Genre bending, angular but familiar with voices that recall a dream you had two nights ago, perhaps. Each Unremembered piece strikes a distant chord making your lost life into a musical composed by an unknown author.
Sarah Kirkland Snider’s new song cycle, “Unremembered,” begins and ends with billowing, eerie voices and the phrase “Someone breathed into my ear /The vapor of the dead.” In between, ghosts and mysterious figures lurk in shadowy thickets, lonely swamps and abandoned slaughterhouses. The macabre atmosphere is Snider’s own brand of New England gothic that would make Edgar Allan Poe proud. It is also a study in the beguiling power of memory.
The cycle’s 13 songs, scored for chamber orchestra, voices and electronics, uses texts by writer and artist Nathaniel Bellows. He draws, literally, from childhood memories in rural Massachusetts. The poems are accompanied by labyrinthine illustrations textured somewhere between cubism and stained-glass windows.
Snider’s music, like the images, is multilayered, often angular, and deftly blends ideas from rock and post-minimalist composers such as David Lang, one of her teachers. In “The Barn,” where we meet the specter of a white-gloved girl, strings slither and drums detonate like bombs, propelling a nightmarish chaos. Quieter songs are meticulously orchestrated, too. “The Swan” sways with misty strings, an undulating harp and the painterly touch of an oboe, while “The Speakers” displays an intricate weave of soft piano chords, acoustic guitar, celeste and gently rumbling electronics. Snider’s score, both terrifying and tender, gets a penetrating performance by conductor Edwin Outwater and a hand-picked orchestra, including members of ACME, Alarm Will Sound and So Percussion.
But it is Snider’s fresh, instinctive way with voices that sets her apart from most of her peers in the so-called indie classical school. Not just the soloists, like the commanding Shara Worden, who also appeared on the composer’s arresting 2010 song cycle “Penelope,” but groups of voices are stretched and layered with extended techniques. They pulsate in a shimmering bed of sound in “The River,” take flight with interlocking patterns in “The Girl” and unfold in fanfares of Renaissance-like polyphony to open “The Song.” DM Stith and Padma Newsome bravely join Worden to share the narrative solo duties.
Snider’s and Bellows’s mysterious and unsettling creations may strike some as child’s play, embellished with gloom — Schumann’s “Kinderszenen” meets “Nightmare on Elm Street.” But they just may contain clues to understanding the darker truths of adulthood.
Unremembered, out now on New Amsterdam, reunites Snider with Worden, and for good measure adds two more of indie rock's loveliest and most striking voices, Padma Newsome of Clogs and singer/songwriter/treasure D.M. Stith. This time around, the poetry is courtesy of Nathaniel Bellows, and the speaker is haunted not by the trauma of war but by an almost ordinary childhood—sometimes idyllic, sometimes disturbing, and often both at once.
As one might expect from a song cycle about youth and memory, Unremembered aches with the strange nostalgia of rediscovery: the rocking sing-song quality of Bellows's texts reads like the clothbound verses of some poet long gone out of vogue, and the yards of romantic orchestral texture Snider swaddles them in recall nothing so much as those brilliant and inexplicably forgotten Laurel Canyon sessions from the '70s.
Once in a while, Snider exposes the mechanisms that drive the music—as if the listener needed reminding that what she gets up to here is as cerebral as the more emotionally remote music of her concert-hall contemporaries—but she seems less interested in austerity than in generous displays of affect, and deftly tucks the clockwork back in between the score's orchestral exuberances.
And what an orchestra! The list of players is a who's who of New York players, assembled under the baton of Edwin Outwater, a conductor whose ear for hip sounds has put his Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony on the map for lovers of new music.
But even apart from these star performers, this recording, simply as a recording, is—thanks to keen production from Snider and percussionist/studio wiz Lawson White, plus additional electronic contributions from Michael Hammond of New Amsterdam's vastly underrated No Lands project—a work of art in its own right.
Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider braves these mystical terrors and takes on the full beauty and vast musical scope of childhood imagination in her latest release, “Unremembered.” The album is a 13-part song cycle, and each piece is its own narrative—a tender memory, a ghostly mystery, or a haunting message. Together, the cycle is a rumination on memory, innocence, imagination, and the strange and subtle horrors of growing up.
Composed for seven voices, chamber orchestra, and electronics, the songs were inspired by the poems and illustrations of writer and artist Nathaniel Bellows, a close friend of Snider. The poems depict poignant memories of Bellows’ own childhood upbringing in rural Massachusetts—tales which in turn triggered memories from Snider’s own childhood, giving shape to her musical settings of the text.
The album was released on New Amsterdam Records, a label Snider co-created with Judd Greenstein and William Brittelle in 2008 to promote classically-trained musicians who create outside the confines of the classical music tradition. The album features vocalists Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond), Padma Newsome (of Clogs), and singer-songwriter DM Stith gliding above the instrumental talents of musicians from contemporary ensembles like ACME, Alarm Will Sound, ICE, The Knights, and Sō Percussion.
A follow-up to Snider’s critically-acclaimed 2010 song cycle, “Penelope,” the new album lives somewhere in the mystical, mythical world between classical and pop genres. Each song is its own vividly colored vignette, a mesmerizing narrative brought to life through Snider’s rich textural and temperamental palette.
“I think that all of my music is narrative driven—that’s what I’m the most interested in musically—mood and storytelling and atmosphere,” Snider said in an interview with Molly Sheridan of NewMusicBox. “I’m fascinated by complex emotions—the places where affection crosses over and merges with dread, or regret merges with gratitude.”
From the ghostly echoes and somber lyricism of “Prelude” to the surreal dark carnival dance of “The Barn,” each piece tells a different tale of childhood; a memory embellished, ornamented, and altered over the years. In a way, Snider also embellishes memories of the classical genre—musically she recalls the strict rules and structures of the classical tradition, but she does so in a way that is blurred, broken, and beautifully contorted. Her collaboration with Worden helped breathe life into this eclectic collection of musical influences.
“Shara [Worden] had become my closest friend and we’d had so many conversations about classical versus pop music, and all of the frustrations that we had dealing with the lack of infrastructure to support music written in the cracks between those worlds,” Snider said in her interview with NewMusicBox. “She also just so comfortably can inhabit both worlds, which is something that so few singers can do, so I felt like I could really let it rip.”