Disquiet,” the Sarah Kirkland Snider piece to be premiered within the week by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, was conceived in 2000. “Basically, it was a melody that I couldn’t get out of my head,” Snider says in a telephone interview from her Princeton home. “I was living in New York, and I would sing it to myself on the subway.” By 2005 the slowly gestating work, in its first iteration, had become an orchestral piece performed at Yale University, where Snider was a graduate student. Now, tweaked and extended, the composition opens the PSO concert on Sunday, May 13, at 4 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium.
The program includes Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major with soloist Rieko Aizawa, as well as Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 4. Music Director Rossen Milanov conducts.
Twelve years ago in 2000 Snider, then 26, was working as a legal assistant for New York’s Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, an offshoot of the American Civil Liberties Union. With a degree from Wesleyan University in sociology and psychology, she was considering graduate study or law school as her next option. However, the persistent four-bar theme that lodged in her brain refused to go away and, eventually, determined her choice of career.
Paralegal Snider’s exposure to music was extensive. “Some of my earliest memories are of making up songs,” she says. “They’re not that different from the tunes I’m writing now. I began writing music down when I was 10.” Her exposure to formal instruction in composition, however, didn’t come until 15 years later.
“My parents were not musical. We had no piano. I would knock on doors of neighbors and ask if they had a piano,” she says. At any rate, she started piano at age 7, cello at 10, and classical guitar in high school. “Piano was my first love, my true love,” she says.
“I did a lot of singing as a child,” Snider says. “I went to summer camp at the American Boychoir School for five or six summers.”
In high school Snider played instruments and sang. “Princeton High School had an amazing choir and great orchestras,” she says. “It was an impactful experience. I had a very well-rounded introduction to classical music with piano, orchestra, and singing. But I didn’t have much modern music. I hadn’t even heard of Stravinsky until I got to Wesleyan.”
At Wesleyan Snider avoided majoring in music. “There were music courses that I wanted to take, like ‘Ethnomusicology and Film.’ But if you were a music major, you couldn’t take them without having the basic music courses. I had had a rich childhood in music, and felt that music was my first language. I felt like it was a waste to take basic music courses. So I majored in sociology and psychology.”
She kept her compositions to herself. “The music composed at Wesleyan was experimental,” she says. “I was afraid to show my music to anyone. My stuff was conventional; theirs was avant-garde. My piano pieces were inspired by Debussy and Ravel. I thought it would be too embarrassing to let anybody see them.”
After Wesleyan, Snider worked in New York. “I was considering law school or graduate work in psychology, but I couldn’t help thinking about music,” she says. At age 25 Snider worked with a composition teacher for the first time.
“I started taking classes in music at Juilliard, at Mannes, and at NYU. I took them wherever I could and whenever they fit into my schedule. I was working full time. I got a sense of different programs, and got a lot of advice from different professors at different schools.”
Eventually, Snider began graduate work in musical composition at NYU. Her mentor there was Justin Dello Joio. “I studied privately with him,” she says. “He knows how to teach the nuts and bolts of music. We started with medieval music and worked forward historically. We worked one-on-one and studied what made each music work. He took a red pen to my compositions.”
“When you go to graduate school there’s no time for that kind of personal involvement or that level of scrutiny any more.”
Meanwhile, the “Disquiet” theme kept floating in her head. “I thought it might be best served by being set for orchestra, but I was new to formal composing. I thought I needed to wait and let it marinate.”
Snider was accepted to Yale’s graduate program in 2002. “By then I had a great background in music history and theory,” she says. Required to write an orchestral piece near the end of her second year of graduate study, Snider decided to use the musical material that had lodged itself with her in New York. She finished an orchestral version of “Disquiet” in 2005. However, even after its performance “it still haunted me,” she says.
“There were certain things that I was not entirely happy with after the 2005 version. I felt that there were ways where I could make the piece more me, rather than using a somewhat limited musical language. When I put the 2005 version together I had enormous reverence for the music of the past and much uncertainty about myself. That kind of thinking can interfere with original expression. There were some musical gestures that I thought I could make more original and fresh. I wanted to add a patina to the music, to add some comments on the material that would make the music more unique.”
