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Cracking the Code: David T. Little

Melissa Smey

Miller Theatre commissioned writer Lara Pellegrinelli to create this season’s Composer Portraits program notes, as well as a series of Q&As with Executive Director Melissa Smey. Here is the seventh installment, centering around our upcoming evening of music from composer David T. Little

Q. David T. Little, who has the final Composer Portrait of the season, comes to music from playing percussion.

A. He grew up playing drums in punk and death metal bands. I really like him so much. He’s the kind of person I wish I’d known in high school because we would have been pals. Do you know what I mean? Then you go your separate ways and they grow up to be someone really famous. He’s got a sense of humor.

Photo by Matt Zugale

Q. And yet the subject matter for his pieces is so very serious—like the opera Dog Days, which is set in post-apocalyptic America.

A. Yes, David’s known for opera: really big pieces, giant performing forces, broad in scope, serious subject matter. Haunt of Last Nightfall, which is for percussion quartet, has to do with ghosts and a brutal event involving government forces in El Salvador. Third Coast Percussion commissioned this piece. We've worked with them quite a lot, we love them, and they have an amazing affinity for David's music. 

"David’s known for opera: really big pieces, giant performing forces, broad in scope, serious subject matter." 

He thought quite a lot about what we should pair with that. In the end we decided on Agency, which will be played by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME). Those two works have never been on the same concert before. 

Q. The Kronos Quartet commissioned Agency and now ACME has picked it up and started playing it. Is it a New York premiere?

A. Yes, it’s a New York premiere, and it’s continued to have a life, which is great for the piece. ACME was a perfect match for this program. David’s in a similar orbit with Caleb Burhans, their violinist and composer. They’ve worked together in the ensemble David co-founded, Newspeak. 

The piece was inspired in part by spy agencies and has secrets embedded in the score. David said that he’s going to have to do a little detective work to unearth all of his codes and hidden messages so he can impart them to ACME. I like the idea that it's kind of like a musical escape-the-room, a puzzle. It’s full of intrigue. I’ve seen the piece on video, but I so want to experience it in person. There's a physical component to seeing it in a space.

Q. I’ve only recently begun exploring his works and came across “and the sky was still there” on Todd Reynold’s Outerborough on Spotify. I meant to play just the beginning but sat there riveted. David’s vocal parts are written as if the person is speaking directly to you.  

A. There's something so essentially human about it, an immediacy, which is perhaps why his pieces can be so unsettling. Which is also why opera is so compelling for people. It was a language that you understood and included tropes of the day, so it felt relevant and familiar.

"Like others of his generation, I think he’s especially driven by stories that he wants to tell and his desire to communicate with audiences."

Q. David T. Little is known for opera. This season you also did Missy Mazzoli’s opera Proving Up; Kate Soper’s Ipsa Dixit, which we could call an opera. Du Yun won the Pulitzer for her opera and Tyshawn Sorey has written Perle Noire on Josephine Baker. Why do you think opera has been such an important genre for this generation of composers?

A. I think opera is simply compelling as a genre. It’s the most maximus endeavor. Right now, there's a real proliferation of chamber opera. Composers seem to be extending the form into a smaller format that gives it more immediacy, which is appealing. With Missy’s opera, there’s no question that it's written today and not 40 years ago or 100 years ago, but she's got a really show-stopping aria for the soprano.

Likewise, David has really cracked the code of how to write opera for audiences now. It's new music, there’s a modern score, but there are components that work for a more traditional audience. Perhaps he’s using opera as a cultural sign that he should be taken seriously, but he’s also proven his interest in activism and social justice. Opera is a perfect medium in which to explore that. Like others of his generation, I think he’s especially driven by stories that he wants to tell and his desire to communicate with audiences. 

>> Learn more about David T. Little's upcoming Composer Portrait

Related Composer Portrait posts:

8 Questions to Executive Director Melissa Smey About Composer Portraits

Bringing Kate Soper’s IPSA DIXIT to Miller

Building the Unique Universe of Du Yun's Composer Portrait

More People Need to Know About Wang Lu

Why is John Zorn so important?

How Tyshawn Sorey’s Portrait Came About