On Wednesday, March 16 at 7:30 p.m. composer Sarah Kirkland Snider partners with vocalist/composer Shara Worden of the art rock band My Brightest Diamond and the ensemble yMusic in what is arguably the quintessential concert of the Ecstatic Music Festival at Merkin Hall in New York City. In addition to excerpts from Snider's song cycle Penelope--about a soldier coming home from war with no memory of the wife to whom he returns--yMusic will perform an additional song-set penned by Snider along with music by Worden. Through the technological convenience of e-mail, I asked Sarah Kirkland Snider and yMusic violinist Rob Moose about working with Shara Worden, and the significance of the festival.
Daniel J. Kushner: Penelope seems to have resonated with critics specifically for the way it skillfully blends and toggles between elements of classical music and indie rock. Is that critique too facile or reductive? What would you have listeners take away from the song cycle?
Sarah Kirkland Snider: If that critique is facile or reductive, it doesn't bother me. For some listeners the style issue is the most interesting aspect of the music, but I think that's because genre is a hot topic right now and for many critics it's intriguing to see genre-blending happening on both sides of the classical/pop fence. For me, blending those influences is not something I did consciously - it may sound simplistic, but what I really strove to do throughout the cycle's composition was think about this woman and this man, the story of their relationship, try to imagine how they felt, and try to imagine how those feelings might translate musically. I wanted style and genre to be totally irrelevant. Paradoxically, of course, this meant consciously reminding myself not to discount an idea or gesture just because it was "poppy," which is something I used to do in much of my music, particularly when I was in school. With Penelope, storytelling and character were paramount; I wanted to tell this woman's story naturally and open-heartedly, in whatever voice made the most sense for her. As far as what I would have listeners take away from the music, I'm just happy if it resonates with them on some level. They're welcome to take from it whatever they like.
Kushner: You've talked in the past about the influence that Shara Worden's music has had on you. Can you expound on that?
Snider: Shara has a very diverse musical background -- she formally studied opera and classical music, but she also grew up listening to and performing everything from rock and pop to blues and gospel. What I love about her music is that it doesn't sound like she's consciously picking and choosing styles or gestures at any given time; it all just blends together seamlessly into something her own. I love how this is most evident in her singing itself; she can transition from a gentle lilting classical head voice to a full-throttle banshee pop wail on the turn of a dime, tapping into this whole netherworld of emotion that isn't the province of any particular genre. It's very personal and distinctive, and I find that ability to communicate such specific and unusual emotions incredibly compelling. As both composer and singer she's most interested in telling a story and using whatever stylistic tools best help her communicate that story at any given moment, which is something I strive for as well. I also relate to more specific things like her sense of melody and harmonic motion, her sense of tension and release and narrative. The fact that we share so many musical values really enabled me to open up my ideas for Penelope and make them bigger and more expressive; I knew she would understand the sensibility and fully inhabit both the vibe and character, and that was very creatively inspiring to me.
Kushner: Rob, you've worked with Shara Worden for many years as part of My Brightest Diamond. How has that long-standing creative relationship affected the preparation for this concert?
Rob Moose: My extended relationship with Shara Worden has added a layer of deep personal meaning to this concert. Shara is the first artist I ever played with, having met her in the music pages of Craigslist while a junior in college. Those first few years of playing with her really shaped my musicality in ways I didn't fully realize until recently. When playing her arrangements in rehearsals and at our January show at the Allen Room, I felt like I was rediscovering a long lost part of myself. Having known each other for so long leads to a kind of trust that is otherwise hard to achieve. Shara is very detailed in her creative process, incredibly thorough, but is ultimately very open to the group's feedback and ideas. She wants us to feel good about every note we're playing, to forge an intention on every level, and I feel that the composite of our ideas raises the bar just a little higher.
