Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider sits in front of the large projector screen in Princeton Public Library’s Community Room.
As one of her orchestrated scores appears on the screen, its patterns of lines and notes also wash over the composer, making her appear as if she were wearing the music created deep within.
“I’m fascinated by empathy,” she says of the score for “Penelope.” That’s a song cycle that National Public Radio called “inventive and subtle, with a mix of watery, undulating strings, guitars, percussion, and electronics that submerges you completely within the story.”
“I wanted to tell a story only music can tell,” the Princeton-born composer says during the first of several public talks leading to two Princeton Symphony Orchestra premieres — compositions that evoke memory in one and myth in the other on Sunday, May 15, at Richardson Auditorium and Tuesday, May 17, at Princeton High School.
Through a mixture of e-mails, written statements, and face-to-face conversation, the composer shared a portrait of herself and insight into her work, especially her new composition, “Hiraeth,” a memory piece having its regional premiere on Sunday, May 15.
The work’s title, says Snider, is “a Welsh word with no direct English equivalent, loosely translated as homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed; a longing, nostalgia, or wistfulness for a time and place we cannot return to.”
She says she discovered the word and concept through a statement by American novelist Carson McCullers: “As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known.” One of McCullers’ most famous works is “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.”
Says Snider: “I couldn’t quite believe this word existed because it described perfectly what my piece is about and the state of mind I was in as I was writing it.”
The state of mind was related to the death of her father, Arnold H. Snider III, who grew up in North Carolina before coming to Princeton, where he worked as a healthcare pharmaceutical analyst.
Although the composer was born and raised in Princeton, she says North Carolina became a part of her life. “My homesickness for North Carolina took on a new hue, as it was no longer just a place I loved, but a place that suddenly felt committed to the past in a much more palpable way, as I could no longer share those memories with my dad,” she says. The piece reflects “notions of home, family, and childhood, and the passing of my father.”
“Hiraeth” was commissioned by the Princeton Symphony and North Carolina Symphony Orchestra. Yet when it premiered in the Raleigh and Chapel Hill area of North Carolina in September, 2015, it had expanded beyond sound to include a film created by Mark DeChiazza — a filmmaker, designer, choreographer, and director who works nationally and directed the Princeton One Act Opera Project at Princeton University in 2012. The film will also be shown during the May 15 performance.
“I knew of Mark through several different projects he had done with new music ensembles and composers, including one with my husband,” composer and Princeton professor Steve Mackey, says Snider on how she connected with the filmmaker. “I think I first met him when he came to our house to collaborate with Steve, several years ago.
DeChiazza says the 30-minute orchestra piece “aims to realize moments that never existed — rarefied memories from an imagined childhood. The film’s imagery could be understood as an intricate collage of invented home movies — an idealized and amped-up version of dad’s old Super 8s.”
The film was shot on location around Salisbury, North Carolina, where Snider’s father grew up and where the composer, as a child, visited her grandparents.
To deepen the personal connections DeChiazza cast Snider’s son, Jasper, and daughter, Dylan, to capture “the immediate and tactile way that children explore their surroundings through play, and how childhood memories are shaped through this mode of encountering the world.”
DeChiazza says his intent was not to focus on factual details but to use tones, colors, and textures to exude “a poetry that can be understood through sensation and experience.”
After the work’s 2015 premiere, Snider told an interviewer, “This piece isn’t actually just about Salisbury. It’s about my father, who took ill with a rare cancer and died suddenly. It was difficult for me to write any music without it being colored by the grief I was experiencing then — but this was doubly the case for music about my father’s hometown, a place he loved deeply.”
The music reviewer for the Indy Weekly in North Carolina responded to the work’s premiere with, “Unsurprisingly, the music is quite dark, though never grim. She achieves this effect in ways both obvious and subtle: large swaths of minor-key harmonies; well-placed bursts of dissonance or eerie drones that cut against the cheerier melodies; dense orchestral writing that feels heavy, like the humid summer air of her memories; and the overall architecture, which never quite functions how you expect.”
The reviewer also notes, “While there are bits of pop and rock sprinkled occasionally through, the piece feels much more ‘classical’ than anything of Snider’s I’ve ever heard.”
“Hiraeth” continues Snider’s connection to the PSO, which in 2012 presented her “Disquiet” — a work reflecting the “agitation of unspoken words.” During the current 35th anniversary season, PSO saw the opportunity to honor women composers and musicians. The decision was a way of recognizing the orchestra’s founding artistic director — and one of Snider’s mentors and inspirations — Portia Sonnenfeld.
