Explore Program Notes

Composer Portraits: David T. Little

Miller Theatre commissioned writer Lara Pellegrinelli to create this season’s Composer Portraits program notes, featuring a snapshot of each composer in words through exploration of the many possible meanings of the term “practice.”

“Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire”  —Martha Graham
“It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.”  —Mark Twain

https://tyshawnsorey.com/

Photo by Matt Zugale for Miller Theatre

Much of Weehawken, NJ perches on cliffs high above the banks of the Hudson River. Picturesque old Victorians, the kind with welcoming front porches, line winding streets, their backyards dropping off into oblivion. Somewhere down below, Founding Father Alexander Hamilton was mortally wounded on the grassy ledge that once served as the dueling grounds. Looking out from the monument that marks his deadly encounter with Aaron Burr—including the boulder on which he laid his head while dying—Manhattan looms large across the chasm, a metropolis with its own sheer verticality rising up out of grey waters.

David T. Little, a composer with an affinity for politics and history, appreciates the neighborhood for its peculiar kinship with the past. (He’s also able to direct me to the nearby house of late jazz patron Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, where Thelonious Monk once lived—an unexpected bonus. “It’s the only Brutalist structure around,” he tells me, “which makes it hard to miss.”) Little’s home studio, which he shares with his wife, clarinetist Eileen Mack, and their black cat Lola, is nestled on the third floor of one such Victorian, under the eaves of a roof with numerous peaks and angles. Mack custom built Little’s desk to fit into a niche overlooking the street, a kind of compositional crow’s nest. An enormous portrait of Stravinsky oversees his labors, a departure from the apartment’s otherwise dark and whimsical decor.

Little, who turned 40 last fall, has become increasingly known as a composer of operas, works that take on broad, universal themes: Soldier Songs (2006) explores cycles of trauma; Dog Days (2012), civilization and its demise; JFK (2016), fate and mortality; Vinkensport, or The Finch Opera (2018), rivalry and desire; and Artaud in the Black Lodge (premiering in 2020), madness and the subconscious. “Some artists respond to the brutality of their historic moment by leaning into dark subject matter in an attempt to transcend it,” says Little, referring to French dramatist Antonin Artaud and the other artists who inspired this latest work: William S. Burroughs, Aleister Crowley, Hermann Nitsch, Anaïs Nin, and David Lynch, among them. But Little might as well be speaking about himself.

An expert at precisely this kind of leaning in, he calls his work on these projects “all consuming.” He attends to the creation of only one opera at a time—at the moment, a commission by the Metropolitan Opera/Lincoln Center Theater New Works program with librettist Royce Vavrek. On his writing days, Little can spend as many as ten hours composing.

“I tend to write until I’m stuck on something, then I take a break,” he says, letting me in on some curious work habits. “I like to read the news to clear my head. I’ll take a look at The Hill to see what disaster is brewing in Washington today. Then I’ll check CNN and Breitbart.” This cycle, a kind of mental rinse-and-repeat in which he triangulates a variety of sources on breaking news, might happen five or six times in the course of a day. He treats it like a game. “This is the event,” he explains, “What are the various takes on the event? What else can I deduce about the event itself based on what I know about the political players and media bias?”

Little’s ability to shift between multiple perspectives is one of his great strengths as a storyteller, enabling him to render characters that fully inhabit their own points of view, like the five members of the dysfunctional family that populate the post-apocalyptic world of Dog Days. It has also equipped him to find unusual angles on stories we think we know well. For example, JFK approaches the Kennedy assassination—the single event most written about in world history—from the banal, less familiar activities that occupied President Kennedy and Jackie during the final evening and morning of his life: a speech on military spending, a night in Suite 850 of the Hotel Texas, and an address to the Fort Worth Chamber of Congress. Although the approach is counterintuitive from a dramatic standpoint, it leaves ample room for imaginative and hyper-real personal drama. 

"'JFK' Envisions an Operatic Ending for Camelot," The New York Times, 13 April 2016

“I have a connective brain,” says Little. “I’ll take in 20 different things and I won’t know why. Then the 21st thing will connect them all. That’s what happened with Haunt of Last Nightfall,” one of two pieces on tonight’s program. After being commissioned by Third Coast Percussion, Little found himself struggling with the subject matter—until he happened upon a reference to the 1981 massacre in El Mozote, El Salvador.

Because the musical forms in which Little composes are so large, he has no choice but to begin writing before he knows how his materials will ultimately come together. Learning to feel his way through an expanding tangle of references has proven a vital skill in developing his compositions while they are very much works-in-progress.

“You can’t see what the piece is,” he explains. “When I finished Dog Days, which was the longest thing I’d ever written at that point, I realized that I couldn’t mentally conceive of it all at once—which was a unique experience. It’s like trying to see all of Manhattan from the cliff above the river: you can’t. You can see a lot of it, but you can’t see all of it. It’s too big and you’re too close. So you have to trust it’s there. And that’s become a metaphor for my practice in working on these large pieces.”

"As a composer, practice has become learning to trust in my instincts and training, while trying to make sense of what I cannot yet know."

Little’s affinity for musical theater—and for drums, his instrument—started at an early age. He grew up in Blairstown, a tiny farm town in western New Jersey. At the age of eight, he joined a fife and drum corps in nearby Hackettstown, learning Revolutionary and Civil War military repertoire on a rope tension snare. His father, an amateur musician, played guitar and drum set. His mother danced; the two had met in a college production of West Side Story (and the cast recording of Camelot was a family favorite).

Little attended his share of local amateur and professional theater productions, like those at the storied Papermill Playhouse. His family lived close enough to New York City for him to see many Broadway hits of the 1980s, including Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, and Rent. He remembers those productions as “magical.” It’s hard not to smile thinking of Little portraying Audrey II, the plant in Little Shop of Horrors, or the freewheeling Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls in his own high school shows. Being onstage helped him learn what he calls “the metabolism of theater, the connection between the ways characters move with the sense of musical time.”

As a teenager, Little also played percussion in the school’s symphonic band under a director, who, improbably but thankfully, agreed to Little’s request to improvise his parts; he has never cared for the conventional rigor of practice as rehearsing. His proclivity for invention led to him arranging for the marching band’s drumline. Although Little would go on to major in percussion at Susquehanna University, a liberal arts school north of Harrisburg, PA, most of his activities as a performer would support his work as a composer from that point forward.

He founded Newspeak, a free-improvisation trio in which he served as the drummer, while earning his Masters of Music in Composition from the University of Michigan. He then reformed the group in its current configuration—an eight-member, amplified ensemble with Eileen Mack as co-director—when he was a doctoral student at Princeton. Named for the fictional, thought-limiting language of George Orwell’s 1984, Newspeak makes its mission to “reconsider, redefine, and ultimately reclaim the notion of socially engaged music and its place in contemporary society.” (Befittingly, Little wrote his dissertation on the intersection of music and politics.)

Irrespective of its ideological focus, Newspeak has served decidedly practical purposes, like the handful of other ensembles started by Little’s generation of composer/performers, Wet Ink and Victoire among them. An invaluable resource, it allowed him to test musical ideas and practice keeping the faith while knitting together those large musical objects; Newspeak eventually served as the backing band for Soldier Songs and Dog Days. In terms of sound, that meant experimenting with the rhythmic language of rock as embodied by his drum set in the context of new music. Although Little no longer performs, he is still grateful for the decade he spent playing with the group, because it helped him “contextualize what my job was as a composer in relation to the performers who I was writing for.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that Little’s music can groove, moving in ways that are at once loose and spring-loaded, or that his affinity for theatrical forms would find its way into his instrumental compositions. Both descriptions apply to the pieces on tonight’s program: Haunt of Last Nightfall (a ghost play in two acts) (2010), and AGENCY (2014). Furthermore, these chamber works possess a depth and breadth of scope proportionate to Little’s operas, sharing in their sociopolitical leanings.

"These are among the first pieces where I thought I could spend years writing them, the quality of my obsession rivaling Soldier Songs and Dog Days. I consider them among my major works."

Haunt of Last Nightfall (2010)

When Little needed to put aside his commission from Third Coast Percussion to compose Dog Days, he was already ruminating on some bits of text for what he imagined might be a requiem. The first was a line from the Christian liturgy known as the embolism, a gloss on the Lord’s Prayer: “In your mercy keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety...” The second has become a mantra for all of his work, a poem restored to more recent editions of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: “There are who teach only the sweet lessons of peace and safety; But I teach lessons of war and death to those I love, That they readily meet invasions, when they come.” (Poem 324)

What eventually triggered the eureka moment in his connective brain was reading Bob Ostertag’s Creative Life: Music, Politics, People, and Machines, a collection of essays by the experimental sound artist that includes some of his writings from Central America. Little came across a reference that sent him searching for a 1993 New Yorker article by journalist Mark Danner titled “The Truth of El Mozote.” From it, the composer learned the details of a mass slaughter perpetrated by U.S.-trained and armed Salvadoran military forces against the nation’s own people—an event that had long been officially denied.

“I didn’t think I was going to write a piece about it, but I was horrified and heartbroken,” says Little. “It wouldn’t let go. I needed to write about it to exorcise that knowledge.”

To summarize Danner’s findings, U.S. military aid to El Salvador had been increased under President Ronald Reagan to fight the Communist threat posed by leftist guerrillas. In 1981, the Salvadoran army began a military bombardment code-named “Yunque y Martillo” (“Hammer and Anvil”) to flush insurgents out of the northern province of Morazán. When soldiers arrived in the village of El Mozote—whose evangelical Christians were by all accounts not leftist sympathizers—they rounded up the population to ostensibly interrogate them. Then they systematically executed all of the men, women, and children, burning evidence of the atrocity. Based on extensive forensic research conducted in the 1990s, casualties at El Mozote are estimated at a staggering 900 people, at least 143 of them children. Danner has called the massacre a “central parable of the Cold War.” 

Little writes in the original composer’s note to the score and the recording of Haunt of Last Nightfall on New Amsterdam Records (2014):

“I cannot forget the story of the young boy—now known only as “No. 59”—who was lucky enough to have a toy, though it could not protect him from the bayonet. I cannot forget the separation of families that happened on the morning of the second day—men to the right, women and children to the left—reminiscent of another atrocity, forty years earlier. I cannot forget the girl on La Cruz, a local hill, who is said to have sung a hymn as soldiers repeatedly raped her. Legend holds that even after they murdered her, her body kept singing, stopping only when they cut off her head. I cannot forget that this village, innocent by virtually every account, was slaughtered, caught in the crossfire of a stupid ideological battle.”

Little describes the piece that emerged as a “ghost play”; he borrowed the appellation from Tan Dun’s string quartet with pipa, which draws on a shamanistic tradition from Chinese peasant culture that enables spirits past and present to communicate with each other. Little’s percussion quartet, which is structured in acts, achieves the same powerfully ritualistic tone. Although the progression of its movements mirrors the course of events in El Mozote, the piece is not intended to be programmatic. Instead, it pulls on the energy and emotional resonance of these moments, alternatively pensive and despairing, simmering and explosive, tranquil and acidic. Over the course of its dramatic arc, Little’s haunting becomes our own.


AGENCY (2014)

In 2013, Little was commissioned to write a piece for the Kronos Quartet’s 40th anniversary season, but there was a catch. His mission, should he choose to accept it, was presented like this: “I want you to help me spy on the C.I.A.,” entreated violinist David Harrington, who Little describes as the kind of guy who “can see the Matrix.”

In particular, Harrington was interested in Pine Gap, officially known as Joint Defense Facility Pine Gap near the town of Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia. A product of the Cold War, the site purportedly was built to host a space research station. According to leaked National Security Agency documents and experts in the field, the facility “controls satellites that gather information used to pinpoint airstrikes around the world and target nuclear weapons,” as reported by The New York Times in a story about antiwar protestors convicted of trespassing for breaching the security perimeter. An accompanying photo shows what are identified as antenna systems housed in sleek, white geodesic domes. The intelligence gathered feeds Auscannzukus, which sounds a great deal like the German word for “outstanding” but is really an acronym for a five-country spy network (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom, and the United States).

Harrington was troubled to know that Pine Gap shares its territory with another site approximately five hours away, one with its own set of mysteries: Uluru, a natural wonder and indigenous holy site also referred to by its colonial name, Ayers Rock. An “island mountain” rising suddenly from flat terrain, the sloping red sandstone formation stands over 1,000 feet high and has a circumference of nearly six miles. Covered with petroglyphs, it remains a sacred place in the Dreamtime religion of the local Pitjantjatjara Anangu people. They believe it to be home to the spirits of their ancestors, and that it was created at the beginning of time. (Scientists estimate its age to be 550 million years.)

“What can you expose about the workings of a top secret government agency when you’re a civilian and an artist?” wondered Little about Harrington’s unusual request. In AGENCY, he set out to explore the ideas of secrecy and mythology in relation to these two spaces. “They both contain secrets that certain people can’t know,” he says, “though in one case, that’s security based, and, in the other, it’s spiritually based. I’m in a position where I can’t know either.”

Like Haunt of Last Nightfall, AGENCY is composed in acts. Act I: γένεσις (Genesis), contains two large parallel sections: “Uluru Rising” and “Auscannzukus Rising.” Following an Ent’racte, Act II: ἀποκάλυψις (Apocalypse) contains a single section titled “Leviathan Rising and The All-Seeing Eye” with markings in the score for numerous subsections.

Nurturing secrets of his own, Little turned references into ciphers, using them to assemble the fabric for the musical score. Geographical coordinates, the abbreviations for spy agencies, bits of Morse code, and even the physical contour of Uluru itself are translated into pitch sets. Redacted notes, blacked out in the score, are rendered by the performers with the scraping of bows. Written texts figure prominently in the composition of the work as well. The first act contains an aboriginal creation myth: “In the dreamtime, a great battle between two tribes of ancestral spirits; the leaders of both, killed in the fighting. Earth responds. In grief, Uluru rises from the blood red ground; and evil, sung to mud, becomes the dingo.” In the second act, grim political ideology, offered by Benjamin Franklin, Orwell, and Julian Assange, is threaded throughout.

These ciphers and sentiments, however, will not be apparent to the listener, passing by undetected even as we are reminded that Big Brother is watching. Some, Little explains in his composer’s note to the score, “only exist in the electronic backing track and must be detected through audio manipulation—time expansion, reversal, filtering, etc… Other messages are audible, but unclear: often abstracted to obscure meaning, while also amplifying their poetry.”

“In the context of this political arc,” Little says of our agency as individuals, “you want to know the truth, you seek to know the truth, and you work to know the truth, but you reach a point where you understand that the truth is unknowable. Then what? In a larger sense, it’s about what we choose to believe in the absence of knowable facts, much like religion. It can be a metaphor for a more existential kind of truth.”


What does one make of these two pieces, performed here side by side? Of course, Orwell famously wrote that all art is propaganda. “El Mozote happened with American training and weaponry, “ Little points out. “What is my responsibility as a citizen who pays taxes? It is one example of the countless things I have paid for.” Having a clear ideological message and raising questions about our own complicity are arguably two different things. Like earlier patriots, Little’s works prod us in the direction of becoming better citizens, with tonight’s pieces functioning effectively as accessories to a historical counter-memory. His compositional practice is ultimately one of faith, not only in the methods by which his music comes into being, but as a means to cope with questions that are ultimately too large for us to answer.

 

Lara Pellegrinelli is a scholar and a journalist, who contributes to NPR and The New York Times. She teaches at The New School and Bard’s Microcollege at Brooklyn Public Library.

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