Google search results broke my heart this weekend.
Which was strange, since they didn’t include anything overtly sentimental. Lines were like: “Yes, we are open. Contact our consultants today.” And: “A reliable seasonal work force.” This is the kind of thing you get when you search for the “H-2A visa program,” which grants temporary admission to the United States for agricultural workers.
But set to soulful, almost vintage music by Ted Hearney on “Farming,” these sweet bits seemed to touch on the very essence of our country: its rapacious economy, broken immigration system, and corroding politics.
24 Singers performed it at Caramore in Westchester on Sunday the passagethe subtle and luminous chorus of new music conducted by Donald Nelly, was the sweetest, saddest song.
A suggestive, anarchically ambitious, and often poignant reflection on colonialism, consumerism, commercialization, entrepreneurship—you name it! – “Agriculture” reaches far beyond a Google search. The libretto is like a quilt It includes 17th-century letters written by William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, and 21st-century musings by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, as well as absurd out-of-context bits from UberEats’ Twitter feed and Farmer’s Fridge customer loyalty program. (“Green is the bonus coin in the farmer’s fridge,” the singers tweet furiously.)
He has also done such great works as “The Source” (based on the Afghanistan war logs leaked by Chelsea Manning) and “Voice from a seat” (which identified excerpts from Supreme Court proceedings), Hearn takes these unearthed coins and imbues them with music that moves from lush meditation to obsession and hyperrepetition—a visceral translation into the sound of the information overload that marks contemporary life.
The vocals are sometimes crisp and sometimes processed to an overdone AutoTuned “Alvin and the Chipmunks” automation. On guitars, keyboards, percussion and electronics, the six instrumentalists also shift from moody industrial rock and drones to tense, sugary pop. (He sometimes rests, as in “Search,” that Google section, somewhere in between.)
Not quite an hour out, the nine-part “Farming” is Hearne’s latest collaboration with Philadelphia-based Crossing, which he premiered a few weeks ago in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and has already toured the Netherlands before this performance at Caramoor, the first in New York. The threat of rain forced Sunday to move indoors and adapt the progressive design and complex sound.
Given the conditions, the production and sound were impressively polished. A QR code attached to the program linked listeners’ phones to the text library; Accessing it also involved logging into Caramoor’s Wi-Fi, which many in the audience apparently didn’t.
Without following the words, it would be nearly impossible to get any idea of what was going on in this non-narrative but intensely text-focused work. I’m not a fan of wasting paper, but this was a fitting occasion to print out typeface for everyone — and future iterations might want to experiment with the big titles.
And Ashley Tata’s surreal corporate parody, which put performers in bright orange, purple, and white uniform-type outfits, felt like it was too complex in a piece already full of it. Attempting to tie together the many thematic threads of action by enacting on stage what Hearne called “a new company, bolstered by quasi-religious zeal,” was disconcerting—though things might have been clearer in the original outward conceit.
While this piece is less distracting than Hearn’s latest major work, “Place,” and is a deeply personal reflection on gentrification, “Farming,” too, feels like a small bag in which there is always room for another idea. Perhaps the central pairing of Penn and Bezos, the pioneers—their enormous differences, their fundamental similarities—is more than enough topic here.
Penn’s quotes evoke some of the fundamental, irreconcilable tension of our country’s founding: his efforts to maintain good relations with the native population, on the one hand, and the commercial interests he wanted to expand, on the other.
How far does Bezos’ manipulative double rhetoric and lofty invocations of empowerment go by selling a break with Penn’s colonial promises? To what degree is it just a continuation of what were the sour lies in the beginning?
These are the huge, unanswerable questions that Hearn’s work has presented so vaguely and powerfully over the past decade, and his passionate and energetic music unleashed. I’ve found other bits here—the farmer’s refrigerator, Twitter fragments, and the stage—distracting from that smoldering central point.
However, I’d hate to lose “look”. And Hearne’s earnest passion, his eagerness to add as much as possible in each piece, became such a central feature of his art that it can hardly be seen as a weakness. Who is he.
Performed on Sunday in Caramoor.