I first heard of David T. Little at approximately 12:30 in the morning. If I were a more dutiful student this likely wouldn’t have happened, but as it was, on that particular night I found myself wandering out of my dorm room and down the hall in search of something — anything — to hold my attention other than my homework. Somehow I ended up sipping tea in a fellow musician's room, discussing life, death, humanity, art, meaning — the usual stuff. Before long, we were sharing the music we loved with one another, and my companion put on a recording of a piece he had played with an orchestra, Little’s “Haunted Topography,” a composition which deals with grief, loss and war. Well, for days after, it haunted me. Some weeks later I was even more affected by a performance of Little’s “and the sky was still there,” one of the few more-or-less explicitly political works I’ve found to be extremely moving.
I remembered all of this as I sat across from David Little on a bench in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance at the University of Michigan. It seems that after all we really do have a small world. A few feet away, Little — who is an alum of Michigan’s masters of music program — explained that he, too, was mentally re-experiencing the past as we spoke.
“It’s a funny thing, I texted my wife the other day and said, ‘this place is full of ghosts.’ It’s interesting being back here, in this building, because this is the building I was in on 9/11,” Little said. “I remember walking out of a class, and walking out into the lounge upstairs and seeing that there were televisions everywhere and watching the news broadcast. And over in the loading dock over there is the phone where I called my family,” Little said, gesturing to a door behind us.
For the past week or so, Little has been on campus as part of the William Bolcom Residency in Composition, a program set up in honor of William Bolcom, professor emeritus of composition in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer. The program is designed to help bring notable composers to the University to feature in lectures, concerts, lessons and the like for the benefit of students of composition and music generally.
“It’s really nice to be back here as a William Bolcom residency composer because he was one of my teachers,” Little said. While at the University, Little studied composition primarily with Bolcom and Professor Michael Daugherty, but his studies at the University have only been one aspect of his musical education, which began in his childhood with an unorthodox ensemble experience.
“I started playing music when I was 8. I was in a fife and drum corps in New Jersey,” Little said. “And so I learned a lot of Revolutionary War music and Civil War music and marched in a lot of parades.”
“I grew up in the country, so there wasn’t really a lot going on, so anything that I could do that was related to music, I did,” Little said. “I was in the jazz band, any chorus I could be in, any orchestra I could be in, any band, wind ensemble. I sort of played in a rock band when I was … well, my first one was when I was 12, but my first serious one was when I was probably 14 or 15.”
It wasn’t until around the age of 15 that Little “became aware of composition as a thing which existed in the world.” Watching Tim Burton’s film “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” Little realized that someone wrote the music he heard and loved in the movie: the composer Danny Elfman. Retroactively, Little also became aware that Elfman composed the scores for numerous other films he loved, such as “Batman” and “Beetlejuice.”
“After seeing (“The Nightmare Before Christmas”), I decided that I was going to be a composer, that I wanted to become a composer,” Little said. “And I spent the next couple of years trying to figure out what that meant, as far as what you do as a composer. I understood that you wrote the music, but beyond that, what did it mean for it to be your job?”
Little began writing music and doing arrangements for ensembles around him, improving his musical skills prior to college. At the time, as a percussionist, Little could not read the pitches of music very well, and so he worked to expand his abilities in that direction. He attended Susquehanna University for his undergraduate degree, initially studying music education but soon switching to percussion. While there, he took composition lessons and dedicated as much or more time to that as he did his major.
By the time he completed his degree he had built up a substantial enough portfolio to be accepted as a fellow at the prestigious Tanglewood Music Center summer program. The following autumn, he enrolled in the Master of Music in Composition program at the University of Michigan. Following his graduation, he moved to Boston, where he studied privately with Osvaldo Golijov, but after a time, he enrolled in the Ph.D. program at Princeton University, which he completed in 2011.
There’s nothing about Little’s appearance that screams “composer,” but after a while speaking with him it begins to feel implicitly right. Relaxed and congenial, Little tends to dress in dark and muted colors and wears rectangular glasses. He sports a neatly trimmed beard, and atop his head is an asymmetrical collection of tightly curled hair which seems somehow to defy the laws of physics in a way I can’t quite place. Still young, Little speaks with a casual and laid-back tone, but directs the conversation towards art, music, politics or human existence — all the big idea topics — and you quickly realize that he has thought both quite keenly and deeply about the world around him and explains himself in language that is simultaneously articulate and expressive. He remains one of the few people I’ve ever heard use the lowercase word, “catholic,” in a conversational setting, coincidentally while discussing his opera about the first uppercase Catholic president, John F. Kennedy.
“I’m very interested in history, very interested in politics, in the sense of political structures and how power works between individuals,” Little said. “I think that’s something that really plays into my interest in opera, because … the idea of the personal as political really manifests in the power between individuals. So someone who is powerful or lacks power, you can express that in an opera and it can be … a metaphor for social structure.”
Little is best known for his dramatic and stage works. While his reputation has been growing steadily ever since his time at the University in the early 2000s, it was really in 2012 when he was catapulted to national and international fame, with the premiere of his opera “Dog Days,” which was lauded by the likes of the New York Times and The New Yorker as one of the standout new operas of the era. Together with the librettist (one who writes the lyrics to an opera), Royce Vavrek, Little refuses to shy away from the large ideas of existence, producing works of both dexterous technical construction and profound emotional urgency. Set in a near future, pseudo-post-apocalyptic America, “Dog Days” tells the story of a nuclear family on the brink of starvation that is confronted with questions of humanness and morality when a man dressed — and living — as a dog appears begging at their home, creating conflict with the family’s aggressive patriarch, Howard.
