David T. Little: Soldier Songs
I wrote Soldier Songs to try to figure things out. In 2004 I was invited by my former high school to speak with students about my life as a composer. Following my talk was my old friend, Justen Bennett, who was asked to talk about being a soldier. Justen had just returned from Iraq where, among other things, he had been a field medic, and had been among those who stormed Saddam Hussein’s palace. I felt a little silly.
Exiting the auditorium I saw a display case, which I remembered as having been used to celebrate student achievements: a victory for the football team, or the marching band, or photos from the musical that had happened the previous week. Now it was full of photos of alumni currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, driving tanks and carrying machine guns. Here, in the same case where the prom pictures used to go.
I remembered back to my days with them in class arguing about the ethics of Vietnam, or even Operation Desert Storm. I remembered my attitude at the time: that war was always wrong, and that those who signed up to fight it were always fools. And yet, here were my friends—smart kids all—n ow in the desert defusing land mines.
I then thought of my own family. Although we are not an intensely military family today, my generation is the first in nearly a century to not have a member in the service. My uncles were in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and my grandfathers were in World War II, in Europe. Cracks began to form in my absolutist position, and questions began to arise.
To find my own answers, I called everyone I knew and asked them to speak with me about their experience. Everyone I asked said yes. It was from their stories that this piece began to emerge. What struck me most was that for almost all of them, this was the first time they had ever talked about their experience, even though for some they’d left active duty nearly 40 years ago. This became central to the piece—what, for me, this piece is about: the impossibility of the telling.
I never meant for this piece to prove a point, or even to have any kind of “message” to deliver. Rather, it is material presented for contemplation. I have selected and edited these interviews more as a way of sharing than as a way of convincing. By conducting these interviews, and writing this piece, I gained an awareness of the complexity and difficulty of the soldier’s situation, and gained empathy and compassion for the men and women who have experienced the “one-way door” of combat; where once you pass through, you may never fully come back.
— David T. Little, November 2012
Music is a weapon of war. Rhythm organizes a soldier’s training; song defines an army’s morale and camaraderie; Metallica can prepare a soldier for battle. After the war, commemoration never happens without a band. Music is easily co-opted and made to serve a political or ideological message. But music is just as easily a vehicle for reflection, engagement, and emotional connection, and this is certainly what is achieved in Soldier Songs.
I’ve worked closely with David on the realization of this piece’s final form, first in workshop format with New York City Opera as part of its VOX Showcase for new opera, then in its first fully realized staging. In conceptualizing the work’s theatrical life, David’s work made me recall Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller:”
Was it not noticeable at the end of [World War I] that men returned from the battlefield grown silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience? … A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.
David’s piece depicts that solitude of a soldier’s experience: one isolated baritone stands alone in this piece and reflects a single vulnerability that speaks for generations. But more powerfully, Soldier Songs deals with the crisis of communicable experience: the soldiers who return from war unable to bear witness to their chaotic memories. The libretto of Soldier Songs comes directly from interviews David did with family and friends who served in various combats throughout the last fifty years, soldiers with the courage to tell their story. Connecting their various experiences, from childhood fascination with war to the nightmares that haunt the return to civilization, David writes an insistent closed-mouth hum: as if the soldier were a ticking time-bomb, the stories of his experience buried just under the surface and yearning, but unable, to emerge.
But storytelling is a communication and relies on a receptive audience. What can we, the lucky ones who do not have to experience war first-hand, expect to understand of a soldier’s experience? “You can’t know what it was like” is a common refrain of anyone trying to communicate a traumatic experience to one who wasn’t there. David grapples with the impossibility of representation perhaps most powerfully in the sound collage that makes up “Steel Rain”—the chaos and fury of combat is presented as an eerily quiet soundscape, the voice not only song-less but recorded and distant.
The impossibility of representation became a crucial aspect of this production: the Soldier is largely obscured by a tent in Part II, re-emerging blood-soaked and terror-stricken, but without us having seen what he has experienced—at most, we see his shadow on the sides of the tent. Someone we knew from childhood goes off to war and disappears, suffering traumas we can’t expect to comprehend easily, and then returns to us, irrevocably changed.
But here is where “opera,” or perhaps better, “music-theater” offers a powerful platform to grapple with these problems: if simple words all too painfully lack the resonance of experience, music transforms them into a spatial phenomenon. If popular media’s images of combat, promising a “you-are-there” experience, only leave the spectator numb, a theatrical visual language can activate your imagination and curiosity. An unresolved counterpoint of the musical and the visual, that essence of a “music-theater” event, offers us a chance to transcend the limits of our knowledge, making Soldier Songs not just about the soldier’s experience but our own as spectators—a fortunate role but one still laden with responsibility.
— Yuval Sharon, September 2012