An hourlong cycle of 13 songs for three vocalists, chamber orchestra, and electronics, Unremembered is the most extensive project to date from the composer Sarah Kirkland Snider, who collaborated with an old friend and renewed acquaintance, Nathaniel Bellows, a noted poet, novelist, singer-songwriter, and illustrator. Initially commissioned by the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, the piece swelled into a sweeping, evocative orchestral work that had its premiere at the Ecstatic Music Festival in 2013. A recording followed in 2015 on New Amsterdam Records, the label Snider co-founded and helps to run, earning widespread accolades.
During the last few weeks, Snider and Bellows have taken Unremembered on the road, presenting concerts with vocalists Shara Nova, DM Stith, and Padma Newsome and local ensembles in Holland, Belgium, and St. Paul, MN. A National Sawdust concert with Brooklyn chamber orchestra The Knights, scuttled by blizzard-related concerns, now will be held on March 19 at Le Poisson Rouge. The same forces will present the work on March 23 at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, TN, after which Snider, Bellows, and the vocalists will collaborate with the North Carolina Symphony in Raleigh, NC (March 25), and at the inaugural SHIFT Festival in Washington, DC (March 30).
With so much activity afoot, Snider and Bellows sat down one recent afternoon at Rider in Williamsburg to trawl through memories of conceiving and creating Unremembered, taking it on the road, and what comes next.
TLJ: Sarah, what initially prompted you to approach Nathaniel for a potential collaboration?
SNIDER: I knew some of his writing from afar in college, and then we lost touch. We became friends again through Facebook six years ago. I went to his website and was reading some of his poetry, and I just thought, wow, that’s really beautiful and very imagistic. And I went and listened to some of his music, that was the other thing, and I loved his music. I thought, wow, he understands how to write words that should be sung, which is a very particular skill. And there was a character, a sensibility, that felt similar to my own: a sort of wistful quality, a lyrical quality.
So I wrote to him and asked, would you write me some text for this project with Roomful of Teeth? He sent me five poems, and they were really beautiful and compelling. And then the next day, I opened my email and he’s like, “Here’s 25 more. [laughs] They kind of all came out at once. And here are some illustrations to go along with them.”
My mind was blown, because it was this whole world of interconnected narrative and ideas about childhood. And the illustrations were so moving to me; I heard music immediately upon looking at them.
From that initial version of the work, how did it evolve into its present state?
SNIDER: [Ecstatic Music Festival curator] Judd [Greenstein] suggested that I expand the cycle for Ecstatic. And I have to confess, too, that I kept hearing Shara’s voice when I was writing. I re-conceived the five songs for Shara, David, and Padma, and then I wrote eight more specifically for them.
Nathaniel, were the themes and texts that you gave to Sarah something that you were already working on? This seems like an abundance of material to come up with on the fly, made to order.
SNIDER: He’s like that, though…he’s like a hydrant valve opened, and all this stuff comes out. [Laughs] But that was a particularly intense case, I think.
BELLOWS: Yeah, and also, these were themes and images and ideas and notions and emotions that I populate my other work with. Because I was writing for voice, and there was a specific kind of structure and style I was writing in – rhyming lines and rhythm and stuff like that, that I felt lent themselves to smaller vignettes that I couldn’t fit into other things – it was more like a singular memory would be an Unremembered poem, where I couldn’t fit it into another poem or a novel. It felt like I was able to investigate these smaller things in this new form – that they came alive in a new way.
Once I started writing, I just couldn’t stop. I would write the poem on a piece of paper, then turn the paper and write it again, then turn the paper and write it again, so I could revise it all in the same space visually, and then I would type them up and send them to her. There were probably about 25 Unremembered poems, total, so I just wanted to give her a variety of stuff to look at. The illustrations took a little bit longer, but it’s all very natural for me to work that way, even though it does look a little bizarre.
