Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider, who made the critically-acclaimed Penelope and recorded it with Shara Worden, that Sarah Kirkland Snider, sat down and spoke to The Glass…Wow, this is difficult to let sink in!
Sarah has a piece for solo cello titled “The Reserved, The Reticent” that is among many great works programmed for the West 4th New Music Collective’s event Cellophilia, taking place this Friday, June 8th at 9 PM at 92nd Street Y Tribeca in NY. We talked about that and a few other career-related things!
CM: How did you get started as a composer?
SKS: I had a very musical childhood: I studied piano, cello, and classical guitar, played in orchestras and string quartets, and sang in choirs. And I was always writing music, music that was very melodic and expressive. But I didn’t show that music to anyone until my junior year of high school, when I showed my piano teacher, who recommended I study composition in college. But the college I went to, Wesleyan University, had a very experimental, avant-garde music program (Alvin Lucier and Anthony Braxton were both there), where students were making music with lightning balls and bottles of Mountain Dew, or doing 30-minute scream pieces, and I was too afraid to show my emotionally direct, Debussy and Chopin-influenced piano music to anyone. In fact, I decided against majoring in music, in part because of the nature of the program, but also because music already felt like my first language and I felt like I should challenge myself to study something I couldn’t as easily study on my own (oh the naivete!) So I moved to New York and took a job as a legal assistant at the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, thinking I might go into public sector law. But soon thereafter I began writing music for downtown theater productions on the side, and started taking more and more unpaid days off from my job to do so. Finally I realized I wouldn’t be happy unless I was doing music full-time. So I started on a long, arduous journey to grad school: theory, orchestration, and history coursework in the evenings at Juilliard, Mannes, and NYU, as well as private composition lessons with Justin Dello Joio (a brilliant, Nadia Boulanger-style teacher), and finally wound up at Yale.
CM: Can you talk about the piece “The Reserved, The Reticent” that’s being featured at the upcoming West 4th concert Cellophilia?
SKS: It’s a solo cello piece that I wrote in 2004, while at Yale. It’s a big, Romantic, virtuosic, ambitious piece–that was the kind of music I was writing then. At that point in time I felt it was necessary to put the whole world into every piece–sadness, wonder, fury, delicacy, levity, profundity–so it would take me forever to write anything and afterward I’d feel completely drained. It wasn’t the healthiest or happiest period of my composing. I remember a lesson with David Lang a year after writing this piece, when he said “It’s not every day that you’re meeting the love of your life or your child is born or you hear a symphony that you spent a year writing. Most days are about having a cup of coffee; why can’t a piece of music be about having a cup of coffee?”. That comment made an impression on me. Still, despite the fact that I sweated blood over it and that it’s quite different from what I’m writing now, I love this piece and am proud of it. Listening to it now for me is like reading an old journal entry.
CM: Penelope was your breakthrough–Can you talk about that work and working with Shara Worden?
SKS: I guess you could say Penelope was something of a turning point for me as a composer, in the sense that I finally allowed myself access to the full range of my influences. All through middle and high school I was writing piano music that was somewhere between Debussy and Joni Mitchell, but when I started studying composition formally I completely repressed all popular music influences. I still listened to loads of pop music and went to lots of rock shows, but I tried hard to minimize pop music’s appearance in anything I was writing, which was strange and exhausting and a-room-of-funhouse-mirrors, because I’ve never written anything that wasn’t melodic and direct, so where exactly was I drawing the line? In any case, Penelope finally gave me an excuse to stop worrying about all this nonsense, for two reasons: 1) The Getty Center commissioned me to write it for the playwright Ellen McLaughlin to sing, and she cannot read music, so the music had to be somewhat simple and memorable so she could learn it by ear, and 2) Ellen’s text was extremely direct and plainspoken, almost singer-songwriterly, and frankly wouldn’t have made sense to set in any way that wasn’t direct, honest and heartfelt.
So then I started thinking, “Wait, I have all these ideas for the music that I think will make sense for the project, but I’m afraid to use them because I’m a ‘classical’ composer? Why does the classical portion of my background have more say over what I write than the non-classical portion? I’m going to die one day and I’m wasting time worrying about whether the genre of what I’m writing is more important than the content?”. When Shara came aboard the project, I was all the more creatively liberated: we had a deep sense of eye-to-eye-ness in terms of our sensibility and approach to making music, and I could immediately relax into my ideas, knowing that she could capture something that transcended the whole issue of genre–something that was about character and mood, not style. With her voice in mind, the whole plan for each song became much clearer to me. So working with her was incredible. She’s incredible; she’s a true artist in every sense of the word. Everything she does has a tremendous amount of thought and intention behind it, and she’s very aware of the bigger picture, of the importance of authenticity, which leads her to care as much if not more about making something deeply personal as she does about making it technically beautiful.
Sarah K. Snider: “The Lotus Eaters” from Penelope (Shara Worden, vocals; Signal Ensemble)
CM: Also, yMusic were involved with another arrangement of that piece and “Daughter of The Waves”. These pieces sound so close in identity.
SKS: Yes, I wrote an arrangement of Penelope for yMusic, as well as “Daughter of the Waves”. Working with yMusic is dreamy. They’re all amazing musicians, and like Shara, they get the in-betweenness of genres with music like Penelope. It’s a sub-lingual thing; you get into rehearsal, they look at the page, they know the places I’m coming from musically, and they just play it. There doesn’t need to be a lot of conversation like, “can you play it with more of *this* feel?”. They just get it. Ultimately it comes down to a rhythmic sensibility, I think–with certain pop music gestures, it’s so important to play on the back of the beat, and that’s something that’s very foreign to most classical musicians. But the musicians in yMusic have grown up listening to and performing as much pop music as they have classical, and they also all just have an ear for rhythm–it’s like having an ear for accents, you can be really good at languages but still not have an ear for accents. They’re all good at languages and have an ear for accents.
SKS: No, no they haven’t, but I would love to, especially a violin concerto! A piano one would be incredible too, but there’s something particularly exciting to me about the idea of writing a violin concerto, so, who knows, maybe one of these days!
CM: Is there anything new you will be unveiling?
SKS: In addition to some new commissions, I’m working on a song cycle called Unremembered, which will be my next album. The text is by a brilliant poet and writer friend of mine, Nathaniel Bellows. It’s about ghosts in New England. It will feature a small collection of different singers. That’s all I can say at the moment.
If you are interested to going to see a live performance of “The Reserved, The Reticent”, it’s happening this Friday at Cellophilia:
Fri, Jun 8, 2012, 9 pm
92Y Tribeca MAINSTAGE
200 Hudson Street
Tribeca, NY 10013