The current effort was sponsored by PSO board members Joyce and Georg Albers-Schonberg, and Melanie and John Clarke. Additional funding includes a $10,000 grant by the National Endowment of the Arts and an unspecified amount from the Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy.
The May 15 performance of “Hiraeth” will be given in honor of Snider’s late father, recognizing his sustained support of and contributions to the Princeton Symphony.
Other works on the program, called “Passion & Affection,” are Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture,” Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Wine, Women and Song,” and Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier Suit.”
PSO music director Rossen Milanov, who will conduct “Hiraeth,” and composer Snider will engage in two public discussions about the work. The first is on Saturday, May 14, at 4 p.m. at the Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street. The second is a pre-concert discussion on May 15 at 3 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium.
“Penelope,” Snider’s 2008 piece designed originally for voice and string quartet, is scheduled for a free performance on Tuesday, May 17, at 7 p.m. at Princeton High School’s Performing Arts Center.
The title refers to a central female figure in the Greek epic the “Odyssey,” one who struggles to maintain her life and dignity while her husband, Odysseus, struggles to return home after being reluctantly recruited into the Trojan War.
Snider says the work was designed as a music theater “monodrama” and evokes a contemporary situation: a woman hoping to help her war-traumatized husband and reading sections of the “Odyssey.”
The “meditation on memory, identity, and what it means to come home” began when the composer finished a graduate degree in music from Yale University in 2005 and playwright Ellen McLaughlin asked her to write the music for a commission she had from the Getty Center to do a piece on the five female characters of the “Odyssey.”
“I knew the kind of music that she liked, which was the ’60s folk tradition. I wanted to write something that she could really own and get inside of and be herself singing, as well as learn by ear. That gave me permission to write in a style that did incorporate my popular music interests,” says Snider. “It was the kind of music that I had written from the time I was 10, mixing Debussy and Joni Mitchell, and to me that felt very natural.”
During the recent Princeton Library presentation, PSO assistant conductor John Devlin — who will conduct the “Penelope” performance — joined Snider to discuss the work that includes vocals by the classically trained band singer Carla Kihlstedt, traditional orchestra instruments, drums, guitar, and sound recordings played on a laptop.
“It’s a challenge,” Devlin says of blending traditions, instruments, and technology to enliven a work prescribed by Snider “to channel the emotions of the text” and to maintain a “dreamy and ethereal quality.”
Musical selections and dramatic videos of “Penelope,” with portions taped at the East Point Lighthouse in New Jersey, can be seen on Youtube. Included is the section “Lotus Eaters,” which the Canadian online music magazine Textura wrote, “One would be hard pressed to hear melodies that are more gorgeous and soul-stirring than those distinguishing ‘The Lotus Eaters.’ Material so powerful places ‘Penelope’ head and shoulders above much else that was released in 2010,” the year the recording was released as a CD.
About her use of text and poetry, Snider says in a late night E-mail, written after returning from her work as co-director of New Amsterdam Records and New Amsterdam Presents in New York, “I think of myself as a narrative composer. I’m interested in writing music that tells a story — has an involving, emotionally direct, and vivid aural storyline — either with text or without (vocal music vs. instrumental). I do love writing vocal music, as language allows you to give specific, concrete information about the story you’re telling, and you can unpack a level of emotional nuance in the language that words alone cannot.
“I’m fascinated by the relationship between words and music, how a note or chord or rhythmic idea can subtly change our perception of a phrase’s meaning and psychological implications. But I’m equally enamored of writing purely instrumental music. The specific challenges are different but ultimately for me both are about narrative, or to boil it down further, tension and release. I’m happiest as a composer when I have a combination of vocal and non-vocal projects to work on or think about.”
Recently Snider contributed a piece for Genesis Quarterly (a sister publication to U.S. 1) and recalled both her Princeton childhood and path to becoming a composer. Her parents — including a mother who oversaw two lupus-related organizations — “were non-musical (though they loved to listen) and we had no instruments in our house at that time, so in my desire to make music I would knock on the doors of across-the-street neighbors and ask if I could play their piano. (Generously, they would oblige — who can say no to a soft-spoken pre-schooler on your doorstep asking to play your piano?) I played music by ear on neighbors’ pianos until I turned six, when my father convinced his parents to ship us their piano from North Carolina so I could take lessons.”
