A Smattering of Notes and Rhythms with Sarah Kirkland Snider

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Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider has worked with a who's-who of the new-music world, including ACME, yMusic, Roomful of Teeth, Signal and NOW Ensemble. She's also a co-founder of New Amsterdam records. Last month, Padma Newsome, D.M. Smith, Shara Worden and the Orchestra for the Next Century premiered Snider's new song cycle Unremembered at the Ecstatic Music Festival.

A Smattering of Notes and Rhythms That Have Inspired Me Lately
by Sarah Kirkland Snider

Oh boy, this was hard! There is so much music that could go on this playlist. I stuck to short and recent (from the last 20 years) pieces/movements/songs, and told myself I couldn’t include anything from the canon or that I had studied in school. I wanted to include Andrew Norman’s Music in Circles I, Anna Clyne’s Within Her Arms, and Bryce Dessner’s Tour Eiffel, three pieces I really wanted to get under the hood with this year, but the recordings weren’t available.

The first track, an excerpt of Allemande by Caroline Shaw, includes what may be my favorite new minute of music I heard all year: a half-step modulation into a beautiful close canon that culminates with a quasi-folk, quasi-epic melody sung in unison. Wed, by David Lang, astounds me every time with the imaginative harmony it foists upon an unsuspectingly simple premise. Requiem: III, by Gregory Spears, is one of the most unsettlingly sublime things I’ve heard in years, made with his own rule-breaking version of musique mesuree, a 16th century French compositional style.

Peteris Vasks’s music inspires me with its soaring melodic lines and elegant, well-paced narratives. Pity Dance is a beautifully creepy art song by D.M. Stith; I love the elusive phrasing of the vocal line, the harmony, and the attention to atmosphere. Shara Worden has a lyrical, arioso quality to her instrumental writing that I admire; I find it difficult to write melodically without being motivic, and she does it effortlessly. Missy Mazzoli’s approach to narrative, with its forward momentum in the absence of traditional goal-directed motion, fascinates me. I also adore her harmonic language, which actually reminds me of bit of Donnacha Dennehy’s, which is why I put them side-by-side. This excerpt from Elastic Harmonic exemplifies Donnacha’s angular voice-leading and melancholic harmony, with its off-kilter, lilting alternation between pairs of sonorities.

Medulla Oblongata, like all of Buke & Gase’s music, teaches an important lesson about feel: this song features hemiolas (6/8 layered over 3/4) but something about the way they play it makes it feel much wilder, stranger, and unhinged. Nico Muhly’s Skip Town is one of my favorite examples of music that stays in one place (which I find difficult to do) while managing to stay fresh and interesting throughout. Steven Mackey (full disclosure: my husband; Gaggle and Flock, excerpted here) makes nimble, agile music that seems to dance without its feet ever touching the ground, and his ear for harmonic color is astounding. 

Kaija Saariaho’s music (Je sense un deuxieme coeur- II.Ouvre-moi-vite!, which translates to “Another Heart Beats: Open Up to Me!”) inspires me with its clear phrasing, dramatic narrative, and timbral expressivity. I found Fiona Apple’s Regret to be one of the most compelling songs I heard all year, in any genre.  The idosyncratic text-setting, the choice of notes in the harmonic progression, the way she goes expressively out of tune in the chorus.  From our post-Darmstadt vantage, this may be “popular” music, but to me this song, like D.M. Stith’s, is every bit as much an art song of our time as Schubert’s art songs were of his. 


Caroline Shaw - Allemande (excerpt) (Roomful of Teeth)
David Lang - Memory Pieces: III. wed (Lisa Moore)
Gregory Spears - Requiem: III. Cigne le Suis de Candeur
(vocalists from Anonymous 4 and Lionheart, plus others)
Clogs - Voisins
Peteris Vasks - String Quartet No. 4: III (Kronos Quartet)
Colin Stetson - The Righteous Wrath of an Honorable Man
D.M. Stith - Pity Dance
Shara Worden - From The Invisible to the Visible (Nadia Sirota, viola)
Missy Mazzoli - A Song For Mick Kelly (Victoire)
Donnacha Dennehy - Elastic Harmonic (Darragh Morgan, violin; RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra)
Arvo Part - Summa (for strings) (Tamas Benedek & Hungarian State Opera Orchestra Strings)
Buke and Gase - Medulla Oblongata
Tansy Davies, remixed by Gabriel Prokofiev - Neon (remix, excerpt)
Nico Muhly - Skip Town
Steven Mackey - Gaggle and Flock: I. (excerpt) (Brentano and Borromeo Quartets)
2 Foot Yard - Seven Houses
Kaija Saariaho - Je sense un deuxieme coeur: II.Ouvre-moi-vite!
Fiona Apple - Regret