Composer Portrait Frames Little As Social Interlocutor

Composer David T. Little chats about his music with Third Coast Percussion member David Skidmore on Columbia University’s Composer Portraits series, now celebrating its 20th season. (Performance photos by Rob Davidson)
By Xenia Hanusiak

NEW YORK – This season, the Miller Theatre’s signature Composer Portraits series celebrates its 20th iteration. This vital and well-patronized series showcases the musical influencers of our time – composers and performers who are moving the needle of contemporary composition with assured and individual voices. The reputations of the featured artist are well validated.

In the current season, the six composers have earned prestige awards ranging from the Pulitzer Prize to the MacArthur Fellowship: soprano/composer Kate Soper, performance artist/composer Du Yun, drummer/composer Tyshawn Sorey, Wang Lu, John Zorn, and David T. Little. The supporting musicians are integral, and for this season executive director Melissa Smey has snared the marquee names of contemporary music: International Contemporary Ensemble, Yarn/Wire, JACK Quartet, American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), and Third Coast Percussion. The synergy between composer and performers is essential to the enterprise.

Third Coast members (l to r standing) Sean Connors, David Skidmore, Peter Martin, and Robert Dillon joined American Contemporary Music Ensemble’s Ben Russell, Laura Lutzke, Clarice Jensen, and Isabel Hagen to top off Little’s ‘Agency.’

The portrait experience is multi-layered. Each presentation features the composer as curator and spokesperson (an onstage conversation is part of the concert experience). Lara Pellegrinelli’s program notes provide another indispensable contribution.

The programs generally focus on small-scale and chamber music repertoire. For the final concert of this season on April 18, the American composer David T. Little, most known for his operatic works JFK, Dog Days, and Vinkensport, chose two chamber works that demonstrated his acuity for theatricality. Onstage, the 40-year old Little spoke about his reputation as a political composer. He said he does not see himself as a propagandist but views his role as an interlocutor who leverages his music either to ask questions or to document historical incidents.

Little’s Socratic approach was realized in the first work of the evening: Haunt of the Last Nightfall for percussion quartet and electronics. Described as a ghost play in two acts, the nine-movement through-composed work was commissioned in 2010 by the extraordinary Chicago-based Third Coast Percussion. The piece considers America’s role in the 1981 massacre in El Mozote. Little composed the quartet at the same time as his post-apocalyptic opera Dog Days. The similarities between the percussion quartet and the opera are most evident in the electronic soundscape of grunge, distorted electric guitar bass lines, and an insistent pulse as a watch-keeper.

Haunt of the Last Nightfall is a landmark work that deserves as much airplay as his publisher can muster. Little’s background as a drummer tells in his masterful writing for percussion. He organizes his orchestration via tuned and untuned instruments. He elicits shimmering, heavenly textures with his juxtapositions of crotales, glockenspiel, and vibraphone lines and creates foreboding and danger with the full gamut of drums tuned to offer a harmonic consensus. Without text, Little offers the listener a narrative journey much in the vein of a silent-film score. Our attention never falters. Little’s agility across the range of percussion instruments is evident in his color-driven soundscapes. We are compelled to imagine the mass slaughter of the Salvatorian people and reflect on the questions that Little offers in program notes.

The success of this performance owed everything to the blistering virtuosity of the members of Third Coast Percussion. Their playing was distinguished in its unanimity, pinpoint accuracy, and collective ability to make percussion instruments sing. One hopes for a second collaboration between Little and the quartet. The combination is indefatigable.

In the second work, Agency (2013), Little overwhelms the listener with an insistent, probing score for amplified string quartet and electronics that offers scant reprieve. Like Haunt of Last Nightfall, Agency is written in two acts. Commissioned by the Kronos Quartet for its 40th anniversary, Little’s political narrative is driven by themes of surveillance, secrecy, and myth. The commission was specific. Violinist David Harrington, the quartet’s leader, was interested in exploring the CIA through an observation of an intelligence mission at a Joint Defense Facility in Pine Gap near Alice Springs in Northern Territory, Australia – near Uluru, the spiritual natural sandstone mountain formation belonging to the indigenous local Pitjantjatjara people.

For the Composer Portraits series, the adept American Contemporary Music Ensemble drove Little’s commentary with enormous resilience and stamina. Little deliberately overpowers the string lines with his voluminous and intense electronic score. His intent it seems is to set up a power struggle between the two sonic worlds.

For this Miller Theatre performance, Little introduced a re-orchestrated coda. Members of Third Coast Percussion entered the stage one by one, augmenting the string lines and electronic score with a chorus that climaxed to unison hammer blows.

Xenia Hanusiak is a New York-based writer, festival director, and scholar whose writing has appeared in London’s Financial Times, Music and Literature, National Sawdust’s Log Journal, and the New York Times. She is an advocate for contemporary music and cultural diplomacy.