New music production gives voice to WikiLeaks informant

Chelsea Manning, formerly named Bradley, was convicted of sending classified documents to anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, June 15, 2014. — Reuters pic
Chelsea Manning, formerly named Bradley, was convicted of sending classified documents to anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, June 15, 2014. — Reuters pic

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NEW YORK, Oct 20 — A new artistic production aims to give new perspective on Chelsea Manning — serving a 35-year prison sentence for the biggest document leak in US — through an oppressive atmosphere of digital disorientation.

“The Source,” which premieres Wednesday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, is described as a “multimedia oratorio” by its creators who acknowledge there is no exact term to describe their strikingly unique take on the WikiLeaks informant.

The production makes music out of primary source material — including a web chat in which Manning explained her actions, as well as excerpts from some of the 700,000 classified documents the former Army analyst handed to the WikiLeaks website.

Four singers perform live, with their voices altered through a process similar to Auto-Tune, the device that keeps voices on-key, creating an eerie sound in which the performers appear to be in a duet with themselves.

One song is an a cappella performance of a leaked memo from the US embassy in Islamabad, with a digitally distorted voice singing that then-leader Pervez Musharraf is trying “to construct an alliance of moderate Muslim states,” followed by the voice, interjecting in a lower pitch, a US diplomat’s assessment of the progress: “Disappointing.”

Other songs, often accompanied by a mournful string section, but also with occasional rock and R&B interludes, feature technologically altered singing of WikiLeaks documents about violent episodes during the Iraq war.

- Messing with music’s role -

Composer Ted Hearne decided to draft the oratorio after attending one of Manning’s court-martial hearings and feeling that mainstream media coverage did not accurately portray the WikiLeaks source.

Hearne, who earlier composed the “Katrina Ballads” about the 2005 hurricane that devastated New Orleans, said Manning was falsely described as meek and confused, when in fact she took responsibility for her decisions.

“One of the amazing things about Chelsea Manning is that she was uncomfortable with all the roles she was supposed to play both professionally and also in terms of how she was supposed to act and how she was supposed to define herself,” Hearne told AFP.

“She decided that she was going to make a change,” he said. “I see a parallel with creating music that messes with the role that you’re supposed to play.”

The WikiLeaks source, who was earlier known as Bradley Manning, identifies as a woman and has sought gender reassignment treatment while serving her prison term.

“The Source” addresses the gender identity issue in the song “As a Boy, As a Boy,” in which a vocalist performs from Manning’s web chat with former hacker Adrian Lamo, who later reported Manning to authorities.

Manning writes — and, in “The Source,” sings — that he “wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life / If it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me plastered all over the world press ... as a boy.”

The song builds with a dueling cello and guitar as the words “What the girls call ...” drift in the background in a sample from Liz Phair’s 1993 feminist rock classic “Exile in Guyville.”

A new vantage point

“The Source” also attempts a portrayal of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has had far more opportunities to speak publicly than the incarcerated Manning.

“Julian in a Nutshell” focuses not on Assange’s own words but instead mashes together questions he has been asked in interviews.

The theme — how media shape the narrative — is also reflected in the setup of the production. Audience members and the singers sit together surrounded by videos on four walls, which show ordinary people’s reaction to the war footage leaked by Manning.

“It creates, in some ways, an oppressive kind of environment where we’re all being watched and are all watching,” said creative producer Beth Morrison.

US officials say WikiLeaks seriously impeded diplomacy and put at risk confidential sources, although the extent of the impact is hotly debated.

The creators of “The Source” did not reach out to Manning. Mark Doten, who wrote a libretto, said he did not want the production to be “propaganda” for one side.

But Doten said he would be fascinated to know how Manning would react.

Doten said that, while it was impossible to ignore the role of gender in Manning’s story, the oratorio aimed to shift the focus back to the documents.

“It’s hard to get your mind around 700,000 incident reports. It’s hard to figure out what exactly the narrative is and what they say about what the US is doing,” he said.

“It’s a lot easier to distort the thing and ask if Manning was crazy and if Assange was a criminal mastermind,” he said. — AFP

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