5 questions to David T. Little (composer, former executive director of MATA)

From the Brooklyn Phil website:

Over two nights at Roulette Theater in Brooklyn (509 Atlantic Avenue near Third Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11217), 800 audience members will be propelled into a musically immersive social event examining linkages between the 19th century and our own time that trace the development of Brooklyn from a small village to a major global super city. Locally written orchestra and choir music, spoken verse, staging, costumes, audience interaction and film will combine together to form a new shared voice as Brooklynites celebrate our collective ability to adapt to the relentlessness of change.

David T. Little is one of the composers (along with Matthew Mehlan, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Ludwig van Beethoven, George Frederich Bristow, Aaron Copland and Sufjan Stevens) whose music will be performed. Listen to three excerpts from Am I Born:

Had you ever worked with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, or written for children voices? Did you have to adjust your writing?

I hadn’t worked with the BYC before, and I’d never written specifically for young singers like this. But I have written a lot of vocal music over the last ten years or so, think a lot about the voice, and have done a fair amount of (amateur!) singing myself, so it felt really natural. The thing that was really tricky about this project was trying to get the right sound from the singers. The Sacred Harp tradition isn’t a trained vocal tradition, or at least not in the classical sense. The goals in the sound production are very different, and therefore so are the specific techniques used. Trying to get a group of well-trained classical singers to sound completely untrained and raw is always tricky, and has to be done delicately, since you don’t actually want to damage anyone’s instrument. So it becomes about illusions in a way: you have to somehow create the illusion that they are screaming without actually asking them to scream. I used a few orchestration tricks, and worked really closely with the BYC’s Dianne Berkun and David Harris (who actually grew up in the Sacred Harp tradition) to help establish a game plan, and a list of techniques: certain vowels got flattened, certain diphthongs altered. It’s been really interesting, and I’m very happy with the results we’ve gotten.

David T. Little

David T. Little

Why did you choose a hymn from the Shape Note singing tradition?

I first learned about the Sacred Harp in 2007, when my friend, the terrific composer John Supko, introduced me to it. Since then I’d always wanted to work with the material: I just loved the sound and the general vibe of that repertoire.

When Royce Vavrek and Alan Pierson and I were talking about Brooklyn Village, somehow it crept into the discussion and just made sense. It was just the right time. From the beginning I wanted to write about what it meant to be remembered/memorialized, and so for me the collision of Idumea from the Sacred Harp, with Francis Guy’s painting—along with all the crazy family stuff I discovered about my ancestors—all made sense. The Guy painting is really interesting, because you have all these individuals—citizens of Brooklyn in 1820—who probably would not typically have been memorialized in portraiture. This typically—one deduces from visiting any portrait gallery—was reserved for the upper class: family portraits of the Cortlandts, or whatever. But in the Guy, there are all these people—normal everyday people—and we know who they are! So I wanted to write something about that. With this on my mind, Idumea was just perfect. To me, this question of “Am I born to die” moves very quickly to “Will I be forgotten,” which tied it to the painting.

47b Idumea - Tune: Ananias Davisson, 1816, Words: Charles Wesley, 1763

47b Idumea – Tune: Ananias Davisson, 1816, Words: Charles Wesley, 1763 (Click to enlarge)

Did you emulate the Sacred Harp sound in your score?

I tried to, yes. Like I said before, it can be tough to really get this sound without asking the singers to potentially damage their instruments. But I tried to used the orchestra to my advantage, using the double reeds, marked rhieta, to re-enforce the nasal qualities I wanted from the singers [a rhieta marking requires that the performers place their lips on the string of the reed and blow; they should not touch the vibrating reed with the lips]; or at times muted brass. I haven’t heard it all together yet, so I don’t know if it worked. Fingers crossed! I also followed some of the part-writing rules of the Sacred Harp, in particular in regard to the way cadences work: usually an open fifth with no third. To maintain my own harmonic voice, I would usually add a ninth—and sometimes sneak in a third with the ninth there as well—but it still gives that similar open sound. I also did a lot with parallel fifths and chord planing, which each lent a nice effect.

"Am I Born" — Excerpt reproduced by kind permission of David T. Little

“Am I Born” — Excerpt reproduced by kind permission of David T. Little

Both the multimedia (dare I say polysensual?) aspect of this piece and its narrative remind me of a very successful piece from last year: Darcy James Argue’s Brooklyn Babylon. Do you feel that there is a demand for more storytelling in music?

I don’t know that I would say there’s a need for more storytelling in music in general. I love telling stories through music, personally, but in many ways a lot of what’s happening today (including Am I Born) is less about storytelling than about the expression and exploration of Big Ideas. I would say that this is definitely where my interests lie. I think this is why I’ve found myself drawn to opera and music theatre over the years. Something about the way opera and music theatre allow a composer to communicative big ideas, and explore characters in a dramatic context is very appealing to me. I also feel like it suits my aesthetic propensity for polystylism: in an opera (or dramatic oratorio) it somehow makes sense for a lot of different kinds of music to co-exist; to interact with one another. In concert music I find this to be a little less convincing, and one runs the risk of writing some sort of unintentional Postmodern manifesto. But in opera I think this technique can sound really fresh, and really help propel the narrative.

Is there such thing as a Brooklyn sound in New Music?

I think that there are so many different composers doing so many completely different things, that there can be no such thing as a singular sound. And thank god for that. But there is definitely Brooklyn scene that I’ve found myself a part of—surround the New Am roster, the New Music Bake Sale, etc. I think what really important about this scene is the reason it came in to being (at least from what I can tell, being inside of it.) At least as far as my own involvement, it started when, around 2003 a bunch of us came to the city from all over—Boston, Australia, California—met, and started forming our own ensembles and putting shows together. There was a kind of liberation in this, as we realized that we could do whatever we wanted artistically—as opposed to trying to fit into a pre-established “right way” of being a composer—and that we could just be our own audiences, so it didn’t matter if any one else was into it. In a way it reminds me of the way Allen Ginsberg spoke about the beats San Francisco in the 50s. Like that, 2003 in New York found a collection of like-minded people who wanted to write music they really believed in and just started doing it. There was obviously some cross-pollination there, so the extent to which there’s a specific “sound” could maybe be traced to that. But in truth, there are so many different kinds of composers working in the scene now—each with a really clear, personal voice—so I think to say there is a single sound is a disservice to the really glorious diversity of it all.

For more information about David T. Little: http://www.davidtlittle.com

For more information about Brooklyn Village: http://bphil.org/bphilwp/village