David T. Little’s ‘Soldier Songs’ brings rising opera composer to D.C.’s Atlas


Composer David T. Little. (Merri Cyr)

Most accounts of the composer David T. Little mention prominently that he used to be a punk rock drummer. This fact is highlighted as if it were interesting, quirky, odd and a radical anomaly in the classical music world. But this isn’t quite correct.

For one thing, this description implies some great conversion experience that never happened. Little didn’t “used to be” a drummer; he still is a drummer. Being a drummer is part of his skill set. “Unfortunately, I don’t have time,” he says now, “or I’d love to play in a straight-up rock band.” Like many young musicians, he played in garage bands through middle school and high school and college. But he also studied classical composition at such places as the University of Michigan and Princeton, where he got his doctorate in 2011.

“I went through phases of being intensely on,” he says, “and then I would decide to get serious and study classical music very seriously and reject rock. I finally realized how stupid that was. That was when my voice as a composer started to come through. . . . I started writing music that felt really honest. Not that the stuff before was dishonest; it was just sort of incomplete.”

For another thing, the idea that classical composers are supposed to be divorced from the pop world is so outdated it creaks. There are several established rock drummers — Glenn Kotche and Stewart Copeland among them — who are actively exploring the classical music field. And Little is part of a generation of young composers eager to embrace pop influences and their other musical passions — a generation influenced by Bang on a Can, a composer’s collaborative that’s been doing this kind of thing for several decades.

Little is notable not for any rock-musician schtick, but because he writes compelling, involving music. His thoughtful, quirky operas — “Soldier Songs,” “Dog Days” — which mingle the vigor of rock drumming, the complexity of counterpoint and the dramatic timing of musical theater — have gotten a him lot of attention — and a lot of commissions. He’s working on a piece for the Fortas Chamber Music series; he’s been taken into the Metropolitan Opera’s commissioning program; he’s writing an opera about John F. Kennedy for the Fort Worth Opera. “Dog Days” and “Soldier Songs,” meanwhile, are both going on tour: “Dog Days” will be seen in Fort Worth and Los Angeles in 2015; “Soldier Songs,” en route to the Holland Festival, comes to the District’s Atlas Performing Arts Center in May.

And people are hailing Little as a major force on today’s music scene.

“Dog Days” “just ripped my heart out of my chest,” says Darren K. Woods, the general director of the Fort Worth Opera, who commissioned the Kennedy piece before even seeing “Dog Days.”

“I really believe that he’s the future,” says Beth Morrison, the entrepreneurial New York producer who has produced “Dog Days” and “Soldier Songs.” “He’s going to be one of the most important American composers of the 21st century.”

“I think he is well on his way to becoming one of the major artists in the field,” says Sam Sweet, the Atlas’s outgoing executive director.

And Sweet adds: “He’s just really cool. . . . He’s a good person.”

Little, 35, is a solid, teddy-bear-like figure with an abundance of hair lifting from his head in great tufts, like caramel cotton candy. He is personable and happy to talk about his passion for what he does in order to help more people enjoy it. Though he doesn’t have a rock band, he’s founded a band, Newspeak, an ensemble of alt-classical luminaries with a political bent. He’s also run a festival, the Brooklyn-based MATA, and helped organize other community-building events, such as the New Music Bake Sale in Brooklyn, where contemporary groups perform, mingle, showcase themselves, and sell cookies.

And now, he’s a teacher, and he’s bringing his act to the Washington region. Last year, he arrived at the conservatory of Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va., 70 miles from Washington, to teach composition and head an initiative called “Shenandoah New Music.” “I feel like my job there is to create a culture,” he says, be that through presenting major artists in concert and in classroom — there have been 49 events on the series this season — or getting students excited about hearing and performing contemporary music, or taking part in a D.C.-based festival such as the citywide celebration of the 75th birthday of the maverick Dutch composer Louis Andriessen this week. Shenandoah University, a co-presenter of this festival, will offer two of its major concerts, in Winchester, next Saturday and Sunday. “This thing is going on in the community,” Little said of the festival. “Let’s be part of it.”

Little’s own music has some of the same qualities of accessibility and broad appeal that his approach to community does. As a young composer, he says, “I was really into pure avant-garde, the craziest thing I could do. As I’ve matured and written more music, I keep coming back to the basic things. Harmony and melody. The realization of how powerful they are, of what the right chord at the right time can do, is really a revelation.”

“I wouldn’t say my music is necessarily tonal,” he adds. “I love some dissonance and atonality, but there’s definitely an awareness of those very basic ideas that I’m always checking in with.”

Not every composer can blend this kind of technical competence, gritty punk-rock colors, and an intimate knowledge of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” What appeals to music-lovers about Little’s work is the effortlessness of the synthesis. “There are lots of composers who are eclectic and do work that encompasses many different styles,” says the conductor Alan Pierson, who first encountered Little’s work when he led the first excerpts of “Dog Days” at Carnegie Hall’s Osvaldo Golijov and Dawn Upshaw Workshop for composers and singers in 2009, and who later conducted the piece in its 2012 world premiere. “What’s great about David: he’s always writing David, which is not to say that his music always sounds the same, but it’s always his. He never writes pastiche; you never feel he’s just occupying another voice.”

Politics is another of Little’s main concerns. Newspeak, named after the totalitarian language on Orwell’s “1984,” has focused on music with a message. And some of his most important works have made strong if complex statements. “Sweet Light Crude” is a kind of protest song about America’s dependence on oil, that, in the composer’s words, involves “counterpoint, the beginning of interest in this traditional material technically,” but is also “this rock power ballad anthem thing.” His most recent piece played in Washington, “Haunt of Last Nightfall,” is a percussion work about the slaughter of an entire village, El Mozote, El Salvador, in 1981, getting its ideas across without words, in a complex and passionate mix of pre-recorded sound, intensity, and moments of surprising lightness.

But the message isn’t always what you might expect. “Soldier Songs,” an opera in some sense about war, “doesn’t have a political slant to it,” says the Atlas’s Sweet, “although you could read that into it. David interviewed veterans in his own family about their experiences as soldiers. Not about their political feelings, whether it was right or wrong to have gone, but just the experience of being a soldier . . . and how you deal with that after you’ve been in the military.”

One reason Little is drawn to longer forms, especially opera, is that they offer room for nuance and a wider range of expression. “ ‘Haunt of Last Nightfall,’ if I tried to communicate that message in a five-minute piece, it would be too much,” he says. “In a longer piece, it gives you as audience member time to digest it. . . . You can enter into the piece and follow it all the way through and leave with an impression, as opposed to saying, ‘This piece is about [x].’ ”

“The reason I love the operatic form,” he says, “is that when it’s done right, it’s dramatic perfection crystallized. Trying to do my best to pursue that keeps me going, and keeps me terrified.” Drums and all.

The Shenandoah Conservatory will present its Edge Ensemble and soloists including Monica Germino in a concert of works by Louis Andriessen and others at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Armstrong Concert Hall, and the Aeolus Quartet playing Andriessen’s complete string quartets at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Bright Box, both in Winchester, Va. David T. Little’s “Soldier Songs” will be performed at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in the District on May 17 and 18.

READ MORE: Sam Sweet to step down as Atlas head

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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