Interview: Sarah Kirkland Snider with Jodie Landau / by Liquid Music

Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider joins Jodie Landau for a conversation about Snider’s song cycle, Unremembered, which has it’s U.S. premiere this Saturday in Minneapolis as part of the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series. “One of the most significant and harrowing releases of [2015]” (Thought Catalog), Unremembered explores the fragility and nuance of memories and emotions in an hour-long, 13-part song cycle inspired by poems and illustrations by Nathaniel Bellows.

Jodie Landau is a 24-year-old composer, vocalist, and percussionist and is the newest addition to the renowned Icelandic record label Bedroom Community. Frequent collaborator with LA-based new music collective, wild Up, his debut album with the group, you of all things, was released to critical acclaim.  

JL: Unremembered is something I’ve been listening to for quite some time and I know it really well — as something that I sing along with, as something I’ve played in my car, at home and especially on hikes. It’s been really nice to listen to it, as I often do with projects, where I can hone in on one album and learn the entire thing and then I take a pause. Having this discussion upcoming was a great excuse to re-engage with it again, which has been extremely beautiful because it’s been raining a lot here and it’s so green. I’ve been going off on all of these different trails and singing and conducting through it. So it’s been really fascinating to get to know it in a way that is first and foremost about movement and exploration and nature. The music is a vehicle for me to engage with the world around me — in particular this one hike spot — and I think this provides an interesting context for my experience of the piece and then therefore our discussion of it.

SKS: First of all, thank you — it means a lot to me to hear that this music was something you developed a relationship with. When I really love an album I too listen to it obsessively, trying to divine the secrets of every detail, and my goal in making this record was to give it enough layers that it would invite and reward that kind of repeated listening. Second, it’s really interesting that you spent time with the music while being outside, hiking. As you know, landscape and nature are one of the main muses of the project; the relationship between a child and the landscape was at the genesis of the cycle. At the core, the cycle is about innocence and experience, and the way places in our past can have a psychic hold on us the rest of our lives, one that can instill both affection and dread. In Nathaniel’s past, nature and landscape and animals exerted an overarching magnetism and magic and companionship, and helped bestow some hard-won wisdom. Every song has a connection to the outdoors, so it’s wonderful to think of you getting to know the piece that way. I too spent a lot of time outside while composing it, talking long walks in the woods behind our house.

JL: You said that you spent some of the time composing while walking?

SKS: Yeah I do that a lot with every piece that I’m writing, but I did it twice as much with Unremembered. I spend a lot of time walking and singing lines and counter-lines to myself and recording them into my iPhone. I find that when I get stuck writing, walking is the only thing that helps me get unstuck. We have woods behind our house where you can sort of lose yourself, so I do a lot of walking back there. There’s something about the way my brain creates things outdoors that is different from when I’m indoors.

JL: When you’re walking you record into your phone?

SKS: Yeah that’s where I do a lot of coming up with motives and counterpoint. But I also do a lot of broader-scope work, listening to mockups of what I’m working on or just going over it in my head to figure out pacing. I feel like I can’t figure out pacing unless I’m walking outside. When I’m working on a computer or looking at a score it’s hard for me to get a sense of scale and scope. I’m listening too closely, which is not the way an audience listens, and I have to constantly remind myself of that. Even the listening of a super engaged audience member is not the listening of a composer listening to their own piece. So I find that in order to forget I’m the composer I need to step away from the music and try to look at it with some distance, and walking helps with that.

Nathaniel Bellows image for "The Estate"

Nathaniel Bellows image for "The Estate"

JL: That comes back to my experience with Unremembered and what it means to engage with the piece and move. I like to think of the music as a means of moving through the world. Being on a hike,  going off on a trail and discovering a certain tree or the way a hill has bloomed in an unexpected way…. The music gives me a pace to engage with it, like here’s a moment where I’m gonna run up the hill or when the music comes to this big crescendo and then stops and holds back and I want to sit and view the landscape that’s in front of me and slow down for a moment. So it feels very appropriate that it’s a part of your process.

