Hearing Voices and Listening

By David T. Little

Featured image

Jacob Yarborough, Ghost Light, 2012 Photo: Jacob Yarborough Photography, some rights reserved


For the last several years I have had this feeling: something mysterious that I couldn’t quite articulate. Often triggered by art that I would encounter in the world, it was as if something unknown was telling me something unclear. Because I was listening, something started to change in my life and in my music.

This change isn’t any kind of epiphanic abandonment of previous compositional approaches or styles, but rather an evolution of them. It is a process of expansion, not replacement, and it is evident in my new piece for eighth blackbird, titled GHOSTLIGHT (ritual for six players). Perhaps I can quickly recount my path to this point—if only to understand it myself—and then talk a little about the piece itself.

on electronic music

2010: Writing Haunt of Last Nightfall, I embraced electronic music as a tool in the compositional process (as opposed to merely effect or decoration after the fact). In this process, I encountered a ghost in the machine: a collision of drones created complex beating patterns that I couldn’t have imagined. It was as if the music was telling me what it wanted to be, as opposed to the other way around. I listened, transcribing these beating patterns, which then became part of what the percussionists (Chicago’s Third Coast Percussion) were playing in the piece.


on electronic manipulation

Fast-forward to 2012: The ending in my opera Dog Days, in which the guitarist activates the 60Hz hum of his unplugged guitar chord, then manipulates that signal with a distortion pedal and an octave pedal, exploding this typically quiet tone into a wall of sheer, terrifying noise. Through electronic manipulation, I was able to reach into the sound and turn it inside out—breaking music to release its magic—a gesture that parallels the stage action in more ways than one.


on literary connections

Fast-forward to 2013: Reading Antonin Artaud’s The Theater and Its Double, and feeling its sympathetic vibrations. Reconnecting with the process and works of William S. Burroughs, and diving deeper into the works of David Lynch. And seeing in a flash the deep, if rarely mentioned, connections between the three. This leads to Artaud in the Black Lodge, an opera-in-progress in which I explore these connections, and in which electric buzzes and drones express a raw and mechanical sexual energy, as the cut-up technique releases magic meaning from broken text.


on fear

Fast-forward to a house fire; to running from burning buildings; to watching yellow incineration and coughing black poison.

on the conjured life

Fast-forward to 2015: To reading Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy; to Greek mythology; to studying the techniques of spectralism for the first time; to Grisey and Haas; to the Surrealist paintings in the MCA collection, and the films of Keren Cytter; to releasing magic from broken narratives; to my interest in ritual, reemerging after an inevitably failed suppression of my Catholic upbringing; to Lars von Trier’s (problematic) Anti-Christ, suggesting something otherworldly and old; to something that emerges and reemerges though we bury and rebury it again; to my new opera, JFK.

on inspiration

Fast forward to long ago: To the destabilization of time; to ancient ways and long lineages, intersecting time and space, manifesting in the buzzes and drones of groups like SunnO))), or Scott Walker’s nightmare-scapes that shouldn’t work—but do!—with their anguished donkey brays. To cryptic apocrypha; to phantasmagoria; to Jung and alchemy; to dreams; to faith in unseen forces and accepting that all that makes sense is that it all might not make sense.

to the end of the flashback

Fast-forward to Ghostlight.

II. GHOSTLIGHT (program note)

A ghost light shining in a darkened theater has always struck me as a symbol of both the mysteries of the unknown and the possibility of the sacred. The ghost light itself is of course connected with a sense of the supernatural through the superstitions of the theater. One thought regarding its origin is that, since every theater has its own ghost, the light was placed on stage as a kind of offering, allowing the ghost(s) a chance to play upon the stage, in exchange for the safely of the theater and its actors. Yet to me the ghost light has always felt more sacred than spooky. Like the setting for a ritual, or a kind of shrine where an eternal flame burns, honoring the age and sanctity of the Theater, with its direct lines back to the Greeks, gods, ritual, and magic. Ghostlight was inspired by this sense of ancient ritual, and the mysteries that lie within it.


Original painting de la artista Remedios Varo #mca #mcachicago #chicagoart

A photo posted by Edson Enriquez (@nosdeenriquez) on


Like many works by the artists to whom each movement is dedicated—Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Anne Waldman and Lou Harrison—Ghostlight is a self-contained journey, first inward, then out. It begins with the calm of a summer dusk, then gradually grows darker as it travels into murkier and stranger territory—the kind of psychic space where one might begin to hear voices—before emerging again into to the sunshine of a new day. It is a journey into the Enchanted Forest of fairy tales, where, as J. C. Cooper notes, "the soul enters the perils of the unknown; the realm of death; the secrets of nature, or the spiritual world which [one] must penetrate to find the meaning.” Like the ghost light itself, the work endeavors to explore the mysteries of the unknown and the possibility of the sacred.


J. C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopaedia Of Traditional Symbols (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978)