ALBUM REVIEW: Unremembered by Sarah Kirkland Snider

by Maggie Molloy

sksnider unremembered

Childhood is a time of youthful innocence, joyous discovery, and wondrous possibility—but along with that unbridled and enchanting sense of imagination can also come dark creatures, mysterious horrors, and haunting memories.

Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider braves these mystical terrors and takes on the full beauty and vast musical scope of childhood imagination in her latest release, “Unremembered.” The album is a 13-part song cycle, and each piece is its own narrative—a tender memory, a ghostly mystery, or a haunting message. Together, the cycle is a rumination on memory, innocence, imagination, and the strange and subtle horrors of growing up.

Composed for seven voices, chamber orchestra, and electronics, the songs were inspired by the poems and illustrations of writer and artist Nathaniel Bellows, a close friend of Snider. The poems depict poignant memories of Bellows’ own childhood upbringing in rural Massachusetts—tales which in turn triggered memories from Snider’s own childhood, giving shape to her musical settings of the text.

The album was released on New Amsterdam Records, a label Snider co-created with Judd Greenstein and William Brittelle in 2008 to promote classically-trained musicians who create outside the confines of the classical music tradition. The album features vocalists Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond), Padma Newsome (of Clogs), and singer-songwriter DM Stith gliding above the instrumental talents of musicians from contemporary ensembles like ACME, Alarm Will Sound, ICE, The Knights, and Sō Percussion.

A follow-up to Snider’s critically-acclaimed 2010 song cycle, “Penelope,” the new album lives somewhere in the mystical, mythical world between classical and pop genres. Each song is its own vividly colored vignette, a mesmerizing narrative brought to life through Snider’s rich textural and temperamental palette.

“I think that all of my music is narrative driven—that’s what I’m the most interested in musically—mood and storytelling and atmosphere,” Snider said in an interview with Molly Sheridan of NewMusicBox. “I’m fascinated by complex emotions—the places where affection crosses over and merges with dread, or regret merges with gratitude.”

From the ghostly echoes and somber lyricism of “Prelude” to the surreal dark carnival dance of “The Barn,” each piece tells a different tale of childhood; a memory embellished, ornamented, and altered over the years. In a way, Snider also embellishes memories of the classical genre—musically she recalls the strict rules and structures of the classical tradition, but she does so in a way that is blurred, broken, and beautifully contorted. Her collaboration with Worden helped breathe life into this eclectic collection of musical influences.

“Shara [Worden] had become my closest friend and we’d had so many conversations about classical versus pop music, and all of the frustrations that we had dealing with the lack of infrastructure to support music written in the cracks between those worlds,” Snider said in her interview with NewMusicBox. “She also just so comfortably can inhabit both worlds, which is something that so few singers can do, so I felt like I could really let it rip.”

Worden’s operatic voice drifts above the restless woodwind motives and dreamlike themes of “The Guest,” glides gracefully above the delicately swelling orchestral backdrop on “The Swan,” and echoes just as sweetly above the subtle, soft strings of “The Song.”

The album climaxes with “The Witch,” a ruthless and rhapsodic witch hunt played out across a programmatic musical arc. Worden’s low voice hisses against the aggressive strings and militant drums of the orchestra. She sings the ghostly tale of a witch hunt while the strings and percussion chase after her, brewing with melodrama and theatrical orchestral nuances. The piece ends with twinkling celeste motives as the haunting witch hunt fades back into a distant memory.

“The Slaughterhouse” is similarly grim, though it begins with a sweet reprieve: a gorgeous, achingly tender solo piano melody. The gentle rumination gives way to a somber tale of slaughtered animals, a collection of beasts buried beneath the winter ice—the cold memory and throbbing melodies sending shivers down the listener’s spine.
“The Girl” tells of a tragic small-town suicide—a girl hanged in an entire forest of musical timbres. Snider paints a vivid musical picture of the wind blowing through the trees, birds chirping in the early morning sky, and inquisitive animals peeking out behind woven beds of flowers. “The River” tells another solemn tale, with somber vocals flowing above fragmented melodies and a slowly rumbling bass.

The album comes to a close with “The Past,” a fractured montage of childhood memories echoing musical fragments from earlier songs in the cycle. But this time, the piece sounds hopeful—like a lullaby alive once again with the warmth and sweetness of childhood.

And just like that, the melancholy requiem of “Unremembered” evaporates into a softly twinkling silence, like an enchanting music box tenderly closing—and while the exact details of the memories may fade with time, the album itself is unforgettable.

ALBUM REVIEW: Dreamfall by NOW Ensemble

by Maggie Molloy


If you’re looking for the latest in contemporary classical, it doesn’t get any more current than NOW Ensemble. The dynamic seven-member group is committed to pushing the boundaries of the classical chamber music tradition, often crossing into new genres and artistic media.