It was very important to me to commission Shara to write instrumental pieces for us and the results have massively exceeded our expectations. It's incredibly fortunate to be experiencing this kind of full circle moment in which an early collaborator is creating exciting new work for my group all these years later. That kind of symmetry seems really rare and all of us in the group feel it.
Snider: There is a wonderful old-family vibe in the room with Shara and Rob and the members of yMusic. They've all played together in various guises for many years, and the close, long-standing friendship and collaboration between Rob and Shara is definitely a big part of that. Rob and the other members of yMusic really understand musical languages that hover somewhere between classical and pop, because they share those same interests and listening habits and have made careers out of specializing in both styles and the world in between. So working with them on this music is just incredibly fun and rewarding. There isn't the need for a lot of explaining or trial and error; they just get it, which means you can immediately focus on the important stuff, which is making the music as strong and expressive as it can be.
Kushner: Can you talk specifically about March 16's performances of songs set to poems by Ivanna Yi and arranged for yMusic?
Snider: I wrote a set of songs called Taking Turns in My Skin which are musical settings of three poems written by the young poet Ivanna Yi. Ivanna and I met in an art-songwriting course at Yale that paired composers and poets for the purposes of writing new art songs. Two of the songs ("Violin" and "Chrysalis") were actually written a few years back and are now newly revised and arranged for Shara and yMusic, and one of the songs ("Identical Twin") is wholly new. Together, the three songs are loosely about artistic identity; they were inspired by the poet's own experience of feeling she had to choose between her growing love of writing poetry and a lifelong study of the violin. The poems are stark and beautiful, by turns quizzical and whimsical and grave, so the music strives to echo those qualities, as well as some of the bittersweetness of discovering a new love while parting with another....The parting and longing of Taking Turns in My Skin is a bit more abstract and metaphoric than that of Penelope, for one thing, so the emotional tone is a bit lighter. And there is some magical realism in Ivanna's texts which lends itself to some quirky, dreamy passages. But in general, a kind of tension between warmth and dark is something that intrigues me compositionally and tends to find its way into a lot of my music, which is probably the reason I am drawn to setting texts like Ellen's [McLaughlin] and Ivanna's, since they tend to explore this tension as well.
Kushner: Throughout the Ecstatic Music Festival, women have played a prominent role, from composers such as Missy Mazzoli, Merrill Garbus, Olga Bell and yourself to performers like cellist Clarice Jensen, flutist Alex Sopp, violist Nadia Sirota, and vocalist Shara Worden, not to mention many others. Does this occurrence resonate as a kind of feminist phenomenon, however loosely?
Snider: I think the prominent role of women in the festival is partially a reflection of the growing ranks of women in music and partially a reflection of a healthier, hipper, eyes-open worldview and approach to programming that folks like Judd and others of our generation possess without having to think about it. For our generation, the musical world obviously has so many different voices - gender, race, background, whatever - and to us it's not about diversity for diversity's sake, it's that the table is genuinely so much more interesting with as many of them present as possible. Excluding women on the basis of gender is something that would never happen with the group of people behind this festival, not only because that kind of thinking is totally alien to their values and the way they operate, but because some of the best music in the scene right now is being made by women, and that's what the Ecstatic Music Festival is about: presenting an accurate snapshot of all the incredible music being made right now in this little fertile patch of terrain between genres. When you're after the best music and the best festival, it's not a feminist move; it's a musical one.
Kushner: Rob, as a someone who's been playing music that finds itself somewhere in between the classical and indie music worlds for a long time now, is the Ecstatic Music Festival a new signifier of this particular scene?
Moose: The Ecstatic Music Festival strikes me as a beautiful milestone rather than a signifier. Certainly its curator, Judd Greenstein, has sparked wonderful new collaborations and made connections for audience members and artists themselves. The beauty of the festival, however, seems to be the organic interplay on a variety of levels. There's nothing aggressive or self-conscious about it. I feel very fortunate to participate.
For more information about the March 16 concert featuring Sarah Kirkland Snider, Shara Worden, and yMusic, visit here.