Libretto by the composer, from recorded interviews with war veterans (E)
In 2004 I was invited to a career day at my former high school to speak with students about being a composer. I shared the stage with an old friend, Justen Bennett, who had just returned from Iraq, where he had been a field medic and had been among those who stormed Saddam Hussein’s palace. The contrast between Justen’s job and mine was striking.
Exiting the auditorium I saw a display case, which I remembered the school using to celebrate student achievements: a victory for the football team or marching band, or photos from the musical that had happened the previous week. Now it showed photos of soldiers: alumni currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, driving tanks and carrying machine guns. Here, in the same case where their prom photos might have been only a few years prior.
I remembered our days together in class, debating the ethics of Vietnam or the Gulf War. I reflected upon my attitude at the time: the simplistic view of an adolescent, that war was always wrong. I just didn’t understand why someone would enlist. But here, a decade later, my friends were defusing land mines in Iraq.
I considered my own family. My generation was the first in nearly a century not to serve in the military. My uncles were in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. My grandfathers were both in World War II, and my great-grandfather was in WWI. My third great-grandfather was killed in Tennessee fighting for the Union. In a way, I had descended from this thing I had previously dismissed. Cracks began to form in my absolutist position, and questions began to arise.
To find my own answers, I called family and friends who had served—and who were not on active duty at the time—and asked them to speak with me about their experience. It was from their stories that Soldier Songs began to emerge. Our recorded conversations feature prominently both as the basis for the libretto, and in the electronic component of the score.
What struck me most was that, in nearly every conversation, it was the first time the veterans had shared their experience, even though some had left active duty decades ago. "I’ve never talked about this with anybody" became a common refrain. This became central to the piece—what, for me, this piece is about: the difficulty or impossibility of the telling.
I am often asked if Soldier Songs is an anti-war piece, but it’s not that simple. I never intended for it to prove a point, or even to deliver a specific message. I selected and edited these conversations more as a way of sharing than as a way of convincing. I hope that Soldier Songs conveys what I gained by writing it: recognition of the soldier’s plight and a due measure of compassion.
David T. Little
David T. Little’s Soldier Songs combines elements of theater, opera, and rock-infused concert music to explore the perceptions versus the realities of a soldier, the exploration of loss and exploitation of innocence, and the difficulty of expressing the truth of war. Though music can be easily co-opted to serve a political or ideological message, it can equally be a vehicle for reflection, engagement, and emotional connection, as is seen in this gripping opera-theatre work.
The libretto, created by the composer, was adapted from recorded interviews with veterans of five wars. Soldier Songs traces changing perceptions of war in our society and by those who experience it. The nameless soldier is followed through three phases of life: Youth (playing war games), Warrior (time served in the military), and Elder (aged, wise, reflective).
It is a chilling and realistic view of our media-crazed, war machine culture, and of the nature of power in war. Each of the eleven songs explores a different aspect of the experience, ranging from rage, to fear, to joy, to grief.
Soldier Songs asks the tough questions and tells the tough stories through its poignant libretto, driving music, and surprising visual counterpoint. The tension between the visual and aural experience of our production works to dispel the numbness felt by those lucky enough to only experience war through the comfort of our living rooms.
Note Courtesy of Beth Morrison Projects. Reprinted with permission.
“Mr. Little’s gifts for setting text comfortably and effectively, and for writing music informed by Minimalism and rock but slavishly indebted to neither, are evident throughout the briskly paced work. …The presentation provided further evidence of Mr. Little’s fast-rising stock as a vital theatrical creator.”
—New York Times
"Little’s kaleidoscopic score includes jaundiced nods to both Aaron Copland’s Americana and 19th-century orientalist music, minimalist chirps and chants in ‘Real American Hero’ and ‘Hollywood Ending,’ and blistering, Hendrix-style strings in ‘War After War.’"
—TimeOut New York
“[Little] has earned acclaim for the imaginative way he draws on his varied musical interests to produce arresting and coherent works. Soldier Songs, for which Little wrote his own libretto, sustains that reputation.”