It needs a name, this creative space Sarah Kirkland Snider and others have been defining for themselves as composers over much of the past decade. "Alt-Classical" seemed to serve the purpose briefly, but no one is satisfied with that one anymore, and its claimed reach was too broad in any case. "Contemporary Classical" casts the net even wider, capturing even less. For purposes of this post, and with a very particular focus on SKS, her close collaborators, and other creators whose sensibilities hew relatively close to hers, let us propose
An imagined musical equivalent to literary Magic Realism, Magical Classicism (if it existed) would describe music that deploys the forces of orchestral/symphonic or traditional chamber music, but is not limited to them. Electric guitars, synthesizers, jazz or rock or hip-hop derived percussion assemblages, would all be fair game if they are applied to the purpose of producing music of thoughtful inquiry and humane emotion, willing to embrace a modicum (or more) of overt beauty but suspicious toward too-easy sentiment or the merely pretty and ornamental. Magical Classicism would draw as well on the three rules Wallace Stevens articulated for poetry in his "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction": that it must be abstract, that it must change, and that while being and doing so, perhaps most of all, it must give pleasure.
Magical Classicism provides a fair description of the long-form song oriented work Sarah Kirkland Snider has produced in 2010's momentous Penelope and in her newest, Unremembered, releasing today via New Amsterdam. This blogger's deep-dyed and abiding fondness for Penelope—one of the best musical things since the turn of this still-young century—is no secret. Today, however, the subject is Unremembered.
Unremembered grew from a commission to write for the vocalists of Roomful of Teeth, for whom Snider originally composed five pieces setting verses written for the project by the poet Nathaniel Bellows. One of those, "The Orchard", appeared on the group's Grammy-winning self-titled debut in 2012. Bellows kept writing, and illustrating, more poems, and Snider kept setting them, and the whole evolved into what now presents itself as Unremembered, a cycle of 13 songs all drawn from or inspired by some version of Bellows' childhood and early youth in rural Massachusetts.
Together, the poems revisit a haunted boyhood, as recalled or reshaped some years later. While they are shared by three quite different singers, the poems' point of view is unified, all speaking in the voice of "the poet" (not literally Bellows, one assumes, but a persona resembling him) excavating that past.
There is a town, but it is only glimpsed once, when a sleepwalking girl passes through to the other side of it to meet the uncertain end to her dream ("The Guest"). Apart from the poet, individualized people are rare in these poems, which spend more time with animals and, particularly, with the places of the past. Those places comprise an aged New England of woodlands, hills, forest, farmsteads and old estates (many abandoned), creek sides: zones in which human and natural and possibly supernatural worlds mingle or rub uneasily together, where the past is never quite past. These sorts of landscapes are somewhat familiar, in their strangeness, from Hawthorne (another Nathaniel), from the small-town Midwest of Ray Bradbury, from the nostalgic-pastoral side of Stephen King [e.g., "The Body"/Stand By Me], and others.
There are ghosts, there is at least one witch out in the woods, there are glades rumored to have been the site of suicides. A drowned man lies on the riverbank. Human or animal, past or present, death is rarely far beneath a sylvan afternoon or a seemingly untroubled field. The most harrowingly specific description in Unremembered is of "The Swan," randomly destroyed, crushed in an extended instant as a truck backs over the place where she had been nesting. Indeed, Unremembered begins and ends with the poet sensing "the vapor of the dead" in the porches of his ear, sparking the rueful reflection that he has "never learned to love someone/The way I did that place."
As a title, "Unremembered" contains its own mysteries: the poet is seemingly engaged in remembering and in sharing his memories with the listener, so what is it that is unremembered? Are these narratives true memories at all? Are they known only to the poet, thus unrecollected by anyone else? Is the poet unburdening himself, unwinding the strands of his own memory, sharing these vignettes for the sake of consigning them hereafter to the realm of the forgotten?
In its current, album version Unremembered is performed by "the Unremembered Orchestra," drawn from numerous contemporary music ensembles such as ACME, ICE, Victoire, and Alarm Will Sound, and including several composer-performers (Timo Andres and Caleb Burhans among them). Edwin Outwater, of Ontario's Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony, conducts. The recording is co-produced by the composer with Lawson White, and the multitracking and processing tools of the studio serve as another player.
Sarah Kirkland Snider's score builds on, without repeating, the musical language of Penelope, and shares with its predecessor a heady blend of thoughtful intricacy with forthright emotional appeal. Nearly all of the poems set for Unremembered are constructed using short-lined rhyming quatrains, but they do not succumb to sameness: the setting composed for each is rhythmically and tonally distinct, a sequence of craftily detailed tableaux, rich with surprise and nuance.
The singers are Padma Newsome (on "The Estate," to which he brings a Yeatsian bardic quality), DM Stith and, continuing seamless collaboration with Snider that began with Penelope, Shara Worden. DM Stith's scrubby tenor, which he recently compared in a note on Twitter to that of Robert Wyatt, is an apt match for the wondering boy that was. Shara Worden fills that role as well, while also standing in for the larger natural and unnatural forces of the world. Her wordless voice is an element of the air these pieces breathe, suspended as dust motes, adrift as seeds from a milkweed pod. Engaging the texts, she deploys a seemingly faultless dramatic sense of tone and inflection. Her progression in "The Swan", arching and aching through the middle verses only to land upon "a splayed and shattered/Thing", is lethally sad. Her way with a single word (such as "fixedly" in "The Witch") can be a song in itself.
With no continuous plot as such, Unremembered works by an accumulation of incidents and effect across its duration. It provides the listener a sojourn in the poet's recollection or reconstruction, or perhaps reinvention, of a past that may have been a prelude to the backward-glancing present, or may have been a refuge out of which we have been cast, with the poet, into a colder and less welcoming world. Unremembered's abstractions and changes linger, as do the pleasures of its remembered company.
Incidentally: Some of the musical material from Unremembered has also found its way into "Pale as Centuries", a short piece written for NOW Ensemble and included on that group's latest release, Dreamfall.
[The blogger has had the benefit of an advance review copy of Unremembered, on which this post was based. He also preordered Unremembered the moment it went on sale and is looking forward to receiving that second copy. Procuring a physical copy is definitely recommended, for the sake of the attractive album booklet containing the texts as well as illustrations by Nathaniel Bellows for each of the poems.]