Classical music and warfare have always been covert bedfellows. Mozart’s forgeries of the Alla turca manner of eighteenth-century Ottoman military bands, Wagner’s public gloating in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, and Debussy’s Ode à la France, written during Verdun’s darkest days: whatever its claims to “purity” and “universality”, all examples of music’s inability to remain above the fray of worldly affairs, of mass bloodletting, scorched earth tactics, and the baldest Realpolitik. Today, our composers seem to know a little better: there haven’t exactly been many jingoistic, flag-waving Iraq pieces, have there? David T. Little’s Soldier Songs, a dramatic cantata for baritone soloist and the Newspeak Ensemble, indeed takes the opposite tack, hoping to provide a measure of musical healing after more than a decade of IED-inflicted casualties and under-attended homecomings. A number of years in the making, it’s being presented as part of the PROTOTYPE Festival at The Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University in an ambitious staging by Yuval Sharon, complete with a sizable video component. (I saw the January 13 evening performance.) Unfortunately, Soldier Songs falls well short of its praiseworthy goals, despite a highly committed solo turn by Christopher Burchett.
In his program notes, Little writes that Soldier Songs “is about the impossibility of the telling”: the idea that the fear, the gruesomeness of war can’t ever be grasped except by someone who has also been “over there”. Sharon cites Walter Benjamin in support of this notion, which would be helpful if it weren’t for the fact that the music and staging do the exact opposite of what’s promised. Both approach the problem of warfare, of the militarization of culture so literally that at times the piece resembles an opera less than a public policy pamphlet. This is most acute in the numbers “Real American Hero” and “Boom! Bang! Dead!”, Little’s indictment of Cowboys and Indians and first-person shooters, where the baritone’s heroic falsetto and Newspeak’s pounding bass interjections come across as merely hectoring. Sure, our society’s undercurrent of machismo, its nonchalant acceptance of violence as part of the status quo, are highly troubling, but how, exactly, does Little’s music add to the debate? There’s a similar lack of subtlety in the staging. A number of digital screens, strewn across the performance space, are constantly flickering, obscurely hinting at a link between violence and media overload, but much of Sharon’s contribution is just extraneous: loops of pictures of tanks and rifles don’t tell us anything we don’t already know. Moreover, in the wake of Newtown, some viewers may find the baritone’s repeated mock execution of a young boy (Zac Ballard) to be in bad taste. Where’s the “impossibility of the telling” in all of this? There’s no problematization of representation to be found here, whatever the program notes say.
It is tempting to class Soldier Songs as a piece of agitprop—Little even prefaces his score with an epigram from Brecht—but the problem with this is that the work doesn’t even push a particular ideological agenda. The libretto, penned by Little, is sprinkled with references to George Orwell’s 1984, but beyond borrowing the book’s suggestion that the appetite for perpetual warfare must be artificially manufactured, their purpose isn’t really clear. Nor is Soldier Songs’ generalized indictment of war dramatically convincing: a sidelong glance at Wozzeck, another unflinching opera about military life, reveals all the humanity, the three-dimensional musical atmosphere, missing from Little’s pan-generational cookie-cutter recruit (Burchett). Soldier Songs also suffers from the comparison for another reason: instead of coming out and saying, “Yeah, war really blows. Can’t we, like, stop it already?” Wozzeck does something far richer. It refracts the unspeakable horrors of the general—the First World War—through the lens of the particular—Büchner’s bullied, cuckolded Woyzeck—in the process transcending both and creating a uniquely powerful dramatic fusion. Little, on the other hand, is simply content with a presentation of the general. This is reminiscent of the Zeitoper trend of 1920s Weimar (from which Berg, incidentally, stood somewhat aloof). Nowadays, Wozzeck is performed worldwide; when was the last time anyone staged Maschinist Hopkins or Der Ozeanflug? Yet he who lives by the trend dies by the trend, and so Soldier Songs, with its distinctly “boots on the ground” vantage, seems somehow old-fashioned in the wake of drone warfare.
Given Soldier Songs’ shaky libretto and the numerous special effects used in the staging (these include a series of extremely bright flashes simulating the shock and awe of the beginning of the Iraq invasion), it’s easy to overlook the music itself. Yet Little actually manages to create a number of arresting effects, particularly with the strings: augmented with effects pedals, these are frequently used to mimic Hendrix-like machine gun guitars, with all their fuzz and distortion. Perhaps the most impressive moment, however, comes when the conscript is finally sent into battle. After a lengthy crescendo from Newspeak, the bass suddenly vanishes: the bottom has just fallen out from under the soldier’s world. Sadly, such moments are rare. More telling is a scene that comes near the work’s end. Here, Burchett is playing an older man whose own son has just died in combat. The character, in tears, starts to sing the phrase, “Bring back my son!” However, he can only get through the words “bring back” without breaking down. He then whispers the phrase whole – at long last an admission on Little’s part, it would seem, that the music finally couldn’t bear witness to the staged emotions. Yet Little can’t leave well enough alone, and so almost at once, the character strengthens his resolve and sings the phrase through, in a beautiful legato. The music didn’t—couldn’t—say anything that the frightened whisper didn’t; in fact, it trivialized the emotion. Ultimately, Soldier Songs threatens to do the same to the experiences of veterans from all wars.
For another perspective on Soldier Songs, read Daniel Kushner’s review of the Innova release.
Matt Mendez is an independent musicologist and critic. His personal blog is http://soundproofedblog.blogspot.com.