David T Little is the New York-based composer of the celebrated operas Soldier Songs and Dog Days, which “proved beyond any doubt that opera has both a relevant present and a bright future” (NYTimes), Little recently completed AGENCY for the Kronos Quartet, Haunt of Last Nightfall for Third Coast Percussion and CHARM for the Baltimore Symphony under Marin Alsop. In advance of our Pioneers of Percussion festival (where David has a piece in the 6th November event) We invited David to tell us about his long-standing interest in percussion music, and to give us some examples of his favourite 20th and 21st century works along the way. Below is Part 1 of his response (read part 2 here).
Leading up to their Pioneers of Percussion festival, this November 6-22, the good people at Nonclassical have asked me to write a little something about, you guessed it: percussion. And the timing is perfect. I've been working on finishing up a recording of my 2010 percussion quartet Haunt of Last Nightfall with Third Coast Percussion for release on New Amsterdam Records this winter, and so I have been thinking about this world—specifically, the quartet—and of the pieces that have meant a lot to me.
I grew up as a drummer, playing both in rock bands and (believe it or not) in a fife and drum corps, but it wasn't until I was around 16 that I first heard a "classical" percussion quartet. I remember very clearly. It was Talujon's CD hum, and I was particularly enchanted by their recordings of Cage's Third Construction and Reich's Drumming, part I. It wasn't long after I heard the big three by Christopher Rouse: Bonham, Ogoun Badagris and Ku-Ka Illimoku. All blew my mind in a different and exciting way. (Tan Dun's Elegy: Snow in June, Varese’s Ionisation, Xenakis’ Okho and Psappha and Philippe Manoury’s Métal would all follow.)
Third Construction - Third Coast recording - Mode Records DVD release:
But though these were (and are) great pieces, they definitely felt like someone else's music. Even at the time, they weren't really instances of the genre speaking to me as a composer, as much as it was about these composers speaking to me as a listener. Perhaps it was because I was really just starting out at the time, but though I loved the pieces, I could never really have imagined writing one myself, despite being a percussionist.
Then in 2001 I encountered a piece that really blew things wide open for me: Prayer of the Possessed (1998), by Florian Magnus Maier. Florian and I were fellows together at the Tanglewood Music Center, and I happened to hear the piece in an after-hours listening party. (It wasn't a piece he played for the guest composers, if I recall.) I was maybe 22 at the time, the youngest in a much more professionally experienced class, and I often felt that inexperience pretty intensely; like I should have been writing music more like some of my older colleagues: notier, thornier, more modernist. But hearing Florian's piece was a revelation. I realized that I really could just write what I wanted—aesthetic warfare be damned—even if that “what” was death metal. I realized that all the so-called "rules" I had been reading about in books on "modern music" were totally arbitrary—or if not arbitrary, then at least biased. I could choose to ignore them and write the music I wanted to write, and wanted to hear.
Prayer of the Possessed (1998, excerpt), by Florian Magnus Maier.
Prayer of the Possessed takes its text "from the Book Maqlu (Mesopotamia, ca. 3000 BC), an exorcism called “A Most Excellent Charm Against the Hordes of Demons that Attack by Night.” This charm is "designed for a specific type of magical accident: The magician, returning from astral travel, finds his body possessed by discarnated hostile spirits. Trapped between his paralyzed mortal shell and the nothingness of unbeing, he mentally recites this spell to cast out the demon and regain control over his body. " Florian has since gone on to front the black metal band Dark Fortress—as well as continuing to compose concert music—and I love that in Prayer of the Possessed, he found a way to already be that person. This was a percussion quartet by a guy who could and would front a black metal band. That he’d defined for himself what kind of artist he was going to be was inspiring to me as a young composer. (Oscar Bettison's Dirty Cakes and Breaking and Entering, though not for percussion quartet, had a similar impact.) It was the most important thing I learned at Tanglewood that summer, and I've pretty much been operating that way ever them since.