She says she continued with piano but when she went to John Witherspoon School she decided to play cello. “I’m not even sure I knew what kind of sound it made when I chose it, but I chose well. Over the next few years I had a profoundly good time playing cello in the orchestras of John Witherspoon, Princeton High School, and Albemarle, the co-ed summer program of the American Boychoir School, where I also learned to play chamber music.”
Although she always “made up music” — works inspired by Debussy and Ravel — and started writing music down when she around nine, she chose a different focus of study when she attended Wesleyan University, “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 says.
In 2000 Snider was a legal assistant for New York’s Center for Reproductive Law and Policy when she experienced “a melody that I couldn’t get out of my head.” The music led her to taking classes at Juilliard and New York University and then entering the Yale graduate program in 2002 at the age of 28. The internal song was the catalyst for “Disquiet,” premiered in 2005 by the Yale Philharmonia.
Although she says she sometimes feels self-conscious about writing, saying “It’s always an issue because once you get taught these ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts,’ it’s hard to get them out of your head,” Kirkland has emerged as a sound artist — in every sense.
As the American Composers Orchestra — dedicated to the creation, performance, preservation, and promulgation of music by American composers — writes, “(Snider’s) works have been commissioned and performed internationally by ACME, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus,” among many others.
The New York Times called her work “ravishingly melancholy” and the Conda Nast online publication Pitchfork noted, “Snider’s music lives in an increasingly populous inter-genre space that, as of yet, has produced only a few clear, confident voices. Snider is perhaps the most sophisticated of them all.” And her “Hiraeth” is slated for a 2017 performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D. C.
While the theme of “family” figures into her work, it also figures into her life. About meeting her husband, Steve Mackey — Snider says it started on a subway: “I was reading a playbill for a New York Philharmonic concert I’d just seen at Avery Fisher; he had just come from a show at Merkin Hall. He knew about the concert I’d seen — it was featuring music by a composer he felt some professional competition with — and asked me what I thought about it.
“I’m not usually one to be voluble with strangers, so I was being a bit standoffish. The funny thing is that I actually knew and really admired his music but didn’t recognize him, and it was only after I’d been making it difficult to talk for 10 minutes that I found out he was Steven Mackey. He then bopped off the train at Penn Station with a friendly wave, and I didn’t see him for another three years, when I bumped into him in Princeton while visiting my parents. I wound up asking if he’d listen to something I wrote — it took him a few weeks, but he finally wrote back with really detailed, careful thoughts on my piece. Then I asked to borrow an orchestral score and we met for coffee in New York to exchange it. The rest is history.”
Snider says she initially had misgivings about being involved with another composer. “The field of classical music is tiny, male-dominated, and can be quite chauvinistic. I wanted to succeed on my own merits. I went out of my way not to pursue professional relationships with Steve’s colleagues and collaborators and focused my energy on relationships and projects I was developing with friends I’d met in grad school. One of those was New Amsterdam, the Brooklyn-based record label and presenting organization I created with Judd Greenstein and William Brittelle in 2007.”
She adds, “I’m really glad that I had the good sense to marry Steve and not let anxieties about what other people might think affect me too much, because our relationship has been the best thing that ever happened to me. We’re lucky to have a very mutually supportive dynamic — we make it a priority to be sounding boards for each other creatively and professionally, playing our pieces-in-progress for each other and talking through compositional problems and career issues. It’s nice to be able to say to your spouse, ‘the counterpoint in the brass isn’t working’ and have them understand what you mean.
“I think it probably helps that we’re not mining the same ore compositionally — we’re both interested in narrative, but our languages are very different. We have two kids — 5 and 7 — so life is extremely busy and there have been some really intense moments when our deadlines have coincided, but like any other couple, you have your challenges and you figure them out. You’ve got to take advantage of good fortune when it strikes.”
He is also a “Penelope” guitarist, she says during the library presentation, tying all the threads of her work and life together — and bringing them home.
Sarah Kirkland Snider in conversation with conductor Rossen Milanov, Arts Council of Princeton’s Paul Robeson Center, 102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton Saturday, May 14, 4 p.m. Free.
Passion & Affection, Princeton Symphony Orchestra, Richardson Auditorium, Alexander Hall, Princeton University. Sunday, May 15, public discussion between Snider and Milanov, 3 p.m., performance at 4 p.m. $25 to $75.
Penelope, Princeton High Performing Arts Center, Walnut Lane, Princeton. Tuesday, May 17, 7:30 p.m. Free. 609-497-0020 or princetonsymphony.org.