I have uncles who fought in the Vietnam War, and I’ve never once talked to them about their wartime experiences. In fact, I grew up being actively discouraged from bringing up their service to the United States in conversation. But does this respectful yet evasive approach toward veterans aid us as citizens in understanding the sacrifices of war and those who readily made them?
Composer David T. Little’s hour-long 2006 opera Soldier Songs emphatically answers that question, and delves deeper still, with a narrative that follows the “every-soldier,” so to speak.
On February 26, Innova Recordings officially releases the debut studio recording of Soldier Songs, performed by Little’s versatile and visceral ensemble Newspeak, with “new music” mainstays Todd Reynolds as conductor and Lawson White as producer. This album serves as the timely encore to the opera’s critically praised performances at New York City’s Prototype Festival in January.
Soldier Songs was initially conceived in 2004, when a return trip to his high school spurred Little to re-examine his vehement and unequivocal anti-war stance in light of numerous family members and friends who had gone to war. The composer began to interview these individuals. And so, the “Prelude” begins the opera with the only appropriate method available to the composer: excerpts of those audio interviews.
The first words the listener hears: “I never talk about this with anybody.” The voices of additional veterans emerge over a backdrop of what sounds like a snake’s crescendoing death rattle and the deep, resonant “duuuhmm” of a distant but no less threatening bomb. Baritone David Adam Moore—the featured soloist and protagonist—makes his entrance with a wordless hum that sounds like a tortured meditation, festering with cataclysmic experiences and emotions trapped underneath the lack of appropriate words to describe them.
The three-part storyline follows Moore from Child to Warrior to Elder. Perhaps most important to the success of Soldier Songs is how the vignettes of the soldier intertwine with the common cultural experiences of so many Americans: childhood idolization of soldiers (“I. Real American Heroes); the enjoyment of violent combat-themed video games (“Boom! Bang! Dead! [Rated “T” for Teen]); and listening to heavy metal bands like Metallica to help inspire aggression (“IV. Still Life with Tank and iPod”).
Little presents the listener with various rock idioms—the primal drums, the hardcore-inspired vocal, the jagged shards of electric strings—enveloped in orchestrated textures and timbral choices that tell the story with rare genius. In “Boom! Bang! Dead!” the composer simulates the graphic imagery of video game killings (“Blew your brains out the back of your head”) with the squeal of Eileen Mack’s clarinet and Kelli Kathman’s flute. The distorted tremolo-laden melody, doubled by Caleb Burhans on electric violin and Brian Snow on electric cello, trails behind them like the rapid, unpredictable stream of blood—which in turn is punctuated by the returning woodwinds, now joined by the piano and vibraphone.
The cathartic apex of Soldier Songs occurs during “VI. Hollywood Ending (for Justen Bennett),” in which the soldier reacts with incomprehension and horror to the human destruction caused by a car bomb near his base. David Adam Moore gives a mesmerizing portrayal, the desperation and panic in his resounding, mellifluous baritone escalating with each mangled body he discovers: “This is not what I wanted/ Never what I imagined/ Someone yell ‘cut!’…This movie’s out of control/ Where’s the director?”
Newspeak’s ability to fluctuate between hard-edged rock and complex harmonic and contrapuntal language is essential to realizing Little’s nightmarish vision. The sound collages “VII. Steel Rain” and “XI. War After War” conjure barren, apocalyptic hellscapes underneath the riveting monologues of the veterans.
“I’ve learned to see behind the surface of things, to see under it, and many people don’t get there.
And those kinds of people, a lot of them are in power in places that matter, to what happens,
Whether or not there’s a war.”
—Amber Ferenz, U.S. Army veteran, excerpted from “War After War,” Soldier Songs
While this compositional foray into sociopolitical commentary is by no means new, Little’s work does represent the latest in a recent trajectory of contemporary compositions in which the musical creator becomes news reporter and commentator as well. Among them are Phil Kline’s 2004 Zippo Songs—set to poetry Vietnam War veterans inscribed on their lighters. There are also Kline’s Three Rumsfeld Songs and Melissa Dunphy’s 2009 work The Gonzales Cantata, which transcribe the words of the former Defense Secretary and Attorney General, respectively. In 2010, Ted Hearne released the album Katrina Ballads, a song cycle featuring the words of a hurricane survivor, Barbara Bush, Kanye West, former President George W. Bush and others.
Here in Soldier Songs, Little serves as a kind of ambassador, having himself broached the impenetrable topics and traversed emotional terrain that would have seemed impassible. He has enabled a more unwavering and honest conversation between soldier and private citizen. Little also communicates the atrocities of war from the perspective of the soldiers who actually fight it, providing the public an enormous service and delivering on the responsibility that the American news media, regardless of ideological leanings, has repeatedly failed in doing.
And ultimately, Soldier Songs speaks to something universal to all of us, whether we’ve been called to action in times of war or not. Little offers much-needed social criticism of our collective cultural psyche, specifically in the way we glorify war, often blindly and without the harrowing benefit of actually having experienced firsthand its indiscriminate violence, and its deadly effects on humanity—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Soldier Songs, David T. Little, Newspeak/David Adam Moore/Todd Reynolds (Innova, 2013) | Buy on Amazon
For another perspective on Soldier Songs, read Matt Mendez’ review of the New York premiere.
Daniel J. Kushner is an arts journalist and opera librettist who swoons anytime he hears the phrase “creative collaboration.” Follow him on Twitter: @danieljkushner.