#MusicForWriters: A Ravishing Fever Dream From Snider And Bellows

Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider's 'Unremembered' is a setting of Nathaniel Bellows' poems. Image: Willy Somma
Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider’s ‘Unremembered’ is a setting of Nathaniel Bellows’ poems. Image: Willy Somma

‘Ghostly Chorus’

Childhood trauma is such alluring material for writers. It’s also fiendishly hard to render it with real impact. Kids’ frights tend to fall apart in the wry view of adult hindsight. As a friend once said to me with a shrug, everything is hell on wheels when you’re little.

1436642605UNREMEMBEREDcover SKS cover lineWhen it works, however, the adult reader is pulled up short. Unsettled. Made to feel something once felt in childhood that was supposed to be safely put away. “That’s what it was like” is the alarmed response you want, the disturbing pay dirt you want to hit in your reader. And in Unremembered, this new authorial collaboration by the composer Sarah Kirkland Snider and the poet Nathaniel Bellows, you’ll find an aching, masterfully unnerving lesson in how it’s done.

  • Only the luckiest writer has the formidable platform of instrumental and vocal ingenuity that Snider brings to Unremembered.
  • And only the most fortunate composer gets the poetic trapdoor with which Bellows can drop you right through that floor, deep into a bad, bad sensation you thought was behind you for good.

Together, Snider and Bellows have created one of the most significant and harrowing releases of the year, a ravishing fever dream. Hear it once, and Unremembered is unforgettable.

Thanks to the Album of the Week series at New York Public Radio’s Q2 Music—a station now solidifying its free 24-hour stream as the world hub for living composers’ new music—Snider and Bellows’ Unremembered is getting a proper hearing. The album, released on Friday, is another fine offering from New Amsterdam Records.

As Daniel Stephen Johnson writes in his article for Q2 Music, the music is played by some major members of the “new music” scene concentrated in New York City. Here, under Edwin Outwater’s direction, is the pianist and composer Timo Andres; the string player and composer Caleb Burhans (the subject of our first Music for Writers column); So Percussion’s Jason Treuting; and composer Snider herself on celeste. At times up to 36 players and three vocalists deep, this is richly orchestrated, densely developed music. In the video I’ve embedded below, you get a sense for the energy in this ensemble. Those revving bass glissandi are a signature of the final passage, The Past.

[pullquote]”For me, being in a deeply focused creative mindset is a lot like the early stages of being in love — that sense of intoxication, an inability to think about anything else.”
Sarah Kirkland Snider[/pullquote]

Try to experience it when you’re able to focus without distraction, it’s well worth your time. But don’t avoid listening if you need to do it while working or reading. I’d like you to hear this music, in whatever situation you find yourself, especially while writing. You’ll be listening to what Snider describes as seven vocal parts. They’re performed by three vocalists and a chamber ensemble of champions.

There is a visual component here, too, and I’m glad to have permission to show you a bit of it. Writer Bellows, as Snider tells us in her notes, provided the texts for the 13 pieces in this song cycle with artwork. “Like stained glass,” Snider writes of seeing these pieces for the first time, “each illustration brimmed with vibrant, swirling colors and complex, layered narratives.”

Before getting to our #MusicForWriters interview with Snider, I’ll give you a bit of Bellows’ text and show you some of these illustrations so you can understand the aesthetic provenance to which Snider and her musicians have responded.

‘I Saw Her Ivied Face’

The Estate, by Nathaniel Bellows. Reproduced by permission of the artist.
The Estate, by Nathaniel Bellows. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

The Estate

What you hear in Unremembered is a fast-darkening gallery of memory-scenes from Bellows’ boyhood in rural Massachusetts. And in terms of the writerly grace of Bellows’ talent, one of the best elements of what he’s doing is an air of good-natured doubt: we’re not quite sure that this work represents an unhappy childhood. Bellows’ gifts are such that at times we understand the typical child’s desire to gin up some drama, to find “something narsty in the woodshed,” as Stella Gibbons had it in her classic comedy Cold Comfort Farm.

Rather than taking away from the terrors encountered here, Bellows’ allowance for such conflicted sensibilities only enriches the truths his younger self discovers in high grass and cold waters.

In the first of four glimpses I want to give you of what’s going on here, The Estate arrives as the second song of the Snider-Bellows cycle, after a prelude. The artwork you see above is the gift Snider received from her librettist. As she relates in her notes, she would get one of these visual works from Bellows for each of part of the work.

And in his own notes, Bellows tells us that each poem, for him, “blurred with an otherworldly halo of haunted uncertainty, a shadowed quality that deeply characterizes my memories of that time and place. Because of the potency and significance of the material, and because my first inclination in any artistic endeavor is to draw, I made sketches and studies to further explore and ultimately illustrate each poem, which, as the project evolved, were created in tandem to the music Sarah was writing.”

In The Estate, Australian artist Padma Newsome—one of Snider’s three vocalists in the recording (DM Stith and Shara Worden are also here)—takes a tenderly daunting ramble over guitarist Taylor Levine’s rippling continuo. Newsome is singing, in part:

Down past the River Road
In the lowest hollow
I took the path along the row
No stranger dared to follow

The wide lawn was overgrown
The eaves were bowed and brown
The window showed that every room
Was bare and white as bone

Snider’s riveting introduction of basso-clap percussion and ranging, pasture-opening strings and horn accompany the awful beauty of Worden’s chattering accompaniment to Newsome. You are now in serious ghost-story country:

Above the pool, a mirrored gaze
I saw her ivied face
Her empty eyes, cold, recessed
Have watched this wasted place

Where dying bloom and creeping vine
Strangle and adorn
The place that built inside of me
A soul, a ghost, a home

What’s being established here is the age-old premise, renewed in Newsome’s penetrating vocalization of Bellows surrender to his youth:

The field has breath, the pond a voice
I’ve known since I was small
They told me then to leave this place
Or stay and lose it all

‘No God Where She Was Found’

Nathaniel Bellows - The Guest
The Guest, by Nathaniel Bellows. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

The Guest

In our interview, you’ll see me asking Snider about this one. She tells us in her notes on the work that when Bellows sent her this drawing, “I remember turning The Guest sideways to focus on the figure of one girl consoling another, and immediately hearing the song’s melodic opening line.”

