David T. Little: Witness In Sound

Musically, David T. Little is not afraid to get in your face. Drawing from an eclectic stylistic palette as he tackles an equally diverse roster of topics—from fossil fuels to the experiences of soldiers at war and at home—he demonstrates himself to be an artist with open ears and passionate convictions.

“For a long time I said if I didn’t start composing when I did, I would totally have ended up in jail,” Little admits, recalling how he once relied on music as a way to work out his anger and frustration with the world around him. The young composer and drummer kept clear of law enforcement, however, and instead sought out broad exposure to different approaches to music. It was an educational journey that began at Susquehanna University and Tanglewood, and extended on to The University of Michigan and Princeton, where he recently completed his PhD. Academic training took him so far, but as he listened and experimented with sound, he developed the confidence to follow his instincts when it came to his own work, no matter where they led. At a certain point, he says, “I came to a conclusion that I couldn’t really worry if other composers liked what I was doing, that I just had to really believe in it and not worry too much about anything else.” It’s a grounding philosophy that continues to guide his music today.

In addition to honing his craft, his schooling also provided him with the opportunity to found and foster the ensemble Newspeak, which began as a trio in Ann Arbor in 2001, but today stands as an eight-member amplified ensemble that mixes a healthy dose of rock and classical performance practice into its set list. Though it’s no strange thing to be a composer who starts his own band these days, Little says that having access to this kind of evolving ensemble as he himself came into his own has been invaluable. “I love the fact that I have a group that I can write for, and I know the players and I know what they can do,” says Little. “And on the flip side they now know what I do, and they sort of tease me about, like, these particular doublings that I do that are a little tricky. So it just creates a really positive creative environment for me as a composer.”

In addition to Newspeak, Little’s composing and performing outlets continue to diversify. Filling the remaining hours in the day, Little has also taken on the position of executive director of the MATA Festival in New York, a stewardship he shares with the organization’s artistic director, Yotam Haber. Little’s own open ideas about music made the position a particularly good fit, even if it eats in to his already busy composing schedule. There are upcoming premieres of music he is now writing for larger forces: the New World Symphony and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, as well as a slot on the New York City Opera’s annual VOX festival. Simply fitting all this creative work into the time available has provided Little with a certain clarity. “You don’t have time to lie to yourself about what you think is good or not,” he says, pointing to works like his opera Vinkensport, which—with a nod toward the value of his academic training—he says he was able to write with surprising speed. But it required hard choices made quickly. “I had to be completely open and completely honest about what I was writing or else it would have been impossible.”

Over the past decade, Little’s music has continually turned towards political issues, which forced him to confront “all of the standard questions on the topic—like, can instrumental music be political?—and I didn’t have answers.”

He did, however, have teachers who asked hard questions and helped him find his way towards the kind of music he wanted to create, work that is political but not ideological. When William Bolcom challenged that he didn’t need a piece of music to tell him that war is bad, Little went looking for something deeper, “where you’re saying more than that, and you’re getting into something that isn’t obvious. You’re getting into something that isn’t about changing anyone’s mind, but about opening up some sort of dialog.” It’s the kind of work he’s come to refer to as the “politics of bearing witness,” using art as way to ask powerful questions rather than deliver proscribed answers.

“I think now historically it’s easy to erase that things happened—frighteningly so,” Little acknowledges. But it has also become his call to action. “A political role that an artist can inhabit is to counter that.”