When Kendrick Lamar was named the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for music, musicians of all kinds celebrated. The Pulitzer committee had suddenly widened the definition of good music and opened the prize to practitioners of hip hop, a vital contemporary form that reflects important, and often misunderstood, aspects of American culture.
Historically, the Pulitzer Prize for music has been awarded to classical composers. Just twice did the prize go to jazz players. As a result of this focus on classical music, the Pulitzer has shined a bright light on musicians far from mainstream commercial success, musicians who often struggle to secure a niche for themselves.
This year, because of Lamar’s win, the two other finalists — composers Michael Gilbertson and Ted Hearne — have enjoyed a bit more attention than usual. One of them, it turns out, has interesting South Carolina connections.
Hearne, a Chicago native who teaches composition at the University of Southern California, was in Charleston the first time in 2005, after meeting multi-instrumentalist Nathan Koci at a Bang on a Can event. That year he hooked up with local players associated with the now defunct New Music Collective — Koci, drummer Ron Wiltrout, flutist Jamie Self, guitarist Phillip White, pianist Laura Ball and others — and this led to some fruitful collaboration.
A bunch of early genre-bending crafted songs were recorded, with Charleston’s Bill Carson among the musical contributors, even as Hearne (an excellent singer himself) found ways to indulge his political concerns. Much of his work is informed by current events.
Hearne’s piece “23” got a hearing that year at Redux Contemporary Art Center. Then, in 2007, his “Katrina Ballads” was premiered at the Piccolo Spoleto Festival.
Wiltrout played on Hearne’s “Sound From the Bench,” a cantata for choir, electric guitars and drums, with texts drawn from U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments and inspired by the odd idea of corporate personhood. This is the work that caught the attention of the Pulitzer people.
Hearne’s work is a little hard to pin down. The Los Angeles Times characterized the composer this way: “No single artist embodies the post-genre Brooklyn scene, but Hearne may be its most zealous auteur.” He mixes styles, including pop, jazz and experimental music. It’s not strictly “classical” in the classic sense of the word. This is why he is so attracted to the Charleston music scene, he said.
“I found the jazz scene those guys had created, the gigging scene, really inspiring,” Hearne recalled. “It was so different than what was going on in New York City.” Musicians were versatile, could play in different styles. “I just loved that, it was really inspiring for me.”
It also suited his collaborative approach to writing, he said.
“I like to work with folks who I know,” Hearne explained. He wants feedback, he wants to try different things. “I really like to write something that challenges someone.”
Wiltrout and Koci, both adept at classical and popular styles, have become Hearne's regular musical partners, joining several recording projects and live performances. It was in Charleston, listening to lots of live music and talking shop with Wiltrout, when Hearne decided to incorporate more drums into his compositions.
Electric guitar also features prominently in many of Hearne’s pieces, thanks to his longstanding friendship with Taylor Levine, a roommate from college.
The Charleston connection extends to the visual art world. Through Jamie Self (who now is a journalist at The State newspaper in Columbia), Hearne met Self’s husband, artist Seth Gadsden, a College of Charleston graduate who helped get Redux started in 2002.
Gadsden was asked by Hearne and Philip White to create cover art for a new record the duo was making under the moniker R We What R We.
“That was my first introduction to Ted,” Gadsden said. “Ted absolutely loved it. He was gushing over it.” No wonder: it’s a striking image of a closed eye shedding tears of yellow, pink and blue, with the name of the project scrawled with eye-liner across the lid.
Gadsden went on to make images for three more Hearne record covers, including the Pulitzer-nominated “Sound From the Bench” album.
It’s work the artist looks forward to getting.
“‘I’ve got this thing going and I want to talk,’ Hearne will write,” Gadsden said. “It’s one of my favorite emails to get. ... It’s a true collaboration: He brings big ideas and challenges me to do really good work. I’m honored to be part of his process, because I really feel he’s doing something that nobody else does.”