New Music Tells the Story of Old Brooklyn

03/23/2012 8:58 AM |


This weekend, the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus will perform a program called “Brooklyn Village,” which traces the borough’s history through music, from Aaron Copland to Sufjan Stevens. The centerpiece of the program is a new work by David T. Little, the 33-year-old composer and drummer who leads the “punk-classical” group Newspeak, called AM I BORN, inspired by a painting in the Brooklyn Museum, Francis Guy’s “Winter Scene.” We spoke to Little, who lives in NJ but works and plays in Brooklyn, about how his piece came about, and also about the new music scene in Brooklyn.

When did you first experience “Winter Scene”?
[Brooklyn Phil artistic director] Alan Pierson contacted me about a year and a half ago to talk about a collaboration with the Brooklyn Philharmonic—a dramatic piece with voices, somehow tied to Brooklyn. I contacted my writing partner Royce Vavrek, and he actually first showed the painting to me—via the Brooklyn Museum’s website. It was only later that we both went to see it in person.

What kind of emotions did it raise in you?
Whenever I see an image of a person in an old painting or photograph, I can’t help but think, “This person is dead,” and ask, “Is this all that’s left of them?” Perhaps that’s a little morbid, but it’s a question that has led me to some really interesting places creatively, so I keep asking it. I don’t know if I would say that this inspires a feeling of sadness, per se, but it is definitely a kind of melancholy—an awareness of mortality perhaps, like the monk’s memento mori.

But in the case of the Francis Guy painting, a few things counter this melancholy. First, all of the people in the photos are active, so unlike a portrait where they are sitting specifically to be memorialized, the citizens of Brooklyn ca. 1820 are just doing their thing. In this, they seem to be much more alive than figures in traditional portraits, which I found inspiring. Second, these are normal people, and more importantly, we know who they are! It’s perhaps telling that I was writing this when the first installment of Occupy Wall Street was heating up this fall, but something about the documentation and memorialization of the average citizens in this painting felt like an interesting counterbalance to, say, the portrait of Pierre Van Cortlandt from 1731. In a way it felt like a kind of delayed justice, which I found inspiring.

Could you talk about some of the musical influences in this piece? Like the shape-note singing?
This piece explores some new terrain for me. I grew up playing drums in rock and punk bands, and a lot of my music over the years has drawn on this experience, full of rhythmic vibrancy and really concerned with pushing performers toward some sort of transcendental threshold. But here, the suspension of time was much more important than the keeping of it. So I found myself thinking a lot about Brian Eno’s ambient works, and some of Morton Feldman’s pieces, like Coptic Light. There’s this amazing stasis to these works that nonetheless is not static, if that makes sense.

The rock side of me got its fix through the Sacred Harp, which in a way is like death metal for choir. It’s very loud (for unamplified music), very raw, and full of these crazy fire-and-brimstone lyrics. The main shape note impetus for AM I BORN, was Idumea, which asks “Am I born to die.” My piece really fuses these two worlds, and uses this rather intense question to explore issues of memorialization, as inspired by the Guy painting.