David T. Little’s ‘Soldier Songs’ debuts in NYC this weekend (interview + stream)
By Andrew Frisicano
photo by Merri Cyr
You might recognize composer David T. Little from his work as drummer/artistic director of frequently gigging ensemble Newspeak. Last year, Little was also in the news for the debut of his post-apocalyptic opera Dog Days as part of Montclair’s Peak Performances series. The eviscerating production got great notices and made some year-end best-of lists: you can hear parts of it (from a previous in-progress performance) at WQXR.
This weekend another of Little’s opera/musical theater projects, Soldier Songs, gets its first full staging as part of the PROTOTYPE Festival at Pace University’s Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts. Its words are largely derived from interviews Little conducted with members of the military, many of them friends and family. It premieres tonight (1/11) and continues with five more shows through Jan 18. (Tickets are on sale here.)
Though both works are pretty far from metal, you can hear a bit of Little’s background in the genre in the work’s explosive peaks and punishing rhythms (which, ok, as David points out, classical music has a lot of antecedents for too). I emailed him some questions about both works, which he kindly answered, covering his inspirations, influences and opinions on various strains of contemporary music.
You can download the Metallica-quoting “Still Life with Tank and iPod” from Soldier Songs below, off an album that’s coming out this February on innova recordings.
Check out the song, a teaser for the show and his answers below…
Congrats on the Dog Days production and the positive reception it’s gotten.
Thank you! I was thrilled by the response to Dog Days. I have to be honest, I didn’t really expect it. I mean, I knew I felt good about it artistically, but both Dog Days and Soldier Songs are heavy pieces, emotionally–they just go there–so I’m always unsure how audiences will react to them. As a result, I’m extra happy when people respond positively to them.
Both are projects that you started to work on several years ago. Did your conception of the music change once you began piecing together and rehearsing the shows?
Dog Days took four years (2008-2012) and Soldier Songs took two (2004-2006). Dog Days didn’t change much once it got into production–the score stayed more or less the same. But Royce Vavrek (librettist) and had I worked closely with the director Robert Woodruff as we wrote the piece, so by the time we finished it, everything was pretty much set.
Soldier Songs, on the other hand, was totally written and had been premiered as a semi-staged concert work before director Yuval Sharon got involved. So that collaboration was quite different, and as a result the piece has been a little more open-ended over the years. It has continued to–and continues to–grow and change. With the release of the debut CD on the horizon, I think we’ve finally arrived at a definitive version of the piece musically, but even this week in rehearsal Yuval has been making little changes to the staging. It’s exciting to be part of a work that can still surprise you after so many years.
What element of the staged Soldier Songs are you most excited for people to see?
Man, it’s hard to say. I’m really happy with all of it. I think my favorite moment of staging might be Steel Rain, which I find very high impact and strange. It’s the part I’m most excited to see again, personally.
Christopher Burchett is looking and sounding amazing, too. It’s a role that requires the singer to be in incredible shape. Aside from just the physical requirements of the performance, the character is very nearly-naked for much of the show. So Chris has been training for it for over a year, and he just looks awesome. So maybe I’m most excited for people to see the moment where he takes his shirt off? Because that’s a pretty great moment.
I’m kidding, of course. Kind of.
The way some of Soldier Songs‘ words and music depict brutal and shocking real-life situations reminded me (albeit somewhat tangentially) of my recent viewing of Django Unchained, which had parts that were similarly jarring. Did you see the film? What other works have moved you in that way?
I haven’t seen Django Unchained, though I do tend to be a fan of Tarantino’s conception of violence, which often reminds me of the violent aspects in a lot of early death metal; Cannibal Corpse’s “Hammer Smashed Face,” for example. It’s this over-the-top, adolescent comic book violence that–revenge fantasies aside–is just so outrageous that to me it draws attention away form the motivation for the violence, and toward the meaninglessness of the violence itself. Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers is a great example of this, which Tarantino wrote. The violence in Burroughs’ Naked Lunch does this as well. I can’t say why Tarantino utilizes this kind of violence, but inSoldier Songs, there are two main ways that violence is represented, and two reasons for it.