“In the case of ‘Dog Days,’ … we have a character who is grappling with what we would call today toxic masculinity,” Little said. “He’s grappling with this inherited mythology of what it is to be a man in late 20th-century America, which in the story manifests as behavior which leads to the death of his entire family, (and includes) his ceasing to be human by becoming a murderer.”
More than embracing discomforting thematic ideas, Little and Vavrek also demonstrate in “Dog Days” what I perceive as a shift in opera’s cultural mores in their choice of language. Less than a minute into the opera, our ears are already peppered with a string of expletives like “fucking” and “shit,” an artistic choice which — at least in my eyes — reflects a bend toward a more fundamentally honest art in opera in the same way that Joyce’s “Ulysses” did for the novel a century ago. After all, who among us would not — in the way that the characters of “Dog Days” do — express ourselves in crude and frustrated language if placed in a brutal, war-torn hellscape?
More recently than “Dog Days,” Little has produced an opera which looks backward in time rather than forward: “JFK,” a screening of which I attended this weekend. Thinking over it again, the opera works with many similar themes to “Dog Days,” in that it asks us to examine ourselves. Taking place almost entirely on Nov. 21, 1963, Little and Vavrek wrote a drama which follows the 35th president of the United States and his wife, Jackie, the night before his assassination.
“(I’m interested in) human beings, what it is to be a person. In a certain sense they’re very simple but very existential questions, you know, what does it mean to be alive, what does it mean to grapple with mortality?” Little said. “In the case of my most recent opera ‘JFK,’ it’s really about the audience watching a person who they know will die in 12 hours experience their last 12 hours of life, and that becomes a mirror on our own existence. If we knew that we had 12 hours left, how would you behave, what would you do differently? And watching someone who is unaware of that makes that really explicit, and in some cases really painful to watch.”
Little doesn’t claim to have the answers to all the questions he raises in his work, a trait which differentiates him from much of the political art of the 20th century, but he does have some thoughts about what an audience should get from it.
“We wanted (the audience) to leave with the sense that they should hug their partners a little longer, value the people in their lives, be aware of valuing them,” Little said. “Because it’s very easy in life today to forget about that, to get wrapped up in being busy, wrapped up in your job, in work, and forget that we are all amidst this network of relationships, each of which will end at some point, potentially under unpleasant circumstances.”
Little also works considerably with the idea of the intersection between memory and society, and in exploring the ways that one influences the other.
“I’m really interested in memory generally, partially because it’s so unreliable … but also, how does memory affect us culturally?” Little asked rhetorically. “You see this in current political discussion, people talking about the rise of fascism. You see people referencing the rise of Hitler in regard to the rise of Trump. And whether or not you believe that is accurate, I find it interesting that that memory is relevant now.”
Extrapolating from frequent themes such as memory and humanness, Little deals heavily with political concepts. In the past more than now, Little was known for writing political music, but in recent years has shifted from writing about politics to, in some ways, writing about what politics is about.
“I think of someone like Georg Büchner, you know, ‘Woyzeck,’ and that’s a deeply political piece, and it’s a political piece that is against a military landscape, but the politics of it are not the politics of Democrat and Republican — not that they would be in Weimar Germany,” Little said. “It’s a different kind of political manifestation. And there’s also an extent to which it doesn’t have anything to do with politics. Beyond which, aside from the idea that perhaps dealing with one’s mortality is a motivating factor for a politician, whatever drives them, I think that fear of dying is something that drives people to do sometimes great things and sometimes awful things. But it’s a thing that is very deep in us humans.”
Little is also cognizant of and interested in the role he plays as an artist. Particularly working in genres such as opera, he believes that the artist can be an agent of change or bring greater awareness to society.
“There’s a great quote, and I think it’s from Bertolt Brecht, although I could be wrong. It is that ‘art is not a mirror with which to reflect society but a hammer with which to shape it,’ which is something that I like, and I think about a lot,” Little said. “I think that that can also apply not just in a political sense but also in an existential sense. I think that especially my recent work is interested in exploring ideas about what it means to be human, and more specifically what it means to be human operating within a larger social structure that has its own ideas about how you should behave … my interest is increasingly not so much — going back to that Brecht quote — to shape society through explicit political means or political messages … but, if I can contort the quote a bit, to make the mirror into a hammer, to show us ourselves, but in a way that also shapes actions moving forward.”
Elaborating on that complex idea, Little continued by saying that it is his hope that he can help society understand itself through art.
“I think so much of what we do is about our understanding of life and our understanding of existence,” Little said. “And we as a culture look to various places for that; we look to religion, we look to nationalism, we look also to ourselves and our sense of self. And so, how can art — particularly when writing opera — how can those works help in the discovery of the individual?”
Little aims in his work to leave the audience with questions, not of the confused sort about the art itself, but more about who we are, who we could be, and the other fundamental issues of identity and place. He wants us all to search for answers, whether or not we may find them.
“I think the struggle has value. I think it’s worth asking a question even if the answer doesn’t come easily,” Little said. “And I think there’s value in continuing to pursue it, even if sometimes answering a particular question can take a long time. It can take a decade, a lifetime. But that pursuit has great value.”