Sarah Kirkland Snider blends genres at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Thursday, April 14, 2016 - 2:27pm

If you look at any genre of music, you are almost certain to find that it has been informed and influenced by at least one other genre. When musicians find a sound which is attractive to them, they imitate and adapt it into their own work, a natural step in the creative process. Classical music is no exception to this trend, and composers have been pulling from outside genres for generations, from Bartók’s use of folk song to Gershwin’s synthesis of jazz to Piazzolla's jazzy tango infusion.

In the present day, borders between genres seem to be breaking down ever more quickly. One of the most exciting genre-blending compositional voices at work today is that of Sarah Kirkland Snider, whose piece, “Something for the Dark,” premiered Thursday night with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and will again be performed on Friday and Saturday.

“As a kid, I was very interested in music,” Snider said in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “I came from a non-musical family — we didn’t have any instruments at home or anything, so I would go around the neighborhood in Princeton, which is where I grew up, and knock on the doors of neighbors and play their pianos by ear.”

Eventually Snider’s grandparents provided her family with a piano, and she began to study piano, cello, voice and a little bit of classical guitar. A few years later, around the age of ten, she also began to compose, a path which has led her to become a prominent composer in what some have termed indie-classical music.

“I had always made stuff up, but I had never written it down,” Snider said. “But I didn’t show the music to anyone until my senior year of high school, when my guidance counselor said I needed to do that for college applications.”

Though she used her music as part of her college application process — which ultimately led to her receiving an undergraduate degree from Wesleyan University — Snider didn’t formally study composition until much later.

“I didn’t actually receive my first composition lesson until I was 25,” Snider said. “It took me a few years after college to realize that I needed to do composition full time in order to really be happy.”

Snider further pursued her musical studies at Yale University, where she received her master's degree and an artist’s diploma. “Something for the Dark” originates from a competition hosted by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Elaine Lebenbom Memorial Award for Female Composers.

“I kind of applied for it on a whim. It was, like, the day before the deadline,” Snider said. “I didn’t think that anything would come of it, so it was a wonderful surprise to have this opportunity.”

Snider began writing the piece with a specific emotional idea in mind, though the work ultimately changed direction during the compositional process.

“I decided early on, when I was thinking about writing this piece, that I would try to have it somehow loosely musing on the idea of hope,” Snider said. “I usually need to start with some sort of emotional impetus when I’m thinking about writing a piece.”

Snider also wanted “Something for the Dark” to pertain in some way to the city of Detroit, because the commision was for the city’s resident orchestra.

“It sounds sort of cliché when you’re talking about Detroit, but it’s hard not to think about all the struggle,” she said. “A good friend of mine, Shara Worden — the singer who I’d worked with on ‘Penelope,’ the song cycle I wrote — had moved to Detroit a few years prior, and had told me a lot about it … and so I was thinking about hope, and I had this motific idea that felt very optimistic, and I was trying to figure out what to do with it.”

The hopeful conception of the piece gradually began to take a darker turn, however, and Snider explored several areas into which she had not anticipated venturing.

“As I started to write the piece, it started to go in a darker direction than I intended,” Snider said. “I realized that this was just the way the piece needed to go, and that perhaps a narrative that begins with this idea of optimism but then explores some darker areas is not necessarily a hopeless narrative. Maybe it’s actually a good narrative, because it’s more realistic and embodies the realities of existence.”

For Snider, composition is often based on narrative, she said. 

“I think of myself as a narrative composer, and I try not to think in terms of aesthetics,” Snider said. “I feel like when I catch myself thinking about aesthetics that gets me into trouble because it gets me into conversations that have more to do with dogmatic ideological points I was taught in school that have more to do with the teachers who taught them to me … I try to concentrate on telling the most compelling musical story I can tell.”

She noted that the creation of this narrative, however, doesn’t come without challenges

“Composition, for me, always involves a lot of hair-pulling and anxiety, and sweat and blood and staying up all night fretting,” Snider said. “But that’s just the way I think it will always be for me. It’s just my personality type.”

When asked if there was anything she would like her listeners to know about “Something for the Dark,” Snider offered a word of caution about adhering to a composer’s extra-musical ideas for a piece.

“Music is so abstract … I feel like if I’ve done my job well, it will mean something different to every person who hears it,” Snider said. “So I’m always resistant to projecting too much on to either a program note or the description of the piece … I get nervous about revealing that, because I don’t want to guide a listener too much in what to think or feel.”

She later noted in an e-mail that a listener might find it helpful to know of the origin of the piece’s title, a poem called “For Fran,” by Detroit-based poet Philip Levine, which can be read online at the Poetry Foundation.