In Part I: Child, we have an almost reductive representation of the kind of extreme violence that you’d get from some metal, exploitation/horror films, or more specifically for my purposes, video games. The second kind of violence–in Part II: Warrior and Part III: Elder–is more realistic, taken from veteran accounts, and really representing experiences that my combat veteran friends and family members experienced: a description of the scene of a car-bomb explosion, the feeling of running from an incoming missile, seeing the results of the previous night’s firefight when the sun comes up the next day. These are horrific things, and they are presented as such. There was no attempt to clean them up, or make things pretty. There was also no attempt to make the violence sexy here, as might have been the case in Part I. They’re just the stories, as they were told to me.
And of course a part of the piece is the contrast between these two forms/representations of violence. There is a certainly pleasure taken in the violence of Part I–which is not real, but fantasy. However, there is no pleasure to the violence in Parts II and III. This hopefully illuminates how a person might view the same act differently depending on their situation, age, place, and circumstances.
As far as other works that inspire me, they often deal more with implicit violence than explicit violence, if that makes sense. Despite what I said before about Tarantino, I prefer works that explore the violent undercurrents of society, or the violent potential of humans, as opposed to just showing graphic violence for its own sake. This is something both Soldier Songs and Dog Days deal with pretty directly. Some artists whose works do this, and who I find inspiring, in no particular order, are: JMW Turner, Heiner Goebbels, Peter Weiss (Marat/Sade), Werner Herzog (Aguirre, der Zorn Gott; Stroszek), Lars von Trier (especially Dogville), Spalding Gray, Edward Bond (Saved, Chair) Todd Solondz (Happiness, Welcome To The Dollhouse), John Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles. I also really loved Robert Woodruff’s staging of Notes from the Underground, with Bill Camp. And Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York had a big impact on me.
Most of these works/artists deal with this deeper implicit violence; a kind of passive violence which we each encounter on an almost daily basis. Interesting that it is only the explicit violence we tend to pay attention to.
I like how you really lay out the Metallica references in “Still Life with Tank and iPod.” What was your thought process while writing the song? Did you have a relationship to the band previously?
Cool, thanks. I wanted to write a song that explored both the role music plays in preparing soldiers for a mission, and the distance that the modern soldier has from the thing they are shooting/killing. So, the reference to Metallica is a nod to the former, and the latter is explored in the text: “Push the button, aim on-screen / Shoot the moving Pixels.”
I chose Metallica because they were really emblematic of what that song was about; and they are so famous, I could say “Metallica” and most would know what that meant. But also–if I’m totally honest–I chose them because I don’t especially like them. The Metallica I first encountered was the black album, and–though, yes, I did cover “Enter Sandman” in my high school rock band–I never really thought of them as metal in the same way as the other groups I was into. I’ve since gone back and listened to their earlier stuff and have come to respect it a lot more, but it still isn’t really my thing.
Were there any other bands or music you came across in your interviews?
My interviews weren’t as concerned with specific artists that people were listening to–it was more about their experiences. But Jonathan Pieslak has done a lot of great work on this in his book Sound Targets. He does mention Metallica, and also Slayer’s “Angel of Death” and Eminem’s “Go To Sleep,” among others. I have lots to say about the use of these songs–which I find pretty disturbing in context–but that’s perhaps best saved for another time.
What kind of punk/metal were you into when you were younger? How about now? Is there any “new music” that you think captures some of that same energy (someone like Michael Gordon comes to mind for me).
