. These students challenged their audience to question the role of corporate money in politics and the broader role of the Supreme Court.
The five-section piece uses choral music to explore the role of the Supreme Court in American society. Hearne pilots this exploration through the lens of the Supreme Court’s landmark 2010 decision in Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission, using text from the book Corporate Relations by Jenna Osman. Citizens United found that the government could not regulate a corporation’s political spending.
Hearne also drew from the 1978 decision in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, which protected a corporation’s first amendment right to free speech.
Hearne and Bienen second-year and BCE student Emily Amesquita both said that finding meaning in this piece is up to the audience. But for Nally, the piece is about displaying evidence.
“[Hearne] and I do a lot of work together because while we feel really strongly about certain political issues, we also don't feel like we have the answers to them,” Nally said. “They're really complex issues. So instead we're presenting them. The whole score is just facts.”
BCE’s singers had the added opportunity – and perhaps challenge – of working with the composer himself. Amesquita said that working with Hearne allowed her to connect with the intentions of the piece.
“It’s just been meaningful to delve into the specifics of how he wrote this piece, what he meant for it to sound like, and how we can best fit that idea that he had, or still has in his mind,” Amesquita said.
At the end of a week working with Northwestern’s singers and instrumentalists, Hearne said that “It's incredible to hear the musicianship and dedication of these young musicians.” The Contemporary Music Ensemble will be playing another one of his pieces, Authority, this Friday at 7:30 p.m.
This isn’t Nally’s first time working with Hearne.
“I commissioned this piece back in 2014. I really love it. And I wanted to do it with my students when I felt the time was right,” Nally said.
With this year being Nally’s last at Northwestern and with the Supreme Court’s increased presence in public discourse, that time was now.
Nally noted that he often programs social justice pieces so that his students, both on stage and in the audience, can look at the link between real-world issues and music, emphasizing the ways language works with the music to bring these issues to light.
Amesquita said that Sound from The Bench is meaningful to her “especially now because we have this very recent, honestly traumatizing content from the Supreme Court in the verdicts that they've been releasing.”
BCE’s presentation is nothing like a classroom powerpoint. Their artistry shines throughout with highlights including their incessant chanting of “money money money money….”, Supreme Court Justice impersonations and a melodic section that Nally describes as sounding “a little wrong” because each verse is slightly off from the preceding verse to create an unsettling sound. Nally said that these uncomfortable moments are key to the piece.
“These topics are uncomfortable; there's something not right,” Nally said.
While the singers don’t have the answers to these questions, Nally highlighted the importance of the discourse that this performance created by asking questions that have complex answers. To him, this encompasses his passion for political music, creating art that encourages audiences to think and question the world for themselves.
“That art is really compelling to me, because that's how I think about the role of art,” Nally said.