SNIDER: I would still love to write the other 10 songs at some point. Maybe there will be a Part 2, who knows?
Sarah, what were the specific qualities you were picking up on? The poems, and the situations they evoke, feel very personal. But clearly there was something coming from Nathaniel that you could connect to.
SNIDER: There’s a sense of anxiety as a child, fear and loneliness, and those themes I really identified with. How those childhood memories that made you feel this way manifest themselves as you get older is really interesting to me, and something that I think about a lot. And, parenthetically, having recently become a mother of young kids, I was re-submerged in the way that children see the world. My kids see everything as larger-than-life. Things that are scary are really, really scary, and things that are funny are really, really funny. Everything is outsized. I was interested in the idea of exploring some of that… I guess for me it’s all ultimately about loss of innocence and the ways that we change as we get older. It affects your relationships with other people as an adult, and so I was thinking a lot about that – about trust. That’s something that we’ve talked about a lot: good and bad childhood memories, how that informs trust in adult relationships.
A lot of the emotional content came from that, but ultimately it was thinking about how these places in our past can have almost a Stockholm syndrome effect on us, where you fear and love them at the same time. You have this sense of dread and affection that are simultaneous. We went up to visit the town where he grew up, and that changed the cycle completely. Just seeing him in that environment – we were wandering around and he was showing me all the places: “This is where the girl hanged herself… this is where we went ice skating… that was the slaughterhouse.”
Seeing this sort of veil of memory and emotion that would come over his face in these different places touched something in me, reminded me of how I feel about those places in my past. I live in my childhood hometown now, so frequently I’m driving past a place where I have a glimmer of, like, oooh, that made me feel bad, or weird… that reminded me of this way that I felt. But at the same time, you miss it, and you have this longing for the people and the places that you loved then.
So for me, each poem was a different look at that complex emotion, where you’re feeling affection and…
SNIDER: Revulsion, yeah.
What was the literal give-and-take in terms of having to adjust or alter things? Or was there any?
SNIDER: There was a little bit.
BELLOWS: There was. It was really helpful to me, because I’m used to working on my own for myself. Right at the outset, I was like, What are the parameters? Do you want long lines or short lines? Do you want it rhymed? I had all these formal ideas and questions, and she could answer all those questions. So to me, it was like shifting my poetic sensibility to something really specific, which I appreciated.
Throughout the process, she would say, I have this musical idea for this part of the poem, but the poem doesn’t necessarily reflect this idea that I have, so can we think about maybe changing some text, or moving some text? At first it was counter to the way that I work, but then it was like, this is the way this works. It was very liberating to come to that conclusion: When you write words for music for somebody else, this is how the process should go.
For somebody else to use, as opposed to writing for your own ends?
BELLOWS: Yeah. And the other thing that was so liberating about it was I would hear the music that she would write, and I had never felt like my work was in better hands. She had [taken] what I had done, internalized it and expressed it in her own terms musically, and I was totally blown away.
That was something I wanted to ask you about, the sensation of having something that you created fed back to you through the prism of somebody else’s understanding and sympathy.
BELLOWS: As you can tell, the poems were very personal, and everything that I write is very personal. But it didn’t feel like her being like, “I’m telling your story.” She had ingested, internalized, and then reproduced almost her own biography through it. The ownership is still there, but it’s broadened. And I just feel so grateful for that, because I’d never had that experience before. The poems that are specifically my experience still feel like they’re my experience, but now they’re her experience. And listening to these people sing it: Shara sings one song or David sings one song, and now it’s their experience. It makes me feel like whatever risk was at stake here was worth it.
It seems like that’s the textbook definition of how art is supposed to function: everything comes out of personal experience, but what makes it useful and valuable is that everybody can find themselves in it, including the performers. Which brings us to the remarkable trio of vocalists for whom you wrote Unremembered: Shara Nova, DM Stith, and Padma Newsome. You’d done remarkable work with Shara previously on Penelope, but how did you conceive this specific combination? Padma in particular – and I mean this with the utmost respect – is a pretty esoteric choice.
