Sarah Kirkland Snider and Shara Worden on Penelope
Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider is at the forefront of the "post-classical" scene where genre boundaries can't keep her and contemporaries from fertile new artistic ground. Her haunting, lush song cycle for strings and electronics, Penelope, comes alive with the voice of My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden, who has also worked with Sufjan Stevens, The Decemberists, and many others.
Released in 2010 by New York-based New Amsterdam Records, which Kirkland Snider co-founded, Penelope is "a meditation on memory, identity, and what it means to come home," interweaving Homer's Odyssey into the story of a man gone to war, away for 20 years, who returns home to his wife, broken and confused, his memory in shambles.
Before the piece makes its Midwest premiere Tuesday as part of the SPCO's Liquid Music Series, Gimme Noise spoke with Kirkland Snider and Worden separately about Penelope, their approaches to collaborations and creativity, and their varied experiences moving between classical and rock worlds.
Penelope, like many of Kirkland Snider's works, garners energy from a strong, distinct narrative. Home and homecoming are prevalent themes within the song cycle, which ties into her creative process, and her sense of home has since deepened since she became a mother. ("Now it's a home I have created," she says.)
"Home is the place where you feel the most yourself," she says. "In Penelope, that was an abstract idea, where this character, who because of the experiences of war, forgot who he was. This song cycle is really about trying to bring him back to himself, trying to bring him home... We've all, to one degree or another, had times in our lives where we are out of our element, or disconnected from the people we love, or the person you know yourself to be. And that can be a very disoriented and dispiriting experience."
Worden's perspective on home is shaped by frequent family moves as a child and an adult life filled with travel. "Being a touring musician, you can relate to a pretty intense longing for home," she says. "But this guy is away at war for ten years, and then it takes him another ten years to get home... hat kind of longing is certainly nothing I've ever experienced. I am very tied to home and to family, but in the piece [Penelope] I think it is even more intense."
"There's always a part of you in every character," Worden continues, "but then at the same time, there's a point where you can't relate anymore. It's a really interesting process that you sort of take yourself to an emotional limit... then you can lose control of the voice, or I'll cry... and then I can't sing anymore... which is kinda defeating the point. Judi Dench is an actor that I could go back to in my mind over and over again because she's feeling everything but...she never lets the emotion out. It's always so repressed but so present. What that does for me, when I see Judi Dench's work, it allows me to feel something, it allows ME to cry because she actually doesn't ever let it out. There's something about restraint and still having all the emotions in there. I think I'm always trying to find where those lines are."After performing and writing classical music from a young age, Kirkland Snider opted not to study music as an undergrad at Wesleyan, but eventually worked her way to a music composition master's program at Yale. There, she encountered disdain for her pop sensibilities, and even had her emotional intuition called into question as not "male" enough.
"It's just the way that I create music," she says. "It works for me. If I start thinking too theoretically, I find that it hinders me and I get blocked, if I think too much about what I'm doing. I had a hard time in grad school for that reason because I would spend too much time, or try too hard to come up with intellectual reasons for everything. I have a much easier time writing if I just let go and try to listen to the ideas in my head."