Thought Catalog

Music For Writers: A Ravishing Fever Dream From Sarah Kirkland Snider And Nathaniel Bellows

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

When 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. (You’re welcome to listen to the track called The Witch, free, just at the top of our story, with special thanks to New Amsterdam.)

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.

“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

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 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.

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
Buried
Underground

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.

“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

TC: Here’s a question I actually have put to a couple of thriller writers (among them Josh Malerman, whose Bird Box, you’d love, by the way — and he’s in a band, a highly musical intelligence). The question: how personally disturbing can this kind of work become to you? Some writers of dark drama, for example, actually don’t sleep well because the images they’re handling in their work are simply scary. I’m hearing that little piano tapping break in The Slaughterhouse. Sarah, I would not sleep for a week if I’d written this. Does it, did it get to you in some way at all? Or is the professionalism of your artistry something that handles “the reef of beasts” and other such horrors as a matter of course?

SKS: Well, I frequently find when I’m really deep into writing a piece that it’s difficult to sleep. 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. So I’ll often wake at night thinking about a piece I’m writing. And sometimes that sense of obsession can make me feel a little mad, as in crazy, and unnerved.

But in terms of being creeped out by the music, yes, that has happened to me with this piece. Just once, though — with The River. It’s grisly subject matter, to be sure, but it was more of a musical thing — I don’t know what it was, but something about the dissonances in low male voices in a dark, velvety 4/4 dirge offset by a mechanistic 3/4 pattern in the women’s voices just kind of gave me the creeps. A kind of emotional vertigo.

I wrote it outside, sitting in the grass — we have woods and a large creek behind our house, and I kept looking back there, behind me, as I was writing it. Like I was talking about its sister behind its back and it was somehow going to hear, and the trees were going to suddenly sprout gnarly vines that slithered up and overtook me.

But in general, I would say that writing music helps me deal with my anxieties and fears. I’ve become a much less anxious person since I learned to write more fluidly. I think writing is the way that I cope with all the vulnerability and uncertainty of life.

I can devise a space where, instead of chaos and randomness, there is logic and order—a logic and order that makes sense to me, anyway—with as much or as little resolution as I’d like, where there is no death, where I can exorcise any troublesome humors I might be harboring.

When I’m writing well, I have a sense that I’m living deeply, connectedly, and I need that sense of connection to feel content and at peace. It’s when I stop writing that any trouble starts. I was not a particularly happy child, and I honestly think that if I’d known I could write music, and had the opportunity and training to do it in a disciplined, consistent way, that would have made all the difference.

1436642605UNREMEMBEREDcover SKS cover line

‘A Heartbreaking Set Of Words’

TC: How much rhythmic drive in this work is yours and how much do you find coming from Nathaniel’s verse? Suddenly in The Speakers [in which the lyric opens, “I’m sorry”], there’s a brake, the propulsion evaporates—just as it always seems to do when it’s time to apologize. This is so true to the experience in life. Apologizing is like bottoming out, dropping all pretense and forward motion. You’ve captured the sheer exhaustion of apology. In your process, does something like this take trial and error?

SKS: An interesting question! I was constantly thinking about rhythm and meter because much of Nathaniel’s text was in common meter—alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter—and I wanted the cycle to have a healthy variety of approaches to text-setting, rhythmic, and formal design. So I was always asking myself: how can I push against the meter here, break up, or organize it in a way that I haven’t yet?

In The Witch is one example — with the repeated I’s and the melisma [a plainsong technique, more than one note to a syllable], yes, but particularly in the way I broke the lines, repeating certain words, even breaking certain words apart, which you’re really not supposed to do. As in, “No one saw her face which stared at me, fixedly, fixedly…grim and un-a…grim and un-a…grim and un-afraid.”

All this of this was a conscious attempt to fight the tyranny (to use an uncharitable word) of the poetic meter. And I found that breaking things up in these ways would sometimes yield new, serendipitous rhyme schemes. For instance, here: “Stared at me, fixedly, fixedly” and “safe behind my door, listening for, listening for, listening for.”

“I’ve become a much less anxious person since I learned to write more fluidly. I think writing is the way that I cope with all the vulnerability and uncertainty of life.”
Sarah Kirkland Snider

In The Guest, I decided to go with the common meter in the the verses, but depart wildly from it in sections between, sometimes creating a whole formal section of the music from just one line [such as] “All this time I was asleep.”

Setting “I’m sorry” in relief at the beginning of The Speakers — I did that both to add variety to the metrical treatments in the cycle, and for the less technical, more emotional reason you note: “I’m sorry” is such a powerful phrase. It’s such a heartbreaking set of words, both in the context of the song specifically and the cycle more generally, inasmuch as it’s about a child’s loss of innocence, so I wanted to give it a moment of space for the listener to take it in.