SNIDER: It’s funny, because I had never met Padma, and I hadn’t heard him sing that much except for the Clogs album. But the time when I actually fell in love with his voice was at the beginning of a song he didn’t even sing on, on the Lantern album. He counts off something in the beginning – he just says, “one, two, three…” in this Gandalf-y kind of way – and I was like, Who is that? This voice is amazing; it just has so much character. I just saw this, like, Hobbit person. [Laughs]
Quite a tall Hobbit.
SNIDER: Somebody told me that was Padma, and I was like, there’s that voice again. I just loved it. It felt very fantastical to me, just a very particular character and an old-soul kind of timeless quality. David has that same old-soul quality, but in a way sounds more youthful to me. I knew that I wanted these non-classical voices to sing the music. The classical paradigm of singing sort of eradicates all of the character out of your voice, in a certain way. You’re taught to aspire to a paradigm of well-supported breathing, projection, clarity of diction, and all of that, and that kind of erases a lot of the weirdness and character, the Bob Dylan, the Janis Joplin-ness.
I knew Padma had studied composition at Yale, so I knew that he would be perfectly capable of standing in front of an orchestra and reading from a score. David, also, was a friend of Shara’s who had studied music. So there were these three people who could read music, and understood classical music, but also were still in touch with the character in their voices.
In those three voices, were you envisioning correspondences to specific areas of text?
SNIDER: It did sort of become that way. Padma was the older [Nathaniel], if you will, looking back, and then David became the person more in the moment, experiencing those things. It’s not always assigned that way, but I think the majority of times it is. I also asked myself, why aren’t there more female voices? Why did I want two different male voices? I think that ultimately it’s because this is a male’s memories and perspectives – we’re hoping that it feels universal, but ultimately it was text written by a guy.
Penelope has been done by other singers now, but are these three vocalists more integral to the basic fabric of this piece? Does this piece have a life of its own without them?
SNIDER: I’m open to that. I hope that that will happen. At the same time, I think I’m still close enough to it that it feels proprietary to those singers. I can’t really imagine anybody else singing it, but I think it could work, and I’m creating another version so that other singers can [perform it]. Right now it’s tailored very much, because Shara has such a wide range and so does David. I don’t think most other singers could do that. Ultimately I do hope the piece will live on with other singers, but it’s difficult; you need singers that don’t lean too heavily in either the classical or the pop direction, but sort of can hover somewhere in the middle.
Were Nathaniel’s illustrations intended from the start to be integrated into the live presentation?
SNIDER: No, we didn’t think about that at the beginning.
BELLOWS: They were meant to be supplements to the words. But for the later poems she would be writing the music, and she would send drafts of the music, and I would listen and do the drawings. It became this transference of process: Sometimes she would look at the drawings and hear music, and sometimes I would hear the music and do the drawings. There was an overlap of production as time went on.
At what point did you decide to use the images in the performance setting?
SNIDER: When we did the Roomful show, we had a single projection of each image. But when we were thinking about the Ecstatic show, it was like, yeah, this should be a part of the show.
BELLOWS: Because we had photographs from the trips that we’d taken – or the trip, at that point – and I had all these supplementary studies and sketches for all the drawings, it was like, we have a lot of stuff here. We could pack three-minute, four-minute videos, and have each one correspond to a song. And the response was really nice, so we were like, let’s do this again.
SNIDER: For me, the drawings are such an important part of understanding the music, so I felt like they really needed to be there. There are two shows in Europe that we have to do without the drawings, and I’m already really sad for those performances, because I feel like it’s such a huge part of understanding the meaning of the poems.
Are the two of you going out for this entire tour?
SNIDER: Yeah. They kind of need me to put the pieces together, because there’s the electronics and the vocals and the instruments, and everything is amplified. The balance issues are really complicated.
