Haunted Topography

Amy Miller

David T. Little

Haunted Topography

Orchestral version 2013

Orchestral Work

As I browsed through David T. Little’s work, Haunted Topography I was reminded of other classical composers, such as Beethoven and Mahler, who used horrific events and loss to tell a musical story. Little’s composition Haunted Topography in comparison to traditional classical music, was strikingly similar in that it emphasized intense emotion as the core of the aesthetic experience. I felt his artistic decisions were made, such as romantic composers, by wanting to tell their story and express feelings through musicality.

In his opening, Little began with just the piano, playing soft, slow pulsing chords which is unconventional for an orchestra piece. I noticed Little used the solo piano entrance to outline the chord progressions of the whole piece, as a sort of preview to his work. The opening of any piece, for me, is when you grab your audience’s attention or introduce what character presents itself first. I believe that decision to open his work with solo piano was to have the listener focus on that progression of so that when the rest of the ensemble came in they would have an idea of what would happen. Furthermore, Little is known for his storytelling through music. Therefore, it comes as no surprise he used the texture in the piano to set the mood of his story and create an image of how it all began. The soft dynamic of the piano and simplicity of the chords creates an unsuspecting atmosphere prior to an unexpected disaster that is slowly developed as the piece goes on. Little uses the piano as a dramatic foreshadowing of the intense emotions to follow, similar to the way that romantic composers of the 19th century before him would begin a piece with extremely soft dynamics and foreboding emotions.

After the piano introduction, the low strings were the first to join in, supporting the piano’s development of musical character foreshadowing sadness, loss, or grief. Little uses the continuation of the piano’s chord progression and steady pulse underneath the lyrical melodies to help to keep the piece moving, but still at a walking pace, such as a soldier’s steady march.  There is a sense of character development that is heard between two sections.  The chord progression he uses elicits the emotion of mourning and loss with deeper voices and overlapping timbres in the strings. The darker feeling throughout the piece resulted from Little’s choice to feature the lower range instruments in the orchestra. Each instrument supported another with these overlapping harmonies that were passed around to prevent breaks in the line. This gave the piece coherence and continuity, still in a slow 2/4 meter. I enjoyed how the entire piece was very lyrical, and used the repeated rhythmic pattern but in different between the cellos, violins, bass, and violas. Little created development over this same rhythmic progression, adding in more voices from the winds, brass, and percussion thus intensifying the theme and creating thicker textures as emotions deepened.  This use of instrumentation to convey emotion connects Little back to the tradition that proceeded him.

2 thoughts on “Haunted Topography

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  1. Amy,
    I find your overall basic analysis really interesting because as I listen to the piece, the cohesiveness is very apparent. I also hadn’t realized that his work was based off of something until I read your post. This really changes my perspective on the piece but what he was trying to convey definitely makes sense. Comparing him to Mahler is definitely the choice I would have made too.


  2. I thought it was interesting that he used lower instruments in his work and it immediately gave you this idea of “darkness” or made you feel a sense of something foreboding or ominous. I wonder if Little had used the upper strings if people would not have that same feeling? Sometimes I feel like upper range instruments can also be played in a manner that can frighten or give chills to the listener. However in this case the lower instruments and the dense textures seemed to create the effect he was after. The listener feels almost wary or nervous.
    I think it’s really neat that you connected Little’s use of emotional devices in his music to Mahler. Being a die-hard fan of Mahler I agree. They both seem to know how to get the write timbre and texture and chords to portray their feelings, no matter how dark or painful, to their audience.


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