SKS: Exactly. It is a part of my process but I also love to listen the way you described. I hear and feel different things if I’m listening while out in the world than I do when I’m just sitting and listening in my study with headphones. And I love the way the world looks different through the prism of music. There’s a really interesting relationship that happens there that’s bidirectional. That’s the ineffable wonder of music — it colors or informs your emotional response to whatever you’re experiencing while listening to it. And actually that’s another parallel with Unremembered, because, like music, innocence is a prism that informs one’s perception of the world. I have these two young kids (now eight and six), and they are so full of marvel, wonder and outsized reactions to everything (though I see this starting to change a bit with my eight-year-old.)  This was something Nathaniel and I talked about a lot when we started working on Unremembered — the way that a child has heightened sensory awareness and intense, unruly feelings. It’s almost like they’re swimming in them. We wanted the music to speak to that in some way, with bold gestures and sharp contrasts and very emotionally direct musical statements.

JL: It’s very appropriate and I’m glad you went there because I was going to ask about that. For me it’s one of the things I connect to deeply about the piece — that heightened sensory skill that kids have. There's something about what it is to be really scared. In “The Slaughterhouse” you have an image of seeing all of these animals slaughtered: “I’d seen it once on another farm and I never will forget.” That question of what it is to experience something that will never quite leave your mind. It will most certainly change and develop in later years and looking back it will become a memory of the memory. So there’s something about listening to this piece and even though the some of the witchy and ghostly elements aren’t something I’ve directly experienced it’s still hits me nonetheless and does have this sense of… I think as a kid growing up I had magic as a thing that was kind of given to me. My aunt is an incredible playwright and director and every year growing up we went to the Berkshires in Massachusetts for 4th of July and she would lead these fairy hunts. So we would explore the woods and so I did have some elements of some of these poems in there. But there was this incredible sense of wonder and magic where everything is heightened. And also this sense of play with everything, even the things that are scary. Listening to this piece also reminds me of my desire to engage with the world in the type of way I do when I’m listening to the piece. Or the way that I do when it brings up these certain memories that I have. So I’m curious for you if there’s a sense of memories that had an impact you won’t ever forget or even this idea of “I never learned to love someone the way I did that place.”

SKS: Yes, definitely, I have some childhood memories that were profoundly impactful and that influenced the writing of this music and made me relate deeply to the cycle’s concept and messages. So I let that guide my empathy, but my primary goal was to tell the stories in music that Nathaniel told in words. So there were visits to Topsfield, Massachusetts, the town he grew up in, to visit all the sites of the various poems, and there were lots of talks about what each poem meant. One of the things we talked about the most was the way that we remain attached, in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome way, to places and times in our childhood where we experienced difficult things; that we feel some very complicated, complex mix of affection and revulsion, dread and nostalgia, and that what we experience there often has a kind of hold on us for the rest of our lives. That's why I decided to take a couple of stanzas from the last song, "The Past", and create a Prelude to the cycle with them, particularly those lines you mentioned: "It all comes back inchoate/the meaning has no base/I never learned to love someone the way I did that place." To me those lines were heart-rending in the way that they expressed gratitude but also possibly revealed a failure of human connection: that the narrator had never loved a person as strongly as he did the place, never discovered a home in another person that was truly a safe harbor. Or perhaps this was a good thing, if the love in question is one suffused with darkness. Either way we are dealing with a complicated mix of polarized emotions. So I knew I wanted to have a simple, almost childlike melody express the lines of this song, cradled in clouds of subtly dissonant harmony, with some darker ones passing in the middle (which sample musical material from Prelude.) I wanted there to be a palpable tension between lighter feelings of nostalgia/affection and darker hints of bitter, stoic resolve.  

Nathaniel Bellows image for "The Past" 

Nathaniel Bellows image for "The Past" 

JL: Yeah I feel like it’s present throughout the cycle but especially in “The Past.” I’m really struck by that co-existence and juxtaposition of playful, joyous, childlike wonder and this painful childlike trauma. Especially in the intro of that piece, as it’s moving towards darkness and then it suddenly gets interrupted by the guitar and harp. So it feels likes it’s gonna go somewhere intense and then it jump cuts back to playing on the playground where it’s all light and fun and bubbly. Then it’s able to get really heavy and intense as it returns to “the way I did that place”. That’s something that to me, every time I hear it, is extraordinarily satisfying compositionally. And it’s emotionally somewhat jarring; it takes me through such a wide array of emotions just in one movement.