True to their name, NOW ensemble infuses traditional Western art music with contemporary music styles such as indie rock, jazz, pop, and minimalism—bringing classical music to new audiences in the here and now.

The foundation for their one-of-a-kind sound is their eclectic instrumentation: electric guitar, flute, clarinet, double bass, and piano. Currently in their 10th year as a group, the ensemble is comprised of artistic director and guitarist Mark Dancigers, flutist Alexandra Sopp, clarinetist Sara Budde, double bassist Logan Coale, pianist Michael Mizrahi, and composers Patrick Burke and Judd Greenstein.

So NOW, what’s the latest?

The ensemble just released their fourth full-length album, an eclectic new music mash-up titled “Dreamfall.” The expansive new release features works by seven remarkable composers of contemporary music: Scott Smallwood, Mark Dancigers, John Supko, Nathan Williamson, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Andrea Mazzariello, and Judd Greenstein.

“It is a state of immense freedom,” Dancigers said of the album’s title. “The sounds on this record reflect this freedom, this sense of something a little out of our hands, and, beyond all else, the practice of making music that is NOW Ensemble.”

Scott Smallwood’s “Still in Here” is the first piece on the album, and it begins with low, grumbling piano trill—in fact, the graphic score denotes a “slow, drunken piano trill” throughout. The piece is atmospheric and dark, even apocalyptic at times. It swells in dynamics, periodically highlighting the unique texture of each instrument above a blur of musical vibrations. Listen for the soft crinkling of a foil stove burner liner amidst the ambiance. (According to Smallwood, “the handi-foil type 302 liner is a good candidate” if you’re looking to perform this one at home.)

The title track, written by Dancigers, showcases a more expressive side of the ensemble. The three-movement work explores an eclectic collection of melodic fragments, similar to a dreamland—one moment here and the next somewhere completely different. “Dreamfall” showcases the ensemble’s full range of timbral and textural possibilities, capturing the ever-shifting moods and melodies that we experience once we finally let go and start dreaming.

Speaking of dreams, John Supko’s “Divine the Rest” is nothing short of a mesmerizing daze. It immerses the listener in an ambient electroacoustic soundscape, with calm narration whispering over sparse instrumentation. Each and every note gently rings over the surrounding static to create a slowly shifting musical landscape.

The listener is abruptly awoken from this trancelike state with an audacious piano slide introducing the next piece on the album, Nathan Williamson’s vivacious “Trans-Atlantic Flight of Fancy.” Harmonies sprawl across the keyboard with rhythmic verve, restlessly pushing forward beneath bold and brash woodwind melodies.

The ensemble again switches gears for Sarah Kirkland Snider’s “Pale as Centuries,” a musical collage which combines diverse, distinctive, and sometimes even mismatched melodic fragments into a single cohesive image.

Andrea Mazzariello’s “Trust Fall” has a somewhat more linear development, growing gradually in drama and expressivity, from its sparse and simple introduction to its climactic close. However, one thing remains a key focus throughout: lush, dolce melodies.

The album ends with Judd Greenstein’s “City Boy,” a colorful musical depiction of a free and fearless young boy, his eyes twinkling as he playfully explores the world around him. The piece moves rapidly from one melodic idea to the next, switching from a jazzy guitar groove to a circling piano motive to a flowing clarinet melody within a matter of minutes.

The piece serves as a reminder of the major themes present throughout NOW Ensemble’s musical ventures: experimentation, innovation, and above all, a genuine enthusiasm for pursing curiosity. NOW that’s what I call contemporary classical!

(NOW Ensemble’s November 2014 visit to our studios)


by Maggie Stapleton

Founded in 2009 by Brad Wells, cutting-edge vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth‘s stated mission is to “mine the expressive potential of the human voice,” and that they do.  They’re extremely versatile, excelling in styles ranging from renaissance polyphony to vocal techniques from around the world, such as yodels, grunts, audible exhalations, and drones, all heard on their self-titled debut album (which, by the way, won the 2014 Grammy for “Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance”).

Roomful Of Teeth

Roomful of Teeth is dedicated to new music and composers of today, they’ve commissioned works by Rinde Eckert, Judd Greenstein, Caleb Burhans, Merrill Garbus (of tUnE-yArDs), Sarah Kirkland Snider and Missy Mazzoli, and William Brittelle, who says his melodic sensibility tends more toward the pop side than classical or experimental side, resulting in some very fun music.

Roomful of Teeth was the first all vocal program presented by TownMusic in September 2013. We have some selections from this concert for your listening pleasure, including a couple of movements from Caroline Shaw’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning piece, Partita for 8 voices!

There’s one more concert on the 2013-14 TownMusic Series on June 24, featuring four world premieres and soprano Mary Mackenzie to sing Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.