And from Bellows’ text, she spins a tale of what may be no more than an odd sleep-walking incident—or something much worse:

She left our house in the dead of night
My sister went to find her
We didn’t know why she left
She’d fled as fast as fire

Listen for what these singers can do with Snider’s pulsing argument of the mere phrase in the dead of! at the end of this sequence.

Over the concerned gabble of a covey of oboe, English horn and bassoon, Snider launches a radiant sheen of strings into the icy night air, glistening, trilling, sailing above a soprano’s scary chase.

As Bellows has it:

But no glory there awaited her
No god where she was found
On a patch of snow in a lonely copse
On the frozen moonlit ground

‘The Spring-Fed Pond’

Nathaniel Bellows - The Slauthterhouse
The Slaughterhouse, by Nathaniel Bellows. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

The Slaughterhouse

This poem holds the most arresting word imagery in Unremembered. The economy of text in Bellows’ single verse, the canny reference to ice skates’ “blade,” the wail of a question…fair warning: when heard in the context of the piece, you will find this verse simply devastating:

Why hadn’t they torn it down
When the farms no longer thrived?
Beneath our blades a reef of beasts
Lay lowing under ice

It’s in this section that you also hear one of Snider’s most powerfully accomplished orchestral colorings. Trenchant, forceful strings chug and lock horns here in a way that reflects the machine-like grandeur of Michel van der Aa’s electrifying The Book of Sand.

Coming out of gentle, inquiring piano and seemingly innocuous pizzicato in the strings, you are soon pulled down, down by these strings into a watery nightmare of unthinkable depth.

The Slaughterhouse may be Snider’s most accomplished work to date. Bellows has handed her a perfectly honed inspiration.

‘The Missing Man’

Nathaniel Bellows - The River
The River, by Nathaniel Bellows. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

The River

Discovery is a boy’s genius. Every time. His proudest moments are the ones when he is the one who discovered it. Any it. Discovery is all. Most boys will go as far as necessary to discover something. Especially outdoors. Which gets them into some places they may wish later were unremembered.

[pullquote]”In terms of being creeped out by the music, yes, that has happened to me with this piece. Just once, though—with The River….A kind of emotional vertigo.”
Sarah Kirkland Snider[/pullquote]

It’s the chilling joy of horrible discovery that informs Bellows’ and Snider’s work in The River. Snider drives the kid forward with irresistible sonar-silken tension, a techno-tonal enticement in the soprano line. (She’ll speak of this in our interview. It’s this poem’s music that came closest to creeping out its own composer, she reveals.)

I saw the form
Astride the loam
Splayed out upon
Its back

A bear, a dog
A bed, a log
A child’s eyes
Are pure

Clue by clue, every sense on heightened alert, it takes Bellows only six especially spare verses:

Until the hands
Of the missing man
Were clear against
The dew

And from the deep field of early-life discoveries, the kind of image that will never, ever fade:

The river’s flow
A blackened bow
That tied around
Our town

Had sapped his life
Like a lantern’s light

Snider: ‘Creeped Out By The Music’

The composer communicates with me at 4 a.m. Her day, her week, has been incredibly long, challenged by domestic and professional demands. And yet, she generously and thoughtfully warms to the questions she lets me put to her about the work. I’ve started with her own eloquent notes on Unremembered, and I’m struck by her saying how quickly a line of music came to her.

Thought Catalog: Sarah, you talk of turning The Guest artwork from Nathaniel sideways and “immediately hearing the song’s opening melodic line.” I get chills reading that, then chills all over again hearing that line over the woodwinds. Tell me about this thing of getting a melody that quickly. Does this happen in your work a lot? Did it happen more than usual in Unremembered? What do you think does this, what triggers a passage of music like that— is it the combination of text and the visual in Nathaniel’s artwork?

Sarah Kirkland Snider. Image: Willy Somma
Sarah Kirkland Snider. Image: Willy Somma

Sarah Kirkland Snider: I’ve gotten ideas while looking at visual art before, and also, oddly enough, while watching movies and reading books—I’m fascinated by human interiority, and narratively-oriented in general, and sometimes it seems as though my brain processes empathy musically, translating my perception of a character’s emotion into a melodic or rhythmic idea.

But this was the first time I can remember hearing different ideas for the same image in such quick succession — which I think has to do with the layered nature of Nathaniel’s illustrations, which often depict multiple scenarios, or different moments of a story, and the fact that I’d received the poems first and illustrations second and was therefore mapping the image onto a story I’d already become deeply familiar with.

I found that the illustrations would frequently bring to mind an idea or emotion I wasn’t necessarily thinking about in my reading of the poem — for instance, the role affection can play in dread, or innocence in fear, or gratitude in regret, or beauty in something horrifying. All of that takes your understanding of the poem in a more nuanced direction, which in turn, of course, affects the music. So the illustrations really wound up playing a hugely integral role in the creation of the cycle on the whole.

Read More

There’s more: Read the full interview at Thought Catalog

By Porter Ander­son

Writing on the Ether: Music For Writers: A Ravishing Fever Dream From Sarah Kirkland Snider And Nathaniel Bellows

Originally published by Thought Catalog at www.ThoughtCatalog.com



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