David T. Little's Haunt of Last Nightfall, performed by Third Coast Percussion and recently released by New Amsterdam Records, looks to a tragic moment in El Salvadoran history, the massacre at El Mozote in December 1981. In this interview, Little talks about political music, polystylism, his days as a percussion student and more with Gideon Broshy.
You call this work a "ghost play." How does this piece of instrumental concert music incorporate the dramatic?
Haunt of Last Nightfall follows a linear timeline and is structured in two acts. Act I takes place from the morning until evening of the first day—which featured mostly abuse, interrogations and terrorism. Act II begins on the morning of the second day, and continues through the end of the massacre, where everyone in the village had been murdered, except for one woman, Rufina Amaya. There are moments when I depart from the linear narrative, and it's not really programmatic in any strict sense. It comes in and out of the history, while shaping what hopefully is a compelling dramatic narrative.
You've written extensively about political music. What makes this work political, and in what way does it employ what you call the "politics of bearing witness"?
I want music to be about something. Even if it is about, like, "interval A becomes interval B." I want it to not only be enjoyable, and exciting, and beautiful, but also to make me think. When music doesn't make me think, I find myself pretty uninterested in it. Pieces that made me think were the pieces that I found the greatest meaning in as a young person. This is where political ideas come in.
People like to say that classical music can't be political, or that it can't shape political ideas. In one sense they are right: politically-engaged classical music, on its own, most likely isn't going shape someone's opinions or ideologies. Like, hearing the premiere of Rzewski's The People United Will Never Be Defeated did not make the people rise up and overthrow Pinochet. I would say it likely didn't even make anyone an Allende supporter if they weren't already. But it also never claimed to do either of these.
What it did do, for me, was introduce the history. I wanted to know more about the piece, which led me then to read about the history of the Pinochet coup, overthrowing the democratically elected Allende, and about the American government's role in all of it. As a work of art, it bore witness to troubling political conflicts and the powers that influenced them, as an example to keep in mind when viewing other conflicts. It helped me develop my own way of understanding the world.
Now, I would have almost certainly come upon that information another time, in another way, but this was how I encountered it. And I think experiencing something through art—where one can really feel something—is different than just reading about it in the news. Unlike a news report or historical analysis, the music can express the emotional landscape of the experience: the anger, the defiance, the grief, the loss. I think this can be incredibly powerful. Understanding an event through the musical/emotional lens of a work of art helps us feel the event, and therefore understand it differently, more viscerally, and maybe even more deeply. Likewise: I first wanted to learn about the Attica prison uprising because of Rzewski's Coming Together and Attica. In other words, these pieces planted seeds of interest and questioning in my brain, and from there I found books to read, and learned all that I could. And if that process doesn't shape one’s ideologies then I don't know what will. So I think we should have no illusions about music's ability to directly change the world with in any specific way. But political classical music can be an impetus—a kind of gateway drug—to larger truths about our world. In this way, I feel that it is absolutely valid and absolutely vital.
This is where "the politics of bearing witness" that I've written about comes into play, and it relates specifically to Haunt of Last Nightfall. I first read about the massacre at El Mozote in Bob Ostertag's book Creative Life. I was stunned and I was sickened to learn of it: not just of the details of the events itself—of impaled and beheaded children, for example—but also of the role of the American government in supporting and training those who carried out the atrocities, and later in covering it up.
The question then became, what do I as one person do about this? What could I do about it? I realized that all I could really do was to become as informed as I could about it, then not stay quiet. If nothing else, I needed to tell people about it, and since I'm a composer, I do that through music.
What inspired your mix of live percussion and pre-recorded rock tracks?
To be honest, it initially came from a frustration with the inability of percussion instruments to sustain notes without a tremolo. I knew that I wanted to have long tones play a major role in this piece, but I didn't want to be tied to the sound of a roll on a marimba, for example. So I decided that the work would have an electronic component. Once that decision was made, the sonic possibilities really blew wide open. I felt free to think of a much broader palette than only what percussion could offer—though percussion is already a very large palette. It allowed me to really focus on the sounds I liked and wanted to use from the percussion quartet, while not needing to fill in the piece with sounds I didn't want (i.e. the tremolo) just because that's what I had to work with. I gave myself more creative space, in a way, by adding the electronics.
Were the rock tracks and the percussion conceived together, or did you conceive of one element first and shape the other around it?
I wrote the piece as I would have any other piece, almost as if I was writing an orchestral work: big score pages with lots of staves. Unlike other pieces, though, where when you finish the score you've finished the piece, there was a whole second phase to this work. After the score was finished, I needed to go back and make the track, at which point I started working in Ableton Live and dealing more specifically with sound, the mix, etc. It felt almost like writing an opera, where you write the piano vocal/score first, and then orchestrate as a second phase.
Is this polystylistic music?
I don't know that I really hear the work as polystylistic. That's a word I don't find all that interesting these days. It's all just me. I trusted my gut, just as in any other piece, and the results felt organic and natural, and satisfied me formally and dramatically. It is not about the myriad styles that may or may not be a part of it. Rather, the inclusion of styles—if we were to think of them that way—really just represents a way of thinking about music that combines sounds in a way one finds compelling. It feels just as natural to me as anything to write music like this, and it feels really different from, say, some of the early Naked City pieces (which I love), or some of what Rochberg, Schnittke, or Berio were doing back in the day. Those works, which I also love, feel like they are more about showing contrasts, and making a comment on history (or the end of it), or making a statement about the coexistence of said styles. They feel aware of the act of being polystylistic, if that makes sense, whereas for me it is just music as it makes sense, often placed in the context of a dramatic arc.
How has being a rock drummer influenced your percussion writing?
I think being a drummer has impacted my writing in general. In part, my experience performing with Newspeak, and preparing other composers’ works, has made me a better composer, and has made me sensitive to what performers want and need. I also studied classical percussion in college, and I really called on that in writing this piece, too.
I had a pretty terrible time studying percussion. My teacher and I really didn't get along. He meant well, but he didn't "get" what I was into. Like, he dismissed Reich's Nagoya Marimbas as silly, but then programmed a lot of music that I thought was just awful. It was not the most pleasant time in my life. So in approaching Haunt, I tried to exercise those demons and bad memories, and reclaim instruments I'd disliked as a student. For example, I am not the biggest fan of marimba and xylophone, and in most of my pieces with percussion I will opt to use vibraphone instead, often using it secco, as if it were a metal marimba. So for Haunt, I decided I was going to use both of these instruments, and use them in ways that could be interesting or beautiful, which meant perhaps using them atypically. For example, there is a passage in the xylophone which I find really lovely; it is legato, played with soft-ish mallets in the low register of the instrument. It's a really beautiful sound that I had never encountered in my experience as a player. Things like that. You can also find references to Cage and Harrison in the piece, two composers who were important to early percussion music, and whose work I especially love.