The electronics are live?
SNIDER: Yeah, it’s a live thing. The amazing and wonderful Michael Hammond does live triggering, and he follows the tempos of what the ensemble is doing. There are some pre-recorded elements, for which we need to be on click.
But it’s not the standard “fixed-media” idea, where you start it and it runs its own course.
Nathaniel, do you feel a proprietary sense toward these songs, to the extent that you might play them yourself within your own milieu?
BELLOWS: No. [Laughs]
You couldn’t adapt them? Or if Padma were to get a sore throat one night…?
SNIDER: We did try at one point. I wanted him to sing.
BELLOW: I can’t read music at all.… I just learned it all by ear. I think what I do, I do OK on my own, but when I have to translate it to an actual real setting, it’s a disaster.
SNIDER: But I love his voice. At some point I’m going to figure out how to get him singing on there.
Do you anticipate having to do much coaching with instrumentalists during your tour, in terms of style and approach?
SNIDER: There will be. But the great thing about having worked with Shara, Padma, and David already on the music is that they know it so well, they’ll also be able to give pointers and tips. Shara is very big on, “Can you play it like this, so that I can do it like this?” and, “When I lean with my shoulder, then you’ll know I want the downbeat.” With this kind of music, there’s a lot of “feel” instruction, because classical players for the most part tend to play on the front of the beat, and this music tends to want to sit on the back of the beat. That’s the pop influence, and so that sometimes needs to be discussed and explained.
Not every drummer is Ted Poor, who did such extraordinary work on Penelope.
SNIDER: No, but actually there are so many drummers now who are really good at it, coming out of the schools. In Unremembered I actually tried to dial back the drumming. Live, it’s so hard with a drum kit and a chamber ensemble – the balance issues are so tricky.
And also, I didn’t realize that Penelope was going to get the attention that it got. I didn’t know that it was going to wind up being my calling card. In the classical world everybody identified me then as the “rock/classical crossover” person. I didn’t want to feel like everything I do is known for having a drum kit, being that far on the rock spectrum. Penelope was all the way to one side of what I do and what my tastes are. It was music for a play, and [playwright] Ellen [McLaughlin] was very particular: “I want it to sound more folk, more pop.” Unremembered I wanted to be completely driven by the emotion in the narrative, so the palette, I didn’t want that dictated by a stylistic agenda.
BELLOWS: It was very liberating for me to just let go of the text and the drawings, and be like, Whatever you hear, you should write it as such. I didn’t feel territorial about “the slaughterhouse really sounds like x, y, and z to me, so please do that.” I was just like, go for it. It was totally freeing on some level not to have to have oversight, like “my experience with the girl who hung herself in the woods sounds like this.” It was so much more interesting to hear what [Sarah’s] experience in interpreting that vignette was. And every single thing she gave me, I was like, that’s awesome – it felt true to the memory, but a new memory.
SNIDER: The thing that was special about writing this music is that it felt uniquely personal, in a way, because there wasn’t any overarching commissioner or institution I had to worry about pleasing or squaring with the values they represent. Roomful commissioned the first five songs, but then Judd and Ecstatic… we’re so much on the same page ideologically, so he was just like, “Just write the rest of the cycle, and do whatever you want.” At that point, it’s almost like thinking of it the way a band would think of it, where you’re just writing with your friends. It was really like, how should this music sound in a world where I’m not worrying about, “Will this orchestra’s audience be OK with it? Will the donors and the board of this ensemble be OK with it?” There’s something special about that.
BELLOWS: It took a long time, too, so you really had space to do it. We wrote this over four years.
SNIDER: Yeah. I mean, there’s just no way I would have written “The Witch” for an orchestra [commission]. As much as I’d like to think that I’m bold in that way, I don’t think that I would have felt quite comfortable.
Composers talk about this a lot: I think there is a significant influence that comes from who’s commissioning you. It affects the piece you end up writing. Writing Unremembered felt very diaristic and personal, so it stands out from my other pieces in that sense.
