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David T. Little: Haunt of Last Nightfall
New Amsterdam Records

It's interesting that American composer David T. Little's Haunt of Last Nightfall arrives mere months after New Amsterdam Records' previous release, the self-titled effort by The Knells, given that the creative force behind that project, Andrew McKenna Lee, also contributes in major ways to Little's release. That's not to suggest that the two recordings sound a whole lot alike, even if Lee's heavy guitar playing, so central an element on The Knells, does appear on Haunt of Last Nightfall. But whereas Lee's release presents a vocal-instrumental hybrid that pulls into its arresting orbit rock, classical, and prog, Little's work is more rooted in the new classical tradition and exemplifies a heavy percussion focus.

Third Coast Percussion members Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, David Skidmore, and Peter Martin are the primary players, but they're hardly alone: in addition to Lee (who also mixed the recording), the album includes Eileen Mack (clarinet), Mellissa Hughes (voice), and Toby Driver (bass), while the composer himself contributes snare drum, claps, and Ableton Live programming. A graduate of Susquehanna University, The University of Michigan, and Princeton University, Little is the founding artistic director of and drummer in the octet Newspeak and has composed works for the New World Symphony, Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, Alarm Will Sound, and the Baltimore Symphony, among others.

Commissioned by the Chicago-based quartet Third Coast Percussion, the piece takes as its subject matter the massacre at El Mozote, El Salvador that occurred between December 10th and 12th, 1981 in which an entire village was wiped out by US Military-trained Salvadoran government forces using American-made and provided arms. After learning about the event, Little found himself haunted by it: “I cannot forget the separation of families that happened on the morning of the second day—men to the right, women and children to the left—reminiscent of another atrocity, forty years earlier.” Creating the work thus became an act of catharsis for Little, one man's humble attempt to honour the memory of slaughtered innocents.

Though Haunt of Last Nightfall can be listened to on non-programmatic grounds, track titles such as “Between the Hammer and the Anvil” and “Line Up / Face Down” readily cue the listener to experience the material in accordance with its formal subject matter. Given the content involved, it doesn't surprise that the music is at times not only powerful but harrowing, especially during the nightmarish “Line Up / Face Down” and punishing “Smoldering Hymn.” The work begins on a quietly reflective note with lilting patterns of claps, marimbas, vibraphones, and clarinet collectively casting a spell in “Curtain, El Mozote” before aggressive drumming, bell strikes, and guitar stabs in “Between the Hammer and the Anvil” banish the peaceful tone of the opener. For those inclined to follow the work's development programmatically, it's easy to see the second part and the later “...And There Was Morning - The Second Day” as depicting the violent otherthrow of everyday life and the annihilation of a community. Throughout the recording, the music alternates between bright vibraphone-filled episodes and heavier ones darkened considerably by Lee's molten guitar riffs. As it turns out, however, some of the work's most powerful moments emerge during the quieter settings “Last Nightfall” and “Coda: And There Was Evening..., ” where Little's poignant music expresses hope and affirmation in the face of destruction.

Admittedly, the release is modest in length at thirty-two minutes, and certainly the CD could have accommodated the inclusion of a second piece to bring it up to something like fifty. A possible argument in defence of the release as presented is that including an accompanying piece could conceivably have diluted the impact of Haunt of Last Nightfall as the recording's focal point.

April 2014