“I decided to reuse the coda by putting it at the beginning as well as at the end. The coda was an inversion of some of the original material. I thought it was one of the most interesting parts of the piece, and that using it twice would make good bookends. I like pieces that tell you at the beginning what the building blocks are. The coda-beginning is a thoughtful, pensive section that makes a good contrast with the demonstrative main part, which is outburst, and declaration, and very emotional. The book ends are tranquil and reflective.”
“As the piece stands now, it’s like a geyser erupting, or like opening a fire hydrant valve. The piece tries to find expression for words unspoken. It finally releases something where huge pressure has been developing.”
“This piece is more conservative than what I would write now,” Snider says. “I’m not trying to be disparaging or pejorative. The phrasing is just more romantic than what I would write now. Maybe it’s the influence of Dello Joio.”
“Disquiet” is about 14 minutes long. The walking speed with which Snider first envisioned the piece remained pretty much unchanged as the piece matured.
Snider is married to Princeton professor/composer Steve Mackey. Their son Jasper is three years old; daughter Dylan is 14 months. “They sing a lot,” Snider says. “Jasper makes up his own songs, with simple words like, ‘We are walking together.’ We hear him over the monitor at his bed when he wakes up in the morning.”
Snider’s parents live in Princeton. Her father is a retired health care pharmaceutical analyst. Her mother, a homemaker until composer Snider reached college, runs a pair of foundations devoted to lupus: Rheuminations and the research-oriented Lupus Clinical Trials Consortium. The couple’s son Ned, 15 months younger than composer sister Sarah, is a graphic designer.
In addition to her composing, Snider is co-director of New Amsterdam Records and New Amsterdam Presents. Both organizations serve the needs of artists whose musical balance is hard to define. Snider tries to characterize their situation as having “one foot in the classical world and one foot in the vernacular world of pop, rock, and jazz.” She calls their output “music that exists between genres, but is wholly organic and seamless in itself.” The New Amsterdam recording label has released almost 30 albums.
New Amsterdam Presents, the presenting organization, which acquired 501(c) status in 2011, is still in its formative stages. “Our artists present concerts in a wide range of venues around the world,” Snider says. “To use New York examples, they perform in august, hallowed classical concert halls like Carnegie Hall and Alice Tully Hall, in highly respected experimental venues like Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Kitchen, as well as in rock clubs like the Bell House, and all manner of spaces in between. It’s a reflection of the changing landscape of music listeners.”
“The world at large is hungry for music in between the genres,” Snider says. “The public is interested in adventurous music. That kind of music is not exactly classical. But neither is it suitable for sitting around and drinking while you talk with friends in a bar. It takes more listening than pop music does. It’s hard to put in a van and take on tour. The kind of music between the genres that I mean requires focused listening.”
Snider’s “Disquiet,” which premieres at Sunday’s PSO concert, is a prime example of what she’s talking about.
Princeton Symphony Orchestra, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Sunday, May 13, 4 p.m. ‘Spun Beauty’ with music by Sarah Kirkland Snider, Maurice Ravel, and Johannes Brahms. Snider, born and raised in Princeton, graduated from Princeton High School. Co-director of New Amsterdam Records, her 'Disquiet,' opens the performance. Rieko Aizawa is featured on piano. Pre-concert lecture at 3 p.m. $25 to $68. 609-497-0020 or www.princetonsymphony.org
Also “Behind the Music,” Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street. Friday, May 11, 8:30 p.m. Evening features Sarah Kirkland Snider, a composer. Performers include Martha Cluver and Caroline Shaw, sopranos; Nuiko Wadden on harp, and Mariel Roberts on cello. Refreshments, beer, and wine. 609-924-8777 or www.artscouncilofprinceton.org
“More than a Concert,” Nassau Presbyterian Church, 61 Nassau Street. Saturday, May 12, 9:15 a.m. 609-924-8203 or www. nassauchurch.org