Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble performs ‘Sound from the Bench,’ blends corporate personhood with music


Daily file photo by Daniel Tian

The Bienen School of Music. Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya will be the school’s convocation speaker this year.

Iris Swarthout, Senior Staffer

A single note set the tone as Galvin Recital Hall’s dim lights illuminated the stretched image of a puppet on screen. Singers wearing black breathed, “Don’t sound obvious” as percussionist Ron Wiltrout clashed with an accentuated beat.

Ted Hearne’s “Sound from the Bench” is a five-act performance linking music to the legal proceedings surrounding corporate personhood. It is based on Jena Osman’s “Corporate Relations,” a poetic analysis of the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case. The case granted Citizens United — a conservative non-profit organization — first amendment rights, akin to an individual person, in the legal realm.

Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble, a specialized vocal group for advanced choral singers, performed alongside Wiltrout and guitarists Taylor Levine and James Moore on Feb. 3.

Bienen sophomore Emily Amesquita stood in the alto-1 section. After receiving the score in December and listening to the recording, she had doubts about the performance.

“Each time (the melody) comes back, it’s offset by a 16th note, so you’re reading the same notes, but it feels and sounds really different in the context of the line,” she said. “That was initially really daunting.”

Alternating rhythms and harmonies define “Sound from the Bench,” proving an unruly and untouched ground for the ensemble, according to recent Grammy Award winner and BCE conductor Donald Nally.

Nally said this rang true in the buildup to the performance.

“Ted’s music is asking a lot of questions about what music actually is, and he has a lot of questions about genre and style by mixing (them),” Nally said. “I wouldn’t say (BCE has) ever done anything like it because I don’t think there’s another piece like it.”

For instance, the second movement “Mouth Piece” begins with a run of notes that gradually accelerates into the drum’s steady clash.

Bienen second-year doctoral student conductor and tenor-singer Jack Reeder said the band added to the noise of the piece meaningfully — though sometimes, the through beat didn’t align with the singer.

“It was kind of a joy to figure out where you should be listening when you’re singing,” Reeder said.

The increased affordance of rights to corporations is integrated into the piece by comparing ventriloquism — as the corporate body — to the human voice, according to Hearne.

He said his inspiration for the piece was years in the making.

“I’ve been really interested in the rightward tilt of the (Supreme Court) ever since it developed its political consciousness,” Hearne said. “I feel like there’s a type of interpretation and a type of language to use by the right-wing legal minds and right-wing legal circles right now that is really about neutralizing and obliterating human identity.”

By the third movement of the piece, “Ch(oral) Argument,” a deep set of voices rings out across the hall, amplifying the supposed voice of Chief Justice John G. Roberts to the words “we will give you time for rebuttal.” In response, there is a sliver of higher notes trill a steady “haha.”

Eerie melodies seemingly align with the performances’ exemplification of corporate darkness. Amesquita said “Sound from the Bench” does a strong job of musically representing injustices within the courtroom.

“With what is going on in the Supreme Court right now, there has been a (negative) impact on a lot of people,” Amesquita said. “I have started taking away an ability to think more critically about the world we’re living in and the role we’re playing in it.”

Finally, the percussionist reaches a solo that trickles into a harmonious meeting of voices, accompanied by a gray-smudged screen and then — silence.

The performers bow and head off as the crowd gives a standing ovation and Hearne makes an appearance onstage. Nally gives a bow and a smile before presenting the ensemble to the audience once more. The performance comes in Nally’s final year at Northwestern before retirement.

“I’m glad I was able to program this before I left,” Nally said. “I love working with the students, and I knew they would get (the piece).”

Reeder said the energy in the air was “laden with excitement” after the last chord rang out.

Some rehearsals left him exhausted, he added, making the culmination of months of hard work into the performance much more meaningful.

“It was just a joy to sing,” Reeder said. “I think the students felt very energized and encouraged by the performance, and the band is also just a hoot and a half.”

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Twitter: @swarthout_iris

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