I met Ted because my daughter wouldn’t stop talking about his son. They went to daycare together at the time (before Ted left us for Los Angeles!!), and she would come home talking about him every day, to the point where I realized, “We need to have this kid over.” Ted and his awesome wife Janina came, too, and we ate bagels and drank bloody marys and talked about living meaningful lives and it was, as Ted would later put it, “A great hang.” Fast-forward to a month ago when I got to see an amazing work of art that Ted composed as part of BAM’s Next Wave festival (I wrote about it here). It made me curious to know more about his creative process, how he managed to make a living as a composer and how he balanced art-making with fatherhood. Read on for his characteristically thoughtful answers — and do yourself a favor and check out his work at tedhearne.com (his Katrina Ballads about Hurricane Katrina are just stupendous — see a video of him performing the song “Brownie, You’re Doing a Heck of a Job” below).
When did you first know you wanted to compose music? Do you remember what led up to the realization?
I started writing music down when I was 9 or 10. Honestly I think I just liked banging on the keys of the piano more than actually practicing. My mom is an opera singer, so there was a lot of classical music around the house and she supported me in musical endeavors, and I dunno, at some point I started working on/caring about composing more than anything else.
Did you ever seriously consider doing something else for a living? If so – what was it, and what changed your mind?
My parents neither discouraged a career as composer, nor acted like it would be easily achievable. I think they did a good job in that regard. I never wanted to do anything else other than be a working musician, and I pretty much figured I’d just regroup if and when I determined failure was imminent.
I got into the Manhattan School of Music when I was 18, and from that point forward have been surrounded by musicians who were making it work for themselves. Classical music has a pretty strong infrastructure in place to support young musicians, and it’s a shame young people who play other styles of music don’t always benefit from the same kind of support.
How has becoming a father affected you as an artist?
That’s a great question that nobody has ever asked me. My kid, like yours, is just two. My identity as a dad is still definitely settling, and being a parent is definitely the most difficult thing I’ve ever tried to do.
When my wife was pregnant, I remember being really inspired by the interviews Louis C.K. gave about this subject. He said he was worried that he would never have enough time to create, but he found that the added time pressure helped his work time get much more focused. At this point I wish I could say that, or that having a kid has profoundly changed my perspective on art, but I’m not there yet; I just want more time to work and sleep.
What is the role of collaboration in keeping you inspired and in helping you execute on your work? Can you talk a little bit about the role of solitary work versus collaborative work in your creative process?
Collaboration is super important to me. So much about composing is stealing/appropriating/twisting/recycling other people’s ideas and filtering or presenting them in some different and hopefully individual way…. so I need other artists for inspiration, and for fodder. Also, it really helps me come up with material when I get a chance to work with the musicians that will be playing first. When I’m able to write for a person (not just an instrument), I can find ways to challenge a musician’s sensibilities, trends and prejudices.
The Source tackles a political subject in a tremendously original way. Same with your Katrina Ballads. What artists do you look to for inspiration when it comes to exploring politics in creative ways?
Thanks for the kind words! Some artists whom I love who have addressed real-world or politicized topics in beautiful, provocative and ambiguous ways are….. musicians like Charles Ives, Nina Simone, Kurt Weill, Talib Kweli, visual artists like Kara Walker and Hebru Brantley, and the poet Jena Osman. (Also Kanye West’s New Slaves is fucking brilliant in this regard.)
Art can navigate quite nimbly through fields of abstraction and layered or subversive association, which is why I think it has the potential to shed new light on topics that are familiar to the public discourse.
What is the hardest part of the creative process for you?
Beginning a new piece is the worst. I always feel rushed and stupid and bereft of ideas.
What are your habits as an artist — the things you need to do to keep yourself on track, both in terms of inspiration for new work and the discipline to execute on your ideas? What kinds of structure helps you create, and do you find that you also need lack of structure?
YES, I need lack of structure. I think my best stuff comes from knowing I can do anything I want, which forces me to create all my own musical limitations. (Also I hate getting up or arriving to anything on time and tend to resent any regularity in my day-to-day activities, even when it’s necessary and unavoidable, such as you have to pick up your kid from school at the same time every day.)(Editor’s note: ME TOO.)
Deadlines are one helpful structure, though. I appreciate deadlines, as annoying as they can be. (Editor’s note: YEP.)
I know a lot of people who struggle with committing to putting their art at the center of their lives, mostly out of fear that they won’t be able to pay the bills. Without asking you to divulge anything specific about your finances, can you offer any thoughts or guidance on the subject of actually earning a living through your art? How have you managed to not only compose but also get paid to compose?
Yeah, this is a really important issue for any artist. Fear is definitely a big factor in that struggle, and the fear of making the choice to pursue art as a full-time career is totally tied up in fear that the art you make won’t connect with (for whatever reason) a big enough audience to make this viable. Some artists need to find ways to access pre-existing audiences, and some are better off cobbling together new coalitions of existing ones, but the whole endeavor pretty much always needs to be rooted in a solid foundation of confidence and stick-to-itiveness to make it work. This sounds banal but it’s absolutely true. Do you believe in what you do? (you don’t have to be able to describe why yet, that takes like 20 years). Do you genuinely like the art you’re making and are you resolved to make it better? When you start, nobody gives a shit about your art besides you, so you really really really have to, and if you don’t, no one else ever will.
I’d also say versatility and a little humility with other people doesn’t hurt either. It took about 10 years of working as an adult to make the majority of my income as a composer, so I had to do lots of other jobs to supplement that. I tried my best to make those jobs as close to composing as possible, and always music-related — so they would help me develop skills I would need anyway.
What profession other than yours do you see people doing and find yourself feeling a little jealous?
Investigative journalism. (Another career that barely exists. I think there might actually be more employed composers in the world than employed investigative journalists.) But yeah, the real ones get the chance to change the world by showing the truth, and that’s pretty awesome.
What’s next for you?