Review: Soldier Songs
Composer David T. Little explores the psychic and physical devastation of war in his shattering song cycle.
Mon Jan 14 2013
Time Out Ratings<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
Photograph: Jill Steinberg
Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University. Music and text by David T. Little. Dir. Yuval Sharon. 1hr. No intermission.
A deep thud resonates every few seconds as you take your seat for Soldier Songs. It might be a hammer stroke on a low, dampened piano string, or the pulse of someone paralyzed with fear, or artillery fire heard from a distance—in a nightmare, maybe. Though not earsplitting, the sound drills into your gut, and it soon becomes hard to tell whether hearing it is something you anticipate or dread.
That nameless rhythm is the first of many enigmas in David T. Little’s Soldier Songs, now getting its New York premiere as part of Prototype, the first of what is intended to be an annual festival showcasing opera-theater hybrids. To write of mysteries is not to imply that Little’s music and words (drawn from interviews with veterans of five wars) or Yuval Sharon’s powerful staging pull punches. On the contrary: Both men's contributions are starkly eloquent, but Soldier Songs deals in realities that defy representation.
The unit set shows a sandbox and a seesaw. The characters are a boy and a man, who start off playing with toy soldiers and computer games; the man takes on the roles of a soldier, a veteran and a military parent, with the boy playing both witness and victims. Television monitors are scattered around them, and a video screen dangles overhead. Among the first words heard is a snippet of a recorded interview: “I never talk about this with anyone.” The horrors depicted in Soldier Songs exceed language, music and sight.
Spotlights blind the audience, flashing on and off as sirens shriek in “Steel Rain.” The coda, entitled “The Closed Mouth Speaks,” fades out with gasps and whimpers. Shadows fluttering behind a tent stand in for combat, though blood eventually seeps through the tent’s fabric as well as the dress shirt and business suit the soldier changes into when he comes home from the front. A bereaved parent howls over a condolence letter from the President “not even signed / by human hand.”
The piece offers a savage critique of our warmongering media: Amusements award “10,000 points” for blowing away “the bad guys with the funny names,” night-vision images make virtual specters of combatants and their targets, and “Hollywood ending[s]” dense with pyrotechnics skip over “bodies writhing / with missing parts.” Little’s kaleidoscopic score includes jaundiced nods to both Aaron Copland’s Americana and 19th-century orientalist music, minimalist chirps and chants in “Real American Hero” and “Hollywood Ending,” and blistering, Hendrix-style strings in “War After War.”
As the soldier, whose music ranges from a woozy falsetto to the darkest depths of the male voice, baritone Christopher Burchett gives a harrowing physical performance and sings with clarity and unsparing generosity. Zac Ballard performs the boy’s mostly silent part splendidly, and the Newspeak ensemble under Todd Reynolds plays with fierce, searing beauty. Chisato Uno’s set and costumes, Corey Michael Smithson’s animations and Christopher Kuhl’s lighting do their part to create the lashing, overpowering whirlwind that is Soldier Songs.