Sounding discord

David T. Little pursues musical activism through superior firepower.

PIECE SELLS...BUT WHO–S BUYING?David T. Little–s compositions have figured prominently in major concerts and festivals this season.

PIECE SELLS...BUT WHO–S BUYING?David T. Little–s compositions have figured prominently in major concerts and festivals this season.

To say that composer David T. Little is having a banner season is something of an understatement. So far this year, Newspeak, Little’s heavy-metal–infused chamber ensemble, has played the Cornelia Street Café, Symphony Space and Princeton University, and recently closed the MATA Festival at the Brooklyn Lyceum. On Friday 2, again at the Lyceum, the group presents a provocative concert titled “Which Side Are You On? Music By, For and Against Frederic Rzewski at 70.” The following weekend, New York City Opera will present Little’s Soldier Songs during its annual Vox showcase of new operas. The busy composer also somehow managed to turn in the latest chapter of a dissertation on political music, while resuming duties as Newspeak’s drummer.

“We were having trouble keeping drummers who had both the reading chops and the rock background needed to really sell the material,” Little explains. His music combines the influence of his formative years as a heavy-metal drummer with compositional skills acquired at Susquehanna University, the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor and Princeton. And as anyone who regularly attends concerts of rock-inspired contemporary-classical pieces can attest, having the right players is crucial.

“It’s like playing Baroque music: If you don’t understand the performance practice, it doesn’t sound right,” Little explains. “[Newspeak] came about as a way for dealing with the frustration I felt trying to write pieces for classical players that brought in the influence of rock, and then having it not come off. I realized that I needed to collect people who understand this performance practice.”

Now operating with a crack Newspeak lineup (including violinist-vocalist Caleb Burhans of Alarm Will Sound and keyboardist James Johnston of Electric Kompany), Little will be confronting one of his spiritual forebears on Friday night, in a program inspired by a Carnegie Hall tribute to Frederic Rzewski the previous day. Little was struck by the irony of a May Day concert honoring a notoriously left-wing radical composer at a hall named for industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, whose reputation as a labor champion was tarnished by his union-breaking action during an 1892 strike at his Homestead, PA, steel plant.

“I thought it would be an interesting thing to explore the dialectic between Rzewski’s music and this sort of frame,” Little says, “and also the issues of potential complicity in all of us: You’re a socially engaged artist, yet you apply for NEA grants.” Among the pieces Newspeak will play are Rzewski’s The Price of Oil, Little’s Sweet Light Crude and Ted Hearne’s My Catalonia—the last actually inspired by the Homestead Strike. Still, Little insists, the concert is as much a tribute as a challenge: Rzewski will be present, and WNYC-FM Evening Music host Terrance McKnight will interview both him and Little.

Another facet of Little’s socially conscious art will be revealed when New York City Opera presents his Soldier Songs. Inspired by the story of antiwar activist Carlos Arredondo and a violent scene from the Todd Solondz film Happiness, Little created a multifaceted exploration of the process through which a child might become a soldier or a pacifist. The piece digs into sensitive issues, and includes recorded testimony from friends and family members who served in military and intelligence operations from World War II to the current crisis in Iraq.

Still, Little says, Soldier Songs is not an attempt to preach or convert. “When I was working with William Bolcom at the University of Michigan, I brought in this angry, political orchestral piece, and he said, ‘You know, I don’t need a piece of music to tell me that war is bad,’ ” Little recalls. “I think that’s an oversimplification, but the point is well taken: Don’t just address that issue, address the larger issues. Trying to bring out social structures of power, or certain ironies and inconsistencies: That’s where my interest lies.”

Newspeak plays the Brooklyn Lyceum May 2, 2008. Soldier Songs will be performed during New York City Opera’s Vox 2008 showcase at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts May 11, 2008.