LA Opera’s presentation of “The Source.” (Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)

“Smoke When Bird Nears” is a song composed by Ted Hearne for his oratorio “The Source.” The song’s title is a phrase taken from the “Iraq War Logs”—nearly 400,000 documents given by Chelsea Manning to WikiLeaks in 2010, the single largest leak of classified military documents in history.

“It refers to an air evacuation of injured soldiers, and they set up a signal flare when the helicopter approaches—the bird. It’s a super-poetic phrase,” Hearne says about the haunting passage toward the end of his latest work. “I set that against samples of “The Birds” from Alfred Hitchcock and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” to try to create as many possible cross references of the text and different possible contexts and interpretations of it as I can.”

Produced by Beth Morrison and directed by Daniel Fish, “The Source” premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014 to positive reviews, with The New York Times claiming “its lack of clarity is its greatest strength.” Hearne confirms he isn’t interested in clarity.

“Ambiguity is a virtue. I want our work to be ambiguous, so you can draw your own conclusions and live in it,” he told Truthdig. In fact, he said, when first confronted with the mass of material detailing roughly 110,000 deaths, most of them civilians’, his first impulse was to sing. “By singing it as a recitative of some sort, making a song out of little shards of the material, immediately I started to notice the words differently.”

The intention isn’t to muddle the story of Bradley (later Chelsea) Manning, the only son of alcoholic parents, but to pose questions and to generate empathy. Before the divorce, Manning’s father was a former naval intelligence analyst; Manning, who joined the military in 2007, also became an intelligence analyst when stationed in Iraq two years later.

Manning’s turning point came when he read about 15 detainees held by Iraqi police for printing anti-Iraq literature. He discovered that they had been pursuing a corruption trail that implicated government officials. When Manning reported this to his superior, he was told to help the Iraqi police find more detainees. After being ignored by media outlets such as the Times and The Washington Post, he contacted WikiLeaks.

“It’s not really a biopic, but we do set parts of the chat logs between [Manning] and agent Lamo that were released by,” said Hearne about Adrian Lamo, to whom Manning confessed. “It was a fascinating glimpse into what … Manning was going through at the time, right before he was turned in.”

Best known for his 2007 song cycle “Katrina Ballads,” the Los Angeles-based Hearne often mixes contemporary musical styles, collaborating with Erykah Badu on “You’re Causing Quite a Disturbance” and employing Auto-Tune technology in “The Source.” With a libretto by Mark Doten culled from Twitter feeds, cable news reports, testimony and transcripts, the oratorio is emblematic of Hearne’s process, which often includes working with random word scraps.

An esthetic cornerstone of “The Source” is the infamous “Collateral Murder” video of the July 12, 2007, Baghdad strike that claimed the life of several civilians, including two Reuters journalists. In director Daniel Fish’s minimalist vision, screens projecting close-up images of people watching the footage surround the audience.

“We don’t really explain it. Some realize it very quickly. Others don’t realize it till the end of the piece,” Fish noted about the audience. Are the viewers approving or not, complicit or not? And does that extend to we, the audience, watching the watchers? “That’s part of the narrative of the piece: the audience’s projection of meaning onto that statement.”

In 2013, the year Manning changed her name from Bradley to Chelsea and was sentenced to 35 years in prison, a Rasmussen poll showed 52 percent of Americans considered her a traitor, while a Tresorit poll taken a year later showed 55 percent felt National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden acted responsibly. This may be due to the fact that Snowden has been in the public eye, while Manning has been locked away, unable to explain her actions, or it may have to do with the way many view her journey toward gender reassignment surgery. Both whistleblowers took action to promote transparency in government, with some claiming Manning’s revelations led to the Iraqi government’s refusal to allow U.S. troops to remain beyond the 2011 deadline.

“Humanity has never had this complete and detailed a record of what modern warfare actually looks like,” Manning told Amnesty International. “Once you realize that the co-ordinates represent a real place where people live, that the dates happened in our recent history; that the numbers are actually human lives—with all the love, hope, dreams, hatred, fear and nightmares that come with them—then it’s difficult to ever forget how important these documents are.”

“The Source” plays at the REDCAT theater in Los Angeles through Sunday.


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