There was one song where I decided to get completely out of the way and just let the song be a kind of musical reading of the poem. That song was The Girl. The poem takes a story that could easily be rendered in an overwrought, sinister, or heavy-handed way, and instead delivers it in a very subtle and almost unnervingly understated way. The words and images are so powerful on their own that I felt that dramatizing it in any way would be a bad idea. So I just let it be an old-fashioned folk ballad, a simple melody that repeats, and put the ornamentation and detail into the contrapuntal texture which provides the deceptively pastoral introduction, which later returns in a manner just dark enough to belie its initial implications.

Young composers are frequently taught to avoid setting metered poetry. I was definitely taught to avoid it. But I love working with it, because you can use the meter as much or as little as you want to. Symmetrical rhyme schemes have been around forever for a reason — there is something deeply narratively compelling about the way they play with the listener’s anticipation. I think it’s a shame for composers to think they have to leave that color paint off their palette, particularly when it’s for the sake of some ideological dogma that has nothing to do with the kind of music they’re writing.

Sarah Kirkland Snider and Nathaniel Bellows. Image: Willy Somma
Sarah Kirkland Snider and Nathaniel Bellows. Image: Willy Somma

‘Time. I Like Time.’

TC: Overall, how much did you live with these poems before writing? Do you “ingest,” basically, or can you act on the material almost immediately?

SKS: It was a combination of the two. I tend to have ideas quickly but am loathe to trust them. My husband says that if it weren’t for deadlines I’d never write any music, and he’s probably right. I usually try to come up with as many possibilities for a particular compositional problem as possible so I can pretend that the one I choose is somehow tested, objectively right or good, or at least well-earned. Though I find that it’s like ordering from a menu in a restaurant — usually you come back to the first thing that caught your eye. I know this about myself and yet I still prefer to have that frenzied “other ideas! other ideas!” phase.

“I’m finally writing something close to fluidly — trusting myself more, thank God, because the previous level of self-doubt I tortured myself with was untenable and had very little redeeming value.”
Sarah Kirkland Snider

But I find that those hours spent with a wandering eye are never wasted; I’ll often generate material that I’ll use in another piece, and in the meantime I’m always revisiting and thinking about the initial idea, which gives my brain time to gestate and transform the idea on its own, in the mysterious ways that brains do. Sometimes circumstances require you to write something quickly (which I really dislike), and in that case, I just try to leave myself enough time to have multiple sittings with the initial idea, as I’m a big believer in it not being about the number of hours you spend but the number of breaks in the process.

In the case of Unremembered, it developed as a series of different commissions over a two-year period, so I had a lot of time to revisit and rethink things. And then there was the two-year recording/editing/mixing process, during which I still kept changing the composition, which presented colossally inconvenient surgical editing nightmares, but which ultimately added a lot to the piece, I think.

In short: time. I like time. Perspective is invaluable when it comes to the editing process, and I like to have a long history of varied, shifting perspectives (of my own) on my work before I have to hand it over to someone else.

‘Writing Something Close To Fluidly’

TC: Lastly, where would you say this fits into your wider body of work? Is Unremembered standing on its own, in a way, as something you’ve experienced as outside of other experience, or does it seem to be part of a natural progression from Penelope and other work? Do you feel comfortable with the pace and output of your career, or is there a key area in which you’d like to change how things are going? What would make things go even better for you as an artist?

SKS: Unremembered feels to me like a big sister to Penelope, one who’s a little freer to be herself.

Like Penelope, Unremembered is a piece that combines my love of both classical and popular musical traditions. But where Penelope was initially written for a play in which I had to hew to a very specific storyline and set of emotional parameters, Unremembered was entirely my and Nathaniel’s design: musically I didn’t feel beholden to anyone but myself, which is a rare thing for a composer.

Shara [Worden] had become one of my closest friends, and I’d gotten to know David [Stith] and Padma [Newsome], so writing for them and an orchestra of my own devising was just absurdly fun, homey, and gratifying: I could take more risks, and since it was a song cycle, I could go deeper into that pretend-space inside me where genres don’t exist and it is universally acknowledged that my favorite classical songwriters and my favorite non-classical songwriters are more or less doing the same thing.

“I can devise a space where, instead of chaos and randomness, there is logic and order…with as much or as little resolution as I’d like, where there is no death, where I can exorcise any troublesome humors I might be harboring.”
Sarah Kirkland Snider

I feel very grateful for the way my career is going. I’d been longing to write more orchestral music, and just recently finished a 27-minute piece for the North Carolina Symphony and am working on a 10-to-15-minute piece for the Detroit Symphony. I have a piece coming up at BAM Next Wave Festival this fall, which was always a dream of mine, and I’ll be writing a Mass and starting on an opera next year, along with several other projects I’m excited about.

I’m finally writing something close to fluidly — trusting myself more, thank God, because the previous level of self-doubt I tortured myself with was untenable and had very little redeeming value. There are always certain specific projects or collaborations one is looking to make happen, but that’s a good thing — the day I don’t have that is the day I’ve allowed myself to grow unimaginative. I have more opportunities than I can accept so I really don’t feel I can complain about anything other than my wish to write faster so that I can achieve greater work-life balance.

But that’s something every composer says. TC mark

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