28 June 2011

Little’s ‘Soldier Songs’

Sam Poon (left) and David Adam Moore

Among the few military strategists I’ve known, “lessons learned from the last war” are practically an obsession; seldom, however, do I notice any pacifists heeding them much. The great exception is one lesson learned from the Vietnam War: to hate the war, but to love the warrior. The anti-war movement vilified those individuals who fought, showing those men very little of the peace and love being preached to everybody else, and it soon became clear that American society had suffered as a result. The next time the United States entered into a major conflict, the Gulf War of 1990–91, anti-war demonstrators vowed to be kinder in their opposition, and that vow was renewed when George Bush invaded Iraq.

Now, years later, composer David T. Little has applied this principle to a work of seriousness and compassion, Soldier Songs, a cycle based on interviews he conducted with friends and relatives who fought in other wars. This work has received a fully staged production, courtesy of director Yuval Sharon and producer Beth Morrison, which I saw as part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven, CT, on June 24.

David Adam Moore as the Soldier

Musically, Little’s score is never less than riveting. He makes extensive use of percussion, as one might expect in a work about the drums of war, but he does so often imaginatively, and he brings a similarly inventive spirit to his use of dissonance, which is seldom predictable here (as it would be in the hands of other composers). He contrasts violent, harsh tones with expressive melodies, for impressive dramatic effects. “Yeah,” you think, “this guy may never have fought, but he does feel for soldiers.”

Dramaturgically, Little is on somewhat shakier ground. His texts follow the trajectory of an Everyman soldier (portrayed by baritone David Adam Moore) from idealistic child, playing war on the playground; to jingoistic youth, playing video games; to increasingly disillusioned (and terrified) grunt; to shell-shocked veteran. That’s terrific, and insightful, as far as it goes.

The trouble is that the perspective Little offers us is so highly selective — and his approach somewhat heavy-handed. There’s nothing positive at all in his Soldier’s tale, and even experiences that might have been supposed to be relatively pleasant are described only in order for them to be demolished a second later: the Soldier does find camaraderie in service, for example, but then his friends are blown up.

If the matter were as clear-cut as Little describes it, no one would ever enlist, much less re-up, and every veteran would come home with advanced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I don’t disagree that war is Hell, but I’d have appreciated a greater recognition that war is also seductive, purposeful (for better or worse), and difficult to avoid; and that military service is very often a sincere demonstration of a person’s core beliefs. To acknowledge these truths would not necessarily tip the scales of Little’s argument: on the contrary, he might have evinced even greater sympathy for the soldiers he cares about, and he’s a good enough composer to make his point while allowing for a broader perspective.

Todd Reynolds led the ensemble Newspeak in a vibrant performance: at various points in the score, the players lend their speaking voices to the mix, and the flautist hopped up to join the percussionist for four-handed xylophone-playing. A playground seesaw became an artillery gun and a sandbox became a soldier’s tent in Sharon’s visually arresting production. The director adroitly stressed the universality of the work: this wasn’t any one particular war, but a general statement evoking Vietnam as well as Iraq. Corey Michael Smithson’s animations went further, including images from both world wars, but his style is sometimes so impressionistic that I couldn’t tell what I was looking at — and as a result of trying to puzzle out the images, I didn’t focus on the rest of the stage business.

Likewise, pre-recorded spoken texts were often indistinct, sometimes intentionally so (as toward the end, when they overlapped, to haunting effect) but other times not, so that I was unsure whether I was supposed to understand the words. That’s a shame, not only because it diminished the work’s overall power but also because it distracted me from two excellent performances. Young Sam Poon embodied the Soldier’s boyhood at some times, at others his lost innocence or a war-zone insurgent. I can’t remember a performance this good from an actor so young in a production of this type: some credit goes to Sharon, who kept Poon busy with pertinent action at all times, but clearly the kid has talent of his own.

The heart of the performance, however, belonged to David Adam Moore. Given the nature of Little’s texts, it might be tempting to condescend to the Soldier: “Poor naïve shmuck doesn’t know what he’s getting into.” David never stooped so low, and he kept the character honest in all his changing moods, flinging himself around the stage with fearless abandon. Little’s score begins and ends with the singer unable to articulate words — in this production’s final scenes, that’s because the little boy is stifling him. In between, David screamed and keened and crooned, thrillingly.

He’s been excited about this piece since its inception, and immediately I understood why. David likes a challenge, and Soldier Songs is surely that, musically and physically — and emotionally. It’s a chance to make a valuable statement about people we know and care about, and such opportunities are why David got into singing in the first place — and that, in turn, is why I admire him. He’s always pushing himself and surprising me. There’s nothing halfway about him as an artist.

The Davids — Little and Moore — have been presenting Soldier Songs for a few years now, in various formats and venues, and I hope they’ll continue to do so. It’s work worth sharing, and thinking about.

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