Who Watches the Watchers Watch? – Review: The Source

The Source, an opera oratorio meditation on the Bradley/Chelsea Manning/Wikileaks scandal is not at all what I expected it to be, and that’s a good thing. Composer Ted Hearne takes a ripped from the headline subject and treats it with a probing intelligence and artistry that largely ignores the low-hanging, and ultimately flavorless fruit that would tempt a ‘war is bad’ polemicist. Instead, the piece is a bounty of contemplations, and, like the volumes of information Manning unleashed, difficult to summarize or reduce. Amongst the ideas explored: identity, anonymity, what it is to watch, what it is to be watched, the nature of secrecy, the ubiquitous nature of information and popular culture, the difference between public information and private information, the difference between how you see yourself and how others see you, the difference between raw information and processed information, the tension between a lone voice and a crowd of voices, gender, culpability for one’s actions, culpability for actions carried out in your name. This is less a piece about an event as it is a piece about what it is to be a person in an increasingly connected, flexible, intrusive world. It may well be the first transhuman song cycle…

The music is unlike any I have ever heard. Heavily amplified and processed, many movements borrow liberally from popular music instrumentations and conventions, lending an immediate appeal despite the complexity of the writing. Autotune is used liberally throughout, the most effective use of the effect I’ve experienced. In addition to the robotic, digitalized sheen it lent, it allowed for the singers to perform impossibly complex duets with themselves, notably in [we called for illumination at 1630], where the solo voice, accompanied by its own digital simulacra, builds to an impassioned crush of tone clusters. The quartet of singers (Melissa Hughes, Samia Mounts, Isaiah Robinson, and Jonathan Woody) were uniformly phenomenal as were all the musicians involved. Beth Morrison has again managed to assemble a remarkable group of collaborators.

The text of the movements (thoughtfully curated by Mark Doten) alternate between excerpts from the material Manning leaked, media coverage of the scandal, and private chats between Manning and Adran Lamo, the former hacker who ended up betraying Manning’s trust. Designed by Jim Findlay and Daniel Fish, the audience is placed in seats evenly distributed throughout the space, half of the audience watching the other half. The room is surrounded by screens, upon which is projected large heads of people watching and reacting, although it’s not clear exactly to what. The singers are distributed amongst the audience, sometimes lit, sometimes in darkness. We watch them watching us watching the screens watching… us?: an uneasy ouroboros of observation.

Anyone with a trace of empathy will be affected by watching faces of those obviously affected themselves, even without any exact knowledge of what the source of that emotion is. In conjunction with vocal music that is somehow plaintive in its dispassion (an effect also achieved by David Lang’s Pulitzer winning Little Match Girl Passion), and at times ecstatically layered, it is hard not to be overwhelmed, transformed, as if we are experiencing an erasing of boundaries, an ever so slight dissolution of self, a glimpse of a collective mind. As the last notes faded, I was convinced of the unmitigated success of the evening…

(ahem. SPOILER ALERT…)

But while the composition may have been over, the performance wasn’t. The director saw fit to add a coda. Without comment or explanation, the screens showed the collective audience the footage that the projected faces had all been responding to, raw footage of a military strike outside of Baghdad that resulted in the death of two Reuter’s correspondents.

My first reaction was that this was a colossal misstep, that it reduced the entire evening’s experience to the brain dead “war is bad” moralizing that I had feared. And I’m certain that for many an audience member, that’s exactly as it should be. But upon further reflection (and I have been reflecting on it for many hours now), one’s response to the footage, unedited and largely un-notated, says much more about oneself than it does about the footage or the rightness or wrongness of the events that it (allegedly?) portrays. You’ve spent the prior hour awash in mediated, transformed, vicarious, communal experience. With this stark coda, you’re confronted with the unprocessed world and left alone with your response to it. Now yours is the face on the screen. Without the coda, I would have likely been on my feet, applauding the night’s events. With it, the entire room sat in stunned silence as the lights came up. It was several minutes before a light smattering of unwelcomed applause broke us from our respective solitary confinements, and even then, not very successfully.

I’m still wrestling with this piece. I want to hear it again. Soon. It’s moving, daring, difficult, and perhaps even important. With or without the coda, there is something to be learned here, something to be understood. Like knowledge that can’t be unlearned, the continued evolution of the very concept of privacy is a door that humanity will soon be unable to close.

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