David T. Little Talks Guilty Pleasures and Finding His Voice as a Composer

By Ricky O’Bannon

David T. Little, Photo by Merri Cyr

David T. Little first came to the Cabrillo Festival in 2004 as a student in the Conductors/Composers Workshop. Little said that experience came at a pivotal time when he was learning how to write music that was honest to his eclectic musical background that includes a love for avant-garde classical, rock, metal and musical theater.

Little returned to Cabrillo for a performance of his 2013 piece Haunted Topography, which is inspired by a story he heard about a mother who couldn’t grieve her son’s death in the Vietnam War until she could see a map of where he died. The composer said the piece asks the audience to bear witness to the peculiar and individualized nature of the way we each process and recover from grief.

You started your musical life as a rock drummer, and then you began seriously studying avant-garde classical composers. You have said that at some point you realized you had rejected those rock roots to focus on “serious” classical music, and you decided that was foolish because that was a part of who you were musically. I’m interested in that realization. Was it an epiphany? Was it a process? And what led you to realize that your experience as a drummer needed to figure into your composing voice?

It wasn’t just the drumming, because I actually grew up doing a lot of musical theater as well. That was part of my world growing up, as well as an interest in tonality. As a student I was all about Webern, Cage and Schoenberg and these very intense avant-garde composers, who are amazing. I still love, value and enjoy studying them. But at a time I was kind of fixated on that to the exclusion of all this other great material. Before playing drum set I was also involved in fife and drum corps — this kind of ancient music from the Revolutionary War era.

When I was 15, I decided I wanted to be a composer because I was totally inspired by film music. I went to see The Nightmare Before Christmas when I was 15, and when I walked out of the theater I said, “I’m going to be a composer.” It became clear that this was what I was put on this planet to do, which was weird because I couldn’t read music very well. I could a little bit, but really not at any respectable level. All the fife and drum stuff I learned by ear. I could play well, and I knew a lot of music and had experience performing and learning it, but if you put a piece of sheet music in front of me, I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.

So part of the fixation on the avant-garde stuff early for me — maybe I felt like with tonality, I was having trouble learning the harmony. So maybe that was a way that I could still be really passionate about something while grappling with learning basic theory that I was struggling with as a college freshman.

I don’t actually know when it was that things came full circle. I was starting to write different kinds of music, and I was starting to feel like I wasn’t being totally honest with myself as a musical person and a listener. I would listen to the tunes of [the musical] Oklahoma! and think,” these are so good!” But the music I was writing would [never resemble that.]

I think a lot of people do feel that kind of pressure musically, so we’ll use the term “guilty pleasures.” And what is a guilty pleasure but music we like that is hard to intellectually defend or that we’re worried about what others think of the fact we like this stuff.

It’s funny because I actually have a piece that didn’t really survive, but I was trying to make a piece out of two pieces, and I called it “T(w)o Guilty Pleasures.” Since the W is in parenthesis it was not only numerically two guilty pleasures but also an homage or tribute to guilty pleasures. So yeah, that idea of guilty pleasures is something I really grappled with. Shortly after I was here [at Cabrillo] as a student composer was when that sort of changed. The piece that was performed here in 2004, that was a really pivotal piece in that path for me. I was a grad student working with William Bolcom. I was bringing this other piece. It was a very gnarly work based on the first of five pieces by Schoenberg for orchestra, which I love. And [Bolcom] just wasn’t into it. I wasn’t feeling like I was getting from him what I wanted to as a teacher because of what I was writing. That was frustrating, but the result was that I had to — and I think he knew this deep down, and we’ve talked about this since then — I had to find a kind of work that he would respond to. And that was this piece Screamer, which was this crazy Charles Ives-ian homage to the circus. It’s structured like a circus march.

That was the beginning of the crack in the mask. I said, “oh, that was really fun playing with those styles.” And having Marin Alsop respond to that piece [at the Cabrillo Festival] was great. I did this thing that was different from what I had been doing, and people were responding to it. And really, it was more honest.

It’s more honest to that 15-year-old kid who responded to Danny Elfman’s score to The Nightmare Before Christmas?

Totally. There’s a whole section that’s a straight Danny Elfman homage with a creepy, clown waltz thing. So that was in 2002 that I wrote that piece, and I took it here in 2004. And then from 2004 to 2006 was the time when I said “I’m not going to deny myself any of those guilty pleasures.” If there’s a style, harmony or whatever that feels like the right thing for this dramatic moment, I’m just going to do it.

I was in my mid-20s at the time, and I felt I still have time to undo this if it is a terrible mistake, and it turned out to be really liberating. It really defined the next chunk of my work, including my work with my ensemble Newspeak or my piece Sweet, Light Crude.

More recently, the stylistic stuff has gotten more and more integrated into the DNA of the piece. So if you look at a piece like Dog Days, it’s harder to find. There are definitely moments where a distinct [non-classical] style is happening, but it’s more integrated. Same with [my upcoming opera on JFK.] There are still moments that for dramatic reasons are referencing a particular style, but it’s mostly much more integrated.

I’ve heard pieces you’ve written for Newspeak that wear your rock influence overtly by incorporating things like electric guitars into a classical music context, but with a piece like Haunted Topography, how would you say that rock background comes out in obvious or integrated ways?

There’s a funny thing in Haunted Topography at the end, which I think is a good example of that. It gets very loud in this last big gesture, and there’s an indication in the score that all of the downbeats should be slightly late. And that’s actually something I use a lot, where every beat four is just a little slow and has a little effort to it so every downbeat feels heavier.

The place where I got that is actually Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” If you listen to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” if you listen to how [drummer] Dave Grohl is playing, he’s coming down on each downbeat from way up high, and they’re always a little later. Beat four is always a little longer and a little slower just because of the physicality of [Dave Grohl having to go further with his sticks.]

I think that’s one of the things that makes that song so amazing. Every downbeat just feels so heavy. I don’t think Dave thought about it, but it’s just how it happened. I mean maybe he did, and Dave Grohl was really calculated about it, but I just have a feeling it was part of the performance.

So more and more, those are the kinds of things I find really interesting. What are the things that naturally happen in in a rock performance or pop performance? I try to learn a lot from that. Especially in singing. What are the things that singers who are not classically trained doing as vocal ornaments? They’re only going to do them if they feel good to do, so if you take the things that feel good, understand why they feel good and can incorporate them into what you’re writing, then hopefully the things you’re composing will also feel natural.

In classical music, we think about time differently than rock, pop or things like jazz. I worry that because we’re working off of printed music, we can lose that deep sense of time. So I try to play around with that, and it’s something I think about constantly.

There is an accurate way to perform 4 quarter notes on a page, but if you listen to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which has 4 quarter notes on a page, it feels vastly different than a metronome. And that I think is where the music happens. That is where things feel so good in blues or jazz.

There’s character in inaccuracy.

Totally! There’s a great moment in this song, I think it’s “Hammer Smash Face” by the death metal band Cannibal Corpse.

I haven’t caught that one.

It’s good! It’s a classic in the death metal scene. There’s a moment where the drummer is playing a blast beat, and it’s a little too fast. The drummer can’t play it at the tempo it’s set. And I think he’s playing 7 where he should be playing 8, and it’s so cool because here is this polyrhythm that I don’t think was necessarily planned — something that comes from the physical limitations, or in the Dave Grohl thing, the physical distance. In Haunted Topography that’s something I get from [that rock background.] It’s something I use a lot now.

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