SKS: Wow, that’s really gratifying to hear, thank you. I think that for me in many ways “The Past” is my favorite movement because it sort of encapsulates what the whole song cycle is about. I think it’s something that a lot of people can relate to because we’ve all had times in our lives that were difficult or unhappy but that we wouldn’t trade because the wisdom and strength we gained through endurance made us who we are in the present. Those early heartbreaks and disappointments and even traumas were so much more painful for being the firsts, but there is also beauty in having the capacity to feel things deeply, and one can definitely feel a nostalgic longing for that--for the days of having a softer heart.

JL: With that it's very appropriate that I just happen to be looking at “No so low, the flying slicing wing, it says that there is beauty inside your suffering.”

SKS: It’s funny because that line was actually a source of questioning for Shara and Padma. Most of the cycle text is story, metaphor, and allusion — stories that convey messages indirectly, obliquely. “It says that there is beauty inside your suffering” is a line that was direct and straight, and they weren’t sure how to approach it vocally. Which I totally understood, but I also loved the presence of that line because the cycle has so much elliptical representation; once in awhile it’s nice to have a kind of thesis statement saying, simply and directly: “here’s what this is all about.”

JL: Yeah. And to me, one of the things I love about it is that there’s still something very complicated about it — it can be very confusing to acknowledge that, yes, there is beauty inside suffering, because how much do we as people want to choose to suffer? And I know at least for me there was a period of time where I got a little invested in exploring that. I wanted to sit in it, find all of it beautiful and suffer a little bit. But now I’m in a place where I feel like, cool I did that for a bit and now I’m going to try to see those past moments of suffering as beautiful but make a different choice. And that relates a lot to nostalgia; what it is to sit inside of both nostalgia and suffering and to look to the past, and the choice of that. Whether it’s to repeat cycles of the past or to see it as a framework that involved a lot of suffering but was also a kind of emotional height, where you’ll never learn to love someone that way, where it was a pinnacle of your existence. So I think that line is both direct and endlessly complicated.

JL: On a different note, I’m curious about the relationship of being young and coming to terms with life and death.

SKS: Yes, this is of course a huge part of what the cycle is about: the child learning about a death, trying to make sense of it, trying to incorporate it into their worldview. That is the ultimate loss of innocence, and it usually happens pretty early for kids — a character in a book or movie dies, they see a dead animal on the road, or more traumatically, they lose someone close to them. One of the greatest challenges I’ve had as a parent is talking about death with my kids and trying to explain it to them what it means, when I myself don’t really know. I try to present them with all of the different ways of thinking, different religions, philosophers’ takes on it. But ultimately there is no right answer. It’s a constant challenge to live with that awareness and yet still take risks and live fully and deeply and consciously.

JL: One of the things I really appreciate about Unremembered is its allusions to the idea that life doesn’t end with death. That life only continues on in a new form. Especially in “The Speakers,” which, as an aside, the intro is one of the greatest musical things I’ve ever heard. Everytime I hear it it’s the most beautiful and satisfying sound. The first time I heard it I was like “What is happening” and then Shara sings “I’m sorry” and I was just blown away. And it’s exactly how those words should be set. And also the orchestration with the harmonics in the strings leading up all kind of following each other. That texture that’s created is perfect.  

SKS: Thank you! Yeah Shara’s incredible. You don’t have to give her any direction, she just gets it. She’s incredibly smart, sensitive, and intuitive. But yeah Nathaniel does have references to reincarnation in several movements — that line in “The Barn” (“the dance of life continues after death”)... the conversation between the hare and the leaf in “The Speakers”...

JL: ...And in “The Slaughterhouse”, seeing slaughtered cows that are “dead but still bleeding”. And the end of “The Speakers” when they say, “I die and rise invisibly like the ghosts you won’t allow.” That idea of death being this continuation of life. I actually hadn’t realized this about Unremembered until recently; I was listening to a Bob Thurman podcast and he was talking about reincarnation a lot and then as I revisited Unremembered, all of sudden all of these lines that I had previously connected with had another layer of meaning to them.

SKS: That’s interesting! Yeah, death is the great mystery of life, and as a child it’s even more scary and mysterious. So as I wrote the music I tried to put myself back into that head space and channel how it felt to be a young child thinking about death. As a result, there is definitely some anxiety and fear in this collection of songs, but there is also a lot of warmth, tenderness, and hope. Just like Nathaniel’s text.

Sarah Kirkland Snider's: Unremembered will be presented at Ted Mann Concert Hall in Minneapolis, MN on Saturday, March 11 at 8:00pm.

Tickets and details here:
Students and kids attend FREE.

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