by Maggie Molloy
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.