Ted Hearne's choral work 'FARMING' raises food for thought : Deceptive Cadence The composer, in a new collaboration with the Grammy-winning choir The Crossing, uses the words of Jeff Bezos and William Penn to explore connections among farming, colonialism and capitalism.

Ted Hearne's choral work 'FARMING' raises food for thought

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Grammy Award-winning choir The Crossing is performing a new piece, a nine-part song cycle called "Farming." But this music is not a series of bucolic rhapsodies to rural life.


THE CROSSING: (Singing) For two pennies, you might pay someone to tell you whether there's one detail page for each product. I would have you well observe that I am very sensible.

SIMON: "Farming" was composed by the two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Ted Hearne, with words by Jeff Bezos and William Penn, among others. The piece debuted last month on a farm in rural Pennsylvania. Nate Chinen, the director of editorial content at member station WRTI, was there and joins us now from Philadelphia. Nate, thanks so much for being with us.

NATE CHINEN, BYLINE: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: What was it like, modern choral music on a farm?

CHINEN: In a word, it was wild. You know, The Crossing is - it's really well known for working in this modern, contemporary style. But Ted Hearne turned that dial all the way up. You know, this music is twitchy. It's elusive. It's, you know, synthetic and surrealistic. It delivers what I really can only describe as a total sensory overload. As you mentioned, you know, this libretto pulls from Jeff Bezos and William Penn, but also things like the Uber Eats social media feed and the FAQ page for a startup called Farmer's Fridge. And the director, Ashley Tata, really leaned into the otherworldly aspects in the production. You know, the singers wore neon costumes, and there was choreography and lighting cues. It all played up an idea of a kind of complex machine gone haywire.

SIMON: Haywire as opposed to hay bales.

CHINEN: Exactly.

SIMON: What was the idea of making a piece about farming so, if I may, garish?

CHINEN: Yeah. Well, I think for most of us, the word farming calls up this rustic idea, right? And The Crossing commissioned it to premiere on a farm in Bucks County, Pa., that fits that idyllic vision, really, to a T. But modern farming and agribusiness, that's a much more complicated sort of reality. And that's before we even begin to factor in all of the networks and the interventions that go into our modern food system, all the way up to the DoorDash guy who brings your order to the door. So these are some of the considerations that Ted Hearne told me he wanted to introduce in this work while taking advantage of a really tactile sense of place.

SIMON: As we mentioned, some of the words come from letters written by William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, Quaker leader. How does he fit into the libretto and a piece about farming?

CHINEN: Well, one important step along the path to the, you know, commonwealth was Penn's treaty - right? - an agreement with the Lenape people that promised a perpetual peace. And, you know, on the one hand, that's a really admirable compromise. There's no bloodshed, right? But there's also a paternalistic impulse in that, and it led historically to William Penn's sons negotiating the Walking Purchase, which - you know, it appropriated 1.2 million acres of land from the Lenape.

So one of the sources that Hearne uses in his libretto is a letter from William Penn to a friend in which he says, my country was confirmed to me, making reference to, you know, the British rulers and also, my God has given it to me, so there's a kind of entitlement there. And, you know, William Penn has a pretty good reputation in Pennsylvania and beyond as a Quaker, as a pacifist. But the way Hearne put it to me when we talked was, there is no good colonist. And so in the piece, the part of William Penn is assigned to a soloist whose voice gets processed through this aggressively dystopian sort of digital filter. You know, very weird.


THE CROSSING: (Singing) Country. Country. Country. Country.

SIMON: Let me ask you about another major character, and it's Jeff Bezos. How do we go from the 17th century to the inventor, the patriarch, if you please, of online shopping?

CHINEN: Right. These are the two founding fathers of the piece, so to speak. Ted Hearne's research led him to the work of a former farmworker and author and crop scientist named Sarah Taber. And she got him thinking about the origins of the word farming, which was actually all about the leasing of land, not the cultivation of crops. Here's how Ted put it.

TED HEARNE: This piece really should be about that definition of the word and that it would, of course, have resonance on an actual farm - what we know as a farm now - but that the - you know, the sort of settler colonialism mentality of someone like William Penn has a lot of resonances with titans of big business and billionaires who run, like, giant tech corporations, for instance, right now.

CHINEN: So on opening night, it was interesting. Inclement weather forced the performance from a field into a small airplane hangar on the farm, which was an interesting resonance because that space actually resembled a warehouse or a fulfillment center, you know? So the choir, in their neon, was in this space. And the singer playing Jeff Bezos made an entrance by rolling up in a John Deere buggy and singing this really hilarious text that was pulled from one of his keynote addresses saying, I get asked this all the time. What does this have to do with selling books? And the answer? I say, first of all, we also sell groceries.


THE CROSSING: (Singing) I say, first of all, we also sell groceries.

SIMON: I can imagine leaving the theater or the fulfillment center singing that tune. What does the composer Ted Hearne and The Crossing hope might come of this collaboration?

CHINEN: You know, we're talking about an avant-garde, new music piece for electric guitar, synthesizer and 24 voices - you know, not exactly pop music, right? So what kind of change can they enact with this music? Well, you can only fight your battle with the tools at your disposal, right? So maybe not plowshares into swords, maybe plowshares into experimental choral pieces. But, you know, if even one person in the audience thinks a little differently about our food system as a result of "Farming," I think the creators would call that a success.

SIMON: The Crossing will be at Caramoor, outside New York, for a free concert tomorrow afternoon. And then?

CHINEN: After Bucks County, they went into the studio and recorded this piece for an album. And I'm told that it'll be out next spring.

SIMON: Nate Chinen, director of editorial content at WRTI, thanks so much for being with us.

CHINEN: Thank you, Scott.


THE CROSSING: (Singing) So I, so I am hopeful. So I am hopeful.

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