“There’s certainly some anger in there,” says Ted Hearne, sitting back with a thoughtful grin and contemplating his 25-year-old self. Now one of America’s most in-demand composers, Hearne and I have grabbed half an hour between rehearsals in Miami where his latest commission is about to premiere at New World Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas’s prestigious state-of-the-art academy for graduate musicians. Integrated with documentary footage, Miami in Movements incorporates crowdsourced sound and video chosen from hundreds of uploads submitted by Miami residents. Questioning, celebratory, coolly eclectic, it deserves to be seen in Australia. Meanwhile, another work that thrives on primary-source texts, Katrina Ballads, (receiving its welcome Australian premiere in Freemantle as part of this year’s Perth International Arts Festival) is a more than ample substitute.

At 35, Hearne is not exactly about to start drawing his super, but in the decade since his seminal Katrina Ballads took the classical music world by storm – if you’ll pardon the pun – the Chicago-born composer, who has also been known to sing from time to time, has had opportunity to reflect on what it is that drives and defines his craft.

Hearne’s oratorio, a response to the devastating hurricane that hit New Orleans in 2005, sets to music the words of survivors, relief workers and politicians. Most famously it musicalises the moment when Kanye West told the world that George W. Bush didn’t care about black people, while effectively skewering the president by setting the moment when Bush went out of his way to praise the Federal Emergency chief, largely blamed for the lack of effective response to one of America’s most devastating storms.

Hearne, the son of an opera singer mother, grew up listening to baroque oratorios and singing in the Chicago Children’s Choir, a socially-aware youth ensemble that embraces music from all around the world with the purpose of teaching young singers about ‘difference’. Although he describes his upbringing as “unconventional”, he considers himself typical of composers of his generation who see no reason that classical music should not incorporate sounds, rhythms and influences from all sorts of non-classical music (around the time of Katrina Ballads Hearne was into Björk and Radiohead). “Although I like to write music down and write for classical instruments, the artists who mean most to me are not. They’re people who produce albums and people who perform live,” he says.

At the time Katrina hit New Orleans, Hearne was part of the hip, Brooklyn-centred contemporary arts scene in New York and asking himself the kinds of questions about his place and purpose in the world that, he says, all artists ask themselves around that age. It was the sheer impact of the hurricane that made Katrina Ballads such a deeply personal project for him. “I was 23 at the time and living in New York,” he recalls. “I remember being shocked and appalled and sad, and feeling this immense distance like I’d never felt before. That event didn’t awaken my political conscience and my consciousness of the history of racism and inequality in America – I’d been thinking about that from High School – but it was amazing how stark the reality was. The images that we saw, and the incredible distance I felt between my privileged life and the lives that these people were living – people literally trapped in this city and not receiving any Government assistance – was astounding and angering. I spent a year trying to figure out what to do with those feelings.”

Hearne’s first step was to explore the Kanye West soliloquy, “I had a lot of feelings about what he said, not just the soundbite that became famous. His whole delivery was very emotional. He’s someone who presents himself in a pretty cool way, and this was not that at all. This was someone very nervous and wound up and I felt like there was something underneath the surface that was making me feel something. Writing his text down and singing it through helped me come to some level of understanding that I hadn’t had by just reading and watching it.”

Hearne also felt strongly that although he loved New Orleans, he wasn’t from New Orleans. “The images that we saw were largely people who don’t look like us and don’t have lives like us,” he says. “I suppose – and I think I’m way better at this now – I was trying to get at my actual experience. I mean, it did fuck me up – it fucked up a ton of people in America – and I’m not saying I went through what these people went through – but there was a sort of awakening of American consciousness and a real sense that it was impossible to ignore, even as far away as New York.”

One of the Katrina settings is taken from the fourth day of news coverage when CNN reporter Anderson Cooper was interviewing smooth-talking Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu. When, after several pat answers, she thanked George W. Bush for his “strong statements of support and comfort”, Cooper finally blew his top. “I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated,” he erupted. “And when they hear politicians thanking one another, it just, you know, it kind of cuts them the wrong way right now. Because literally there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats, because this woman had been laying in the street for 48 hours. And there’s not enough facilities to take her up. Do you get the anger that is out here?”

