“I just chose to conveniently ignore what I would have to do with a gun in my hand.” That’s just one of the oral-history tidbits taken from interviews with real-life veterans that composer/drummer David T. Little includes in his song cycle Soldier Songs. Little’s mini-opera, workshopped at New York City Opera in early 2008 before seeing its first full production in 2011, can feel like a letter from the recent past — a time when news breaks regarding fresh American casualties in Iraq were more front-of-mind for the nation.
Despite averring in the liner notes that he’s become less reflexively dismissive of those participating in the national war effort — especially in light of having interviewed the veterans who speak in this recording — there’s an unmistakable sardonic quality to the first two “acts” of Little’s opus. In “Real American Heroes,” a jejune recruit — sung by a baritone in falsetto voice — fantasizes about serving the nation, with jaunty 6/4 time. Seconds later, in deep adult voice, he’s “killing all the bad guys” in a breathless, whirling 11/16 meter. By the time of “Boom! Bang! Dead! (Rated “T” for Teen),” the focus of Little’s fine instrumental writing — composed with the virtuosos of the Newspeak ensemble in mind — has moved from a lead flute line to a machine-gun-riffing electric guitar part. A little on-the-nose, perhaps, but thrillingly done.
But it’s in the final stretch that Little’s chamber-opera finds a depth beyond its initial cynicism (and easy-joke titles). “Every Town Has a Wall” and “Two Marines” are both driven by post-war reflections, and it’s in those songs that Little reaches for the complexity of mood that also made Phil Kline’s Zippo Songs a modern classic. After that, this (exquisitely engineered) recording of Soldier Songs returns to oral-history mode, using new dialogue from our real-life soldiers. It’s a long coda, and perhaps robs the album of its proper climax, which comes in “Two Marines.”
Though traditional enjoyment may not be the point, either — precisely because we may be prone to think we’ve moved past the “Global War on Terror” era (drone strikes to the side), Little’s songs feel important, even necessary. “Most veterans won’t talk about it unless it’s with another veteran. Cuz people really don’t know how they’re feeling, unless it’s somebody that’s been there” runs another one of the real-life ex-grunt’s lines. For the many of us who haven’t been there, but remain responsible in our own ways for thinking through these issues, Soldier Songs provides a valuable service.