Opera Philadelphia

Composer's Note: Soldier Songs

By David T. Little

In 2004 I was invited to a career day at my former high school to speak with students about being a composer. I shared the stage with an old friend, Justen Bennett, who had just returned from Iraq, where he had been a field medic and had been among those who stormed Saddam Hussein’s palace. The contrast between Justen’s job and mine was striking.

Exiting the auditorium I saw a display case, which I remembered the school using to celebrate student achievements: a victory for the football team or marching band, or photos from the musical that had happened the previous week. Now it showed photos of soldiers: alumni currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, driving tanks and carrying machine guns. Here, in the same case where their prom photos might have been only a few years prior.

I remembered our days together in class, debating the ethics of Vietnam or the Gulf War. I reflected upon my attitude at the time: the simplistic view of an adolescent, that war was always wrong. I just didn’t understand why someone would enlist. But here, a decade later, my friends were defusing land mines in Iraq.

I considered my own family. My generation was the first in nearly a century not to serve in the military. My uncles were in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. My grandfathers were both in World War II, and my great-grandfather was in WWI. My third great-grandfather was killed in Tennessee fighting for the Union. In a way, I had descended from this thing I had previously dismissed. Cracks began to form in my absolutist position, and questions began to arise.

To find my own answers, I called family and friends who had served—and who were not on active duty at the time—and asked them to speak with me about their experience. It was from their stories that Soldier Songs began to emerge. Our recorded conversations feature prominently both as the basis for the libretto, and in the electronic component of the score.

What struck me most was that, in nearly every conversation, it was the first time the veterans had shared their experience, even though some had left active duty decades ago. "I’ve never talked about this with anybody" became a common refrain. This became central to the piece—what, for me, this piece is about: the difficulty or impossibility of the telling.

I am often asked if Soldier Songs is an anti-war piece, but it’s not that simple. I never intended for it to prove a point, or even to deliver a specific message. I selected and edited these conversations more as a way of sharing than as a way of convincing. I hope that Soldier Songs conveys what I gained by writing it: recognition of the soldier’s plight and a due measure of compassion.

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