5 Questions to Sarah Kirkland Snider (composer)

Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider is in the midst of a whirlwind season with a new orchestral commission from Detroit Symphony Orchestra; a multi-media co-commission, Hiraeth, from North Carolina Symphony and Princeton Symphony Orchestra; and a new mounting of her song-cycle Penelope, also by Princeton Symphony Orchestra. We got a chance to find out more on the eve of the New Jersey performances. 

How did you come to write Hiraeth?

Hiraeth is a 29-minute single-movement orchestral work co-commissioned by the North Carolina Symphony and Princeton Symphony Orchestra. North Carolina Symphony came to me in 2013 with the idea of my writing a piece that explored my family history in the state. My father grew up in the small town of Salisbury, and his side of the family goes back thirteen generations in the state (or so the Snider lore goes.) Growing up I spent a lot of time in North Carolina visiting family and friends, and I developed a deep love of the place. Shortly after I received the commission, my Dad, with whom I was very close, was diagnosed with a rare, untreatable cancer. He died three months later. I soon found that the piece I was writing wasn’t just about North Carolina and my nostalgia for it, but about the pain of letting go, and the ways grief refracts memory. ‘Hiraeth’ is a Welsh word, loosely translated as homesickness that is tinged with longing for the lost or departed, or for a home you can no longer return to.

There is also a film component to Hiraeth; what part does this play in the performance?

Music is abstract, and because the theme for this commission was so specific, I thought it would be interesting to have a visual component explore some of the memories that informed the writing of the piece. Sunlight was a salient feature of my memories of North Carolina — the play of light and shadow on Wax Myrtle trees on my grandparents’ patio; the burnished late-day light filtering through their sunroom windows; the soothing, consoling sunlight of winter, which looked and felt very different to me from the light up North. Filmmaker Mark DeChiazza has created beautiful films for new music projects, and I thought he might be able to capture some of this for Hiraeth. With the support of the North Carolina Symphony and two historic foundations in Salisbury, we were able to make it happen.

Initially, I thought the film would be an abstraction of landscape, architecture, and sky, but because the piece is ultimately about family, Mark suggested we involve my children (I have a son, 7, and daughter, 5) and my father’s identical twin brother. We then set about re-creating some of my father’s, uncle’s, and my childhood experiences in North Carolina — playing outside without parents, running around buildings downtown, riding in cars, visiting the cemetery, and social gatherings, which we shot with family friends still living in Salisbury. The result is something hazy and atmospheric, somewhere between memory and dream.

How did these autobiographical aspects affect the way you wrote the music?

It’s funny, I tend to think of all my music as autobiographical, as it’s all informed by my life experience and genetic makeup. But I did find that this commission created a uniquely personal, more intensely autobiographical writing space inside my head. I called upon specific childhood memories to trigger musical ideas, which is something I don’t usually do. I’d take a walk and think about the time my brother and cousin and I were down by the train tracks when I was 8 and my brother said something funny — how it felt when the train whooshed by, how my cousin’s laugh sounded, how the air smelled — and I’d hear a melodic idea. And then I’d work with that material while thinking about my Dad’s funeral, and I’d hear the material in a new light, conceive of it in a new way harmonically or rhythmically. So it was a process of summoning those memory-ideas and then layering and juxtaposing them in varying ways, the way memory does, the way grief does.

You just had the premiere of another orchestral piece, Something for the Dark, for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra; is orchestral writing a major focus of your work?

Yes, absolutely. I love writing for orchestra. It’s in many ways a masochistic undertaking: it’s time-consuming, it’s learning on the job (because every orchestra and acoustic space has different strengths and weaknesses), and there is devastatingly little rehearsal time. But I am a narrative composer who loves working with big ideas and large-scale structures, and there is nothing like the creative freedom that a large canvas and broad timbral palette offers.

Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider (photo ⓒ Willy Somma)

Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider (photo ⓒ Willy Somma)

How has your writing evolved since the sensation that accompanied your post-genre song cycle Penelope in 2010?

The genre-straddling of Penelope came about for pragmatic reasons: the singer I was writing it for (Ellen McLaughlin) did not read music and so we needed something she could learn by ear. Additionally, Ellen felt the character of Penelope would sing in a quasi-vernacular tradition. But writing Penelope made me realize how much energy I’d spent repressing certain musical instincts previously, and how good it felt to liberate them. In the seven years since then, I’ve written orchestral works, chamber music, vocal music, and solo piano music. All of it has benefited from being written from a place of greater personal aesthetic openness than I felt when I began studying composition. As a narrative composer, I strive to be open to whatever musical techniques and expressive devices will best facilitate my narrative goals. I strive to write music that fuses nuanced emotional candor with careful craft, at something of an odd angle. I trust more in that odd angle. I trust more in my melodic sense, which is always where I begin; my harmonic ear, which guides my sense of pacing and form; and my gut, so that I can less painfully make the many dozens of technical decisions that composition demands daily. I enjoy writing so much more than I used to, and I do it much more fluidly. Hopefully that means I’m doing something right.


Sunday, May 15, 2016: Princeton Symphony Orchestra performs Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Hiraeth

Tuesday, May 17, 2016: Princeton Symphony Orchestra performs Sarah Kirkland Snider’s song cycle Penelope with vocalist Carla Kihlstedt