What lessons did you learn in the process of creating Unremembered together that you can apply, going forward?
BELLOWS: This has been so educational for me, in terms of working with anybody but especially in working with Sarah, and I think that the stuff we’ve done since Unremembered has been better and better. The Mass that had its preview here at National Sawdust, [to Sarah] I still think that is one of the most beautiful pieces of music you’ve ever written, the Kyrie, which is the first part.
Of course, it’s a Mass. You didn’t have to write any words, did you?
BELLOWS: Oh my god… [laughs]
I’m kidding, I know these are elaborate new works with original texts.
BELLOWS: When she said, “I got commissioned to write a Mass… would you want to write a Mass? Because I don’t want to write it unless you write the text” – because we have this history of writing together, I knew that my idea, she would at least consider it. I said, I want to write about endangered animals, and she was like, “That’s a great idea.”
SNIDER: I loved it immediately.
BELLOWS: We’re in the same pocket thematically, emotionally. It reaffirmed that we’ve got a working relationship that’s on the same page a lot of the time.
SNIDER: Collaborating is really difficult, because you have to relinquish control sometimes. You have to be comfortable with that, and you have to have a sense of trust in the other person. I’ve been in other collaborations where one person didn’t feel that trust. It can be really hard to communicate; there are moments of tension that are hard to overcome. And with [Nathaniel], we’ve had some fights… or not fights, but some moments of…
SNIDER: Yeah, frustrations. It’s like co-parenting, almost. You’re raising this child together, and you’re saying: “I think it should be like this” … “No, I think it should be like this.” We have a good vocabulary emotionally as friends for working those things out, so when I was asked to write the Mass, it was like, I don’t want to do this with anybody but you. For a million reasons: I love his work, and his voice artistically, but there is also the importance of having that trust.
BELLOWS: And what was so gratifying in this Kyrie was it was sort of a live edit. She would say, “I have this idea, can you switch this around, can you write something new?” I was like, yeah, let’s do that, and it made the poem better. The music is unbelievable. And when we had to give our little spiel in the beginning before the piece was played, when Sarah talked and then I read the piece, I could just tell that people felt what we are meaning to try to project. It felt very gratifying that people were like, “We get what you’re trying to do,” then they heard the music and it was even more so. Even the nonverbal response, it’s what you look for. It validates whatever complexities are within a collaboration.
SNIDER: As composers go, I am extremely particular about my text, which is an uncomfortable place for me to be with my personality and as a woman. It does require a lot of assertion of your viewpoints and opinions. I’m not really comfortable with confrontation a lot of times. So I think that’s another reason why this relationship is so important to me: because I’m so particular, and if the text isn’t leading me in a certain way emotionally, then I need to discuss that with the writer, or find other text.
David Lang was my teacher at Yale, and we talked about this a lot, because has the same obsession with finding the right text. And he always said, “Sarah, you have to write your own text.” He does that a lot, where he adapts his own. But I would rather work really closely with somebody who’s a much better writer than I am, so I feel very lucky.
BELLOWS: Because I write my own stuff outside of this – I’m not a librettist as a career; I write novels and I write poems, and those are my own things – it’s a very different grip on the work with her. In our case, I have to be more flexible, I have to be more open-minded – it’s not the finished draft, it’s a work in progress. With my own stuff, I can have my own rules and my own parameters. It’s just a shift of approach, which I feel is really helpful. It’s good to move outside of your comfort zone. And then to get this result, where it’s like, “I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t write all those Unremembered songs”… I have such unbelievable respect for the complexity, the nuance, the emotional content that’s in everything she writes.
Shara Nova, DM Stith, Padma Newsome, and the Knights perform Unremembered by Sarah Kirkland Snider and Nathaniel Bellows on March 19 at 7:30 pm at Le Poisson Rouge; www.lpr.com