“There were warnings that a hurricane was coming,” Hearne explains. “Everybody knew the dangers in these low-lying areas. The first movement of the piece came from a newspaper article that was written a few months prior talking about the three greatest potential threats to American cities that included a terrorist attack and this hurricane that could hit New Orleans. So, it wasn’t about unpreparedness as much as about what were our priorities as a country.”

Perhaps the most commented upon movement in Katrina Ballads is Hearne’s hyper-animated setting of a single phrase notoriously delivered by Bush. Standing next to FEMA Chief Michael Brown, the man many blamed for the poor response to an emergency of unprecedented proportions, Bush casually went off script with the line, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” As the TV cameras rolled, the footage of the thousands of survivors sheltering in the New Orleans’ Superdome with little food or water painted a different picture. A week later, Brown was forced to resign.

“That soundbite – and we heard it over and over again – sort of became a symbol for the failure of the Federal Government’s response,” says Hearne. “First of all, there’s the question of why this one phrase is so infuriating, and it was infuriating to a lot of people because you couldn’t believe he had said this. But also, he wouldn’t have said it if he’d known how it was going to be interpreted, and to me that gets to the total distance – the fundamental gap – and captures his inability to communicate.”

“I thought about it again when at some point Bush came out and said that one of the worst moments of his presidency was Kanye West saying he doesn’t care about black people, and that hurt him so much and that’s so not true and all that stuff. But of course he would never say he doesn’t care about black people, of course he cares about black people – in one sense – but then, of course, in another sense he does not.”

Katrina Ballads premiered in 2007 and was revived in 2008. When a production was put together for New York’s Poisson Rouge, Bill Morrison came on-board to create a film to run simultaneously with the oratorio (as it will be seen in Perth) and the work went on to be awarded the 2009 Gaudeamus Prize for composition. More primary-text work followed for Hearne, most notably with 2014’s The Source, in which he set texts gleaned from classified documents of the Iraq and Afghanistan War Logs alongside the words of Chelsea Manning, the U.S. Army private who passed them on to WikiLeaks. His 2015 vocal work, Coloring Book, is inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and sets texts by three American writers – James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and Claudia Rankine. The New York Times included The Source on its list of the best classical vocal performances of 2014.

Hearne, who a year ago moved to Los Angeles to join the composition faculty at the University of Southern California, is certainly sought after. Recent and upcoming commissions include orchestral works for the San Francisco Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic with smaller-scale pieces planned for eighth blackbird (who recently toured Australia for Musica Viva) and new-wave vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth.

American online magazine Pitchfork has praised Hearne for writing “some of the most expressive socially engaged music in recent memory — from any genre” and he’s certainly conscious of his credentials as a liberal composer writing his “bourgie art pieces” as he self-deprecatingly puts it. “I am really happy about the Black Lives Matter movement and the way it’s being run in a smart way,” he says to illustrate the point. “White Supremacy and racist ideology are baked into the fabric of our society, so of course it’s under attack. I still have my anger issues, I’m still troubled, for sure. I think that when classical music is used primarily for comfort and even for escape it is in danger of allowing a certain class of people to separate themselves off. I always get asked these questions about why I would use something political, and something of our time, and I never understand. I mean, why not? What is the purpose of art? Why is there such a fear, especially in this type of music, to engage with the world outside?”

Katrina Ballads in Perth will be Hearne’s first trip to Australia, a journey he is looking forward to. “It’s been really interesting to see another generation of performances of this piece. When we did it with the original band we were all in our mid-20s. It’s very different now when people in their mid-20s do it. Sometimes we do it for people who are even younger than that and they don’t know what Katrina was at all. That means they can put these words into a different context. Like any piece of art, it becomes part of our historical awareness.”

Katrina Ballads is at Freemantle Arts Centre on February 15 as part of Perth International Arts Festival