Review: A Composer’s Redacted Music and Raucous Noise

April 19, 2019
by Zachary Woolfe

Redaction was on my mind on Thursday, as the Mueller report was released to the public with swaths of its text blacked out for legal and security reasons.

I didn’t think I’d encounter the same thing at the concert hall that evening. But near the end of the score for “AGENCY” — David T. Little’s raucous, passionate 2013 work for amplified string quartet and electronics, which was given its New York premiere at the Miller Theater at Columbia University — some of the notes are obscured by those distinctive blunt, dark rectangles.

A musical score takes on the trappings — and with them, the aura of obfuscation and unknowability — of a classified government document. Which makes sense given the subject of “AGENCY”: the proximity of Pine Gap, a defense intelligence facility in Australia, to Uluru, an indigenous holy site also known as Ayers Rock.

Each roughly half an hour, “AGENCY” and “Haunt of Last Nightfall” (2010), the two halves of a Composer Portrait devoted to Mr. Little, 40, at Miller on Thursday, were written around the same time as “Dog Days,” and you can hear the resemblance.

In all three works, episodes of crushing sonic violence coexist with oases of serene lyrical beauty for an overall sense of smoldering, luxuriant noise — a plangent yet gorgeous howl. All three are theatrical events, divided into acts. Unlike “Dog Days,” though, “Haunt” (which Mr. Little calls a “ghost play” for percussion quartet and electronics) and “AGENCY” lack plot, character, even text.

These purely instrumental works — “studies for operas,” Mr. Little suggested in an onstage interview — nevertheless tell stories. Your experience of them improves with reading the program notes and learning something about what inspired them, but you wouldn’t be bereft, or immune to their emotional impact, if you flew blind.

“Haunt” is a kind of requiem, a memorial for the 1981 massacre of civilians in the Salvadoran town of El Mozote by an American-backed government militia. Conveyed with relentless focus and energy by the members of Third Coast Percussion, its drama arises from the tension between the sounds we can see being produced live and those that appear from the shadows.

There is beauty here — a dawn trio of high bells; twinkling, milky mystical shimmers — but night inevitably engulfs day. Eventually wails and pummeling drums; thwacks stark as bullets; and buzzing, bawling electric guitar overwhelm the shining ecstatic wonder, the wordless hymns. The backing track begins with the sound of breathing; it, and the piece, ends with rustling and faint explosions.

“AGENCY” milks the sultriness of amplified strings — here the American Contemporary Music Ensemble — against an electronic backdrop that is, as in “Haunt,” ominously droning and dark. There’s text here — at one point luminous plucks punctuate the low buzz of voices speaking, perhaps over radios — but it’s muffled to the point of unintelligibility.

Mr. Little produced some of the work’s rhythms and pitches through elaborate ciphers and translation strategies: a kind of serious game of which the listener is more or less unaware. The question arises: What don’t we know we don’t know? After all, this is a text whose redactions we can’t even see. We hear them, as Mr. Little indicates in the score, only as scrapes of the bow, drops of water in the midst of a flood. The secret, whatever it is, is still safe from us.

Read the full review here.

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