Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider is at the forefront of the "post-classical" scene where genre boundaries can't keep her and contemporaries from fertile new artistic ground. Her haunting, lush song cycle for strings and electronics, Penelope, comes alive with the voice of My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden, who has also worked with Sufjan Stevens, The Decemberists, and many others.
Released in 2010 by New York-based New Amsterdam Records, which Kirkland Snider co-founded, Penelope is "a meditation on memory, identity, and what it means to come home," interweaving Homer's Odyssey into the story of a man gone to war, away for 20 years, who returns home to his wife, broken and confused, his memory in shambles.
Before the piece makes its Midwest premiere Tuesday as part of the SPCO's Liquid Music Series, Gimme Noise spoke with Kirkland Snider and Worden separately about Penelope, their approaches to collaborations and creativity, and their varied experiences moving between classical and rock worlds.
Penelope, like many of Kirkland Snider's works, garners energy from a strong, distinct narrative. Home and homecoming are prevalent themes within the song cycle, which ties into her creative process, and her sense of home has since deepened since she became a mother. ("Now it's a home I have created," she says.)
"Home is the place where you feel the most yourself," she says. "In Penelope, that was an abstract idea, where this character, who because of the experiences of war, forgot who he was. This song cycle is really about trying to bring him back to himself, trying to bring him home... We've all, to one degree or another, had times in our lives where we are out of our element, or disconnected from the people we love, or the person you know yourself to be. And that can be a very disoriented and dispiriting experience."
Worden's perspective on home is shaped by frequent family moves as a child and an adult life filled with travel. "Being a touring musician, you can relate to a pretty intense longing for home," she says. "But this guy is away at war for ten years, and then it takes him another ten years to get home... hat kind of longing is certainly nothing I've ever experienced. I am very tied to home and to family, but in the piece [Penelope] I think it is even more intense."
"There's always a part of you in every character," Worden continues, "but then at the same time, there's a point where you can't relate anymore. It's a really interesting process that you sort of take yourself to an emotional limit... then you can lose control of the voice, or I'll cry... and then I can't sing anymore... which is kinda defeating the point. Judi Dench is an actor that I could go back to in my mind over and over again because she's feeling everything but...she never lets the emotion out. It's always so repressed but so present. What that does for me, when I see Judi Dench's work, it allows me to feel something, it allows ME to cry because she actually doesn't ever let it out. There's something about restraint and still having all the emotions in there. I think I'm always trying to find where those lines are."After performing and writing classical music from a young age, Kirkland Snider opted not to study music as an undergrad at Wesleyan, but eventually worked her way to a music composition master's program at Yale. There, she encountered disdain for her pop sensibilities, and even had her emotional intuition called into question as not "male" enough.
"It's just the way that I create music," she says. "It works for me. If I start thinking too theoretically, I find that it hinders me and I get blocked, if I think too much about what I'm doing. I had a hard time in grad school for that reason because I would spend too much time, or try too hard to come up with intellectual reasons for everything. I have a much easier time writing if I just let go and try to listen to the ideas in my head."
Worden, on the other hand, though steeped in the classical tradition as an opera major in college, managed to find some academic support for her multifaceted interests.
"I went to a State School, so I was singing in punk bands and stuff," Worden explains. "But I was fortunate enough to have a teacher that would suggest I listen to Edith Piaf if I was going to interpret Debussy...So I think in that way, I did get really lucky with the teacher that I had."
Mediating between the classical and rock worlds was often a tricky path. Worden says she couldn't deal with the weight of history. "I think there are classical singers who come at it being an interpreter, with an immense amount of freedom and an immense amount of creativity, respecting a style," she says. "For me, that wasn't going to work for me... I felt like there was something I would never measure up to, that there was this perfection. And that's not true of classical music -- it's not true, that was only me in my mind."
After college, she spent a year living in Russia, which sparked her creativity through the new logic of a different culture. Armed with that perspective, Worden returned to the States and took her talents to the rock world, with her cross-genre project My Brightest Diamond, emerging as one of the most sought after vocalists in the hugely popular orch-pop pocket of indie rock. Only recently has she come back to her classical roots. Worden's voice flourishes in the works of Kirkland Snider, where despite myriad pop sonorities, the complexity is not lost on the listener.
"As much as I'm an intuitive composer, it's very important that everything feel like it's there for a reason and not random." Kirkland Snider says. "I'm always thinking about how does this relate to the larger picture, how is this motive related to this one, or how does this element foreshadow this other thing? Or if something is totally a surprise, that I maximize the effect of surprise to the greatest degree possible."
On Twitter recently, a young composer lamented on cliche tendencies in their writing, to which Sarah replied with optimistic proclamation: "Some of the world's greatest music is in 4/4 + D Major. It's what you do there that matters." Humorously paradoxical, considering Worden's half-joke that Penelope "changes time signatures, like, every measure."
Yet Kirkland Snider's tweet seems to encapsulate a belief that simpler, traditional structures sometimes offer more space to create something new.
"I believe that a billion percent," she says. "I actually had a teacher tell me my writing was too clear, which I never understood how that could be a bad thing. This value system that got sort of niche-y and un-audience friendly in the course of the 20th century."
She continues, "I understand that people [in the classical world] are nervous. They feel like they need to justify themselves. The great composers before the 20th century, a lot of them -- like Mozart -- would write music of great complexity, but it was a different kind of complexity. It was music that was very accessible to the non-specialist. A regular, everyday person who had no experience in music could find something to latch on to or feel moved by, and it spoke to their experience in the world. And that somehow became a bad thing over the course of the 20th Century. The only thing that mattered was if they were new and innovative in some way and it became harder to be innovative. A lot of that ideology is really toxic and harmful to young composers."
Shara Worden performs Sarah Kirkland Snider's Penelope and new chamber works with ymusic at the SPCO Center Music Room Tuesday, February 26th and Wednesday, February 27th at 7:30 PM as part of the Liquid Music Series.