David T. Little: 'It's Not Just About the Art, It's About the Ideas'

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“Art is pure, right? Celestial. To soil it with base, terrestrial politics feels improper, even rude, especially when one considers just how awful politics really is,” wrote composer David T. Little last month in a blog for the New York Times’s Opnionator.

Examining the relationship between politics to music—and questioning whether such a relationship could exist—Little argued with fervid passion and sharp intelligence that music, and art, should “bear witness” to history. "In an Internet-saturated time…this sort of guerilla historian-ism is essential,” he concludes. “Though it might seem to pale when compared to the fervor of revolutionary music of the ‘30s and ‘70s, it nonetheless might be the most powerful tool we’ve got. At least until the next revolution.”

Tomorrow, Little puts his (musical) money where his mouth is as his 2006 work Soldier Songs receives its New England premiere with New Haven’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas. “The piece for the Times was really the result of many, many, many years of thinking about these ideas,” says Little, who also explored similar themes for his recent doctoral thesis at Princeton University. It also flows from the same river that churned out Soldier Songs, a work that nests comfortably between monodrama and staged song cycle and explores the personal and individual effects of army life.

Many new operas take center stage around the time of their world premieres, coming in guns blazing before fading away as quickly as they come. Produced by established companies who program works years in advance, new works are chancy, tenuous and riskier to some (as we have recently seen reiterated) than standard repertoire.

Soldier Songs, however, represents a new school of new works that gain traction via repeat—and often independently produced—performances, gradually taking shape over these varied productions and rooting themselves in the cultural consciousness beyond a flash in the pan. Over the last five years, Soldier Songs has been mounted several times over in New York, including performances at (Le) Poisson Rouge and through New York City Opera’s VOX. It has also been seen in Houston, allowing Little, in conjunction with opera producer Beth Morrison, to adapt and refine the work, gearing it up for this weekend’s performances which, in Little’s eye, will be closer to his initial concept.

“[In 2009] it sort of hit me what the piece was really about,” says Little. “I realized this whole ending of the piece, the last 15 to 20 minutes, deals heavily with PTSD; what it’s like to live with this condition.” Exploring this idea with Morrison, Little also sees this finale as how—in his words—Soldier Songs “should function in the world.

“It’s not just about the performance,” Little explains, adding that his hopes for the show include a close association with veteran communities, with the piece potentially serving as a form of therapy for veterans and their civilian families and friends. “It’s not just about the art, it’s about the ideas,” he adds, noting that the IFAI is a natural fit in that vein. (The larger theater space also benefits the work which, while a one-man opera with a septet orchestra, at times gets physically big, contrasting the grand, external aspects of war and its corresponding small-scale, internal implications.)

The work has also been therapeutic for the composer. Raised in a military-leaning family—his stepfather was military intelligence, uncles served in Vietnam and grandfather fought in World War II—Little was inspired to dive into Soldier Songs (then his largest undertaking) in the midst of a personal conflict he faced in high school. "As a teenager, I had these very clear-cut and absolute ideas about what was right and what was wrong in regard to war,” he explains. “And that didn’t leave any room for the fact that there are people who are fighting in it, in particular for me people who are family members or friends who enlisted after high school and wound up in Iraq or Afghanistan. I couldn’t reconcile these two positions and I needed to work through it.”

As he was confronting his own moral and political convictions, a teenage Little was also listening to protest music from the age of Woodstock and albums like Howl U.S.A. by the Kronos Quartet. Musically, many of these elements also make their way into Soldier Songs, which at one point even quotes a World War I protest song, “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier.”

Politics has made its way into other works by Little (such as “Sweet Light Crude,” which appears on the debut album of his ensemble Newspeak, which serves as the orchestra for this weekend’s performances) and is discreetly tantamount in Soldier Songs, which checks in with the same man over the course of his life and military career. To prepare for this work, Little interviewed numerous soldiers and veterans in order to present an honest portrait of their experiences, from childhood to enlisting to combat to the return.

“One of the things in the interviews that I conducted was time and again people would say, ‘You know, I’ve never talked about this to anybody. This is the first time I’m telling anybody these stories,’” says Little. The disembodiment and detachment many of his interview subjects—including family and friends—felt upon reentering civilian life is a major theme of Soldier Songs, and one that makes it a cathartic—and often tough—work. “It has this strange function of communicating stories that aren’t told much,” says Little.

Soldier Songs arrives in Connecticut in a complete package, once again starring baritone David Adam Moore, produced by Beth Morrison Projects, directed by Yuval Sharon. Todd Reynolds, for whom Little expanded on one interview to write the work And the Sky Was Still There (recorded on Reynolds’s recent album, Outerborough). Saturday’s performance also features a discussion of the music of war between Little and WNYC’s John Schaefer, furthering the ideas component of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas.

Though, even without a formal discussion, Little is obviously full of both. “I have this thing, this topic that is very complex and I can’t articulate what I think about it yet,” he says of the onset of Soldier Songs. “[Writing this] was a step towards figuring out what I think…which is how composition tends to be for me.”

Should music be political? Can it not help but be political? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.