Composer’s ode to resilience especially relevant in these times

Of her her work "Something for the Dark," Sarah Kirkland Snider says, "I think of this music as expressing the optimism of a very young person.”

Sarah Kirkland Snider arrived at composition a little belatedly. Her first big success didn’t come until 2010, when she was 37. 

“I think this is true for at least a lot of women of my generation and older,” she said. “You put it off because you don’t know if it’s viable, and you don’t see yourself in the profession, because there were not many role models who were broadly visible when you were young. So, yeah, my story is a little bit different.”

But Snider has more than made up for any lost time. Among her many recent accomplishments include a major New York Philharmonic commission that will have its debut in June 22 at Carnegie Hall, and her inclusion on the Washington Post’s 2017 list of the Top 35 Female Composers in Classical Music.

Chicago audiences will hear one of the composer’s most popular works, Something for the Dark (2015), a 12-minute ode to hope and resilience, when guest conductor Rossen Milanov and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago perform it Jan. 18 as part of a program featuring Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10. Other ensembles performing the 12-minute piece in 2021-22 include the Milwaukee Symphony, Rochester (N.Y.) Philharmonic, Omaha (Neb.) Symphony and Hudson Valley Philharmonic in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

A native of Princeton, N.J., Snider studied piano and cello and spent five summers at the American Boychoir School. She even tried her hand at composition, finally showing one of her works when she was a junior to a piano teacher who encouraged her to study further. But she did not believe composition, which had been a therapeutic and spiritual outlet, could be a viable career, so she obtained a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology from Wesleyan University. “Conservatory was on no one’s radar at Princeton High School,” she said. “I thought, ‘No, no, I’ve got to go get a regular college degree.’”

Snider briefly tried her hand working as a music coordinator on a film set, but she wanted something more stable, so she took a job at a pro-choice law firm in New York and considered an application to law school. Then, she began writing music for an experimental theater on the side and soon found herself taking an increasing number of unpaid days off from work to devote herself to composition. “Finally, I realized I needed to be doing it full time in order to really be happy,” she said.

So she cobbled together enough undergraduate music classes around the city to apply for a graduate composition program. She started at New York University but ultimately transferred with the help of one of her professors to Yale University, studying with such major figures as Martin Bresnick, Aaron Jay Kernis, Ezra Laderman and David Lang. Because of her roundabout path, the aspiring composer began classes at Yale when she was 29 or 30, while most of her classmates were 22 to 24. She graduated in 2005 with a master’s degree and artist’s diploma in composition.

Snider’s first big breakthrough came with Penelope (2010), an orchestral song cycle based on Homer’s Odyssey. Written for female voice and orchestra, it imagines the story from the point of view of Odysseus’ wife, Penelope. “I wrote that piece, thinking that if anybody really knew about it, it would actually only get me into trouble with the classical establishment, because it’s not a very classical piece,” she said. Instead, it is a cross-genre hybrid, mixing classical with indie rock, pop and folk — an example of a style that has come to be known as indie classical, a controversial term that some composers have rejected.

In part, she turned to non-classical sources so heavily in this work as way to express her own musical identity, which was a little battered. After leaving graduate school, she felt somewhat alienated from the classical world, because of negative experiences she had faced as a woman composer in a male-dominated field. She realized that many of her female role models were in the world of rock and pop music, so writing Penelope was a way to pay homage to those influences, including Fiona Apple, Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, Sinead O’Connor and Liz Phair.

“It was me needing to get in touch with that side of my identity,” she said, “because it felt like just as much as my identity was classical, and I felt like the classical side had been a bit attacked. By claiming some more of the pop and rock side, I felt like: Yeah, this is me lining myself up alongside my heroes that I’ve had since childhood, where I felt like women in the modern age are accepted, which is something I hadn’t really felt with classical music, even though there are these great role models like Joan Tower, Meredith Monk and Julia Wolfe. It’s still very much, and especially 15 years ago was, a man’s world.”

Given that she was just out of graduate school and largely unknown, Snider didn’t expect the 2010 recording of Penelope to gain much traction. But critics took notice, starting with Steve Smith at Time Out New York, who named it the No. 1 classical album of the year. The album reached the Top 15 on Billboard’s crossover classical list, and the work has since been performed more than 50 times since in the United States and abroad. “That was a very surprising breakthrough — the fact that people had their ears more open than I had given them credit for,” she said.

The album was one of the first big successes for New Amsterdam Records, which Snider formed in 2008, with Judd Greenstein, her closest friend at Yale, and William Brettelle — the three of them filled at the time with what she called “crazy ambition.” They wanted to promote the then-new, indie-classical style that was catching on. “We just immediately hit it off and had a lot of the same feelings and frustrations about the new-music world,” she said. “Mainly we just felt like there were a whole lot of rules and shoulds and shouldn’ts about what you were allowed to write.”

Although much of the serialist ethos that dominated the middle and late 20th century had large dissipated, some of that modernist dogma still lingered. “We were craving more freedom aesthetically, and we thought, wouldn’t it be great if there was a record label that supported this kind of music,” she said.

In 2014, Snider won the Elaine Lebenbom Memorial Award for Female Composers from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which included a commission for