For me, it started with Megadeth. (See also, “dislike of Metallica.”) Of course, this was before Dave Mustaine went all bat-shit crazy, but Rust In Peace was a hugely important record for me, that I think really holds the test of time. I very quickly found my way to Pantera, Sepultura, Death, Napalm Death and Suicidal Tendencies. Then later, Morbid Angel, Meshuggah, Candiria, Sunn0))), Celtic Frost, Suicide Silence, Kayo Dot, Bloody Panda, Behold…The Arctopus, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. Somehow I’ve only recently discovered Burning Witch–though I ‘d known Goatsnake–which feels tragic; like so many lost years not knowing them. Ministry, Foetus, Suicide and Nine Inch Nails were also really important to me in my formative years, as was John Zorn’s Naked City, which totally shattered my conception of form/musical time when I was 13 or so. (Leng Tch’e. Oh my god.) As far as punk: Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys, Dead Boys, The Cramps, Iggy and the Stooges, Sonic Youth, and when I lived in Boston, I was really into this local band The Marvels. Some bands from the Dischord scene were also on my radar when I was fairly young, in particular Fugazi.
Through all of this, though, was The Rite of Spring; the greatest metal concept record ever.
As far as composers pursuing this sort of thing, yeah, Michael Gordon comes to mind for sure. Michael’s work looms large for me. Seeing Decasia at St. Anne’s Warehouse was one of the first shows in I went to in the city–back in 2004–and it was just epic. And Trance. totally changed my life when I first heard it back in the 90s. And then of course there’s the generation before: Branca, Rhys Chatham, etc. Love that stuff.
From a younger generation, there’s Toby Driver from Kayo Dot. He is someone I think very highly of. He’s a big-scale thinker, and I’ve always really loved his work: his “____ On Limpid Form” is among my all time favorites. My band Newspeak and Kayo Dot have done some touring together, and it was greatest thing getting to hear them play that night after night. Mario Diaz de Leon is another composer who channels metal in his work, and I was really bummed to his miss group with Toby–BloodMist. Ben S. Jacobs in a composer in Indiana who’s got this great project, BASILICA. Derek Johnson also plays with BASILICA, as well as with the Bang on a Can All Stars, and is literally writing the book on Meshuggah. Oscar Bettison and Ken Thomson have metal in their souls, and it often manifests in these cool, unexpected ways in their work. And of course there’s Florian Magnus Maier, another old friend, who has gone on to be the lead singers for Germany’s Dark Fortress. He introduced me to a lot of great music back in the day, and his concert work is very invested in metal.
What else can people expect from you in 2013 and beyond? Do you have an interest in tackling another documentary-based project like Soldier Songs
This spring is a little quiet, actually, which is awesome. The Soldier Songs CD officially drops in February (Innova Recordings, Feb. 5 digital, Feb 26. physical), and I’ve also got a libretto reading at HERE that month, for Artaud in the Black Lodge, this crazy new piece I’m writing with Anne Waldman about an imagined psychic meeting between David Lynch, William Burroughs and Antonin Artaud. I have absolutely no idea what it’s going to turn into, and I’m totally excited by that. I’m writing it for Newspeak, and we’ll be developing it at HERE, with Beth Morrison Projects, over the next few years.
Aside from that, I’ll be having archaeology performed in NYC, Boston and London in February and March, haunted topography in LA in April, performed by wildUp as part of the LA Phil’s Brooklyn Festival, a sweet light crude at Merkin in May, and doing a bunch of stuff with Newspeak: a show with Terrain Dance in New York, and a show in DC, both in June. Then in August I’m recording a big piece, Haunt of Last Nightfall with Third Coast Percussion in Chicago, for release next year on New Amsterdam Records, which should be fun. Some very cool stuff next fall, too, but that’s still top secret I’m afraid.
The big news is that I am writing a new opera for the Fort Worth Opera with Royce Vavrek, which will premiere in 2016 and explore JFK’s last morning in Fort Worth, before he flew to Dallas, where he was shot. This definitely has a documentary quality to it. Many of the people who were there that morning are still alive and we’ve got a great researcher, William V. Madison, who has been interviewing all of them. Royce and I are headed to Texas this winter to start digging in to the story and feel out the soul of this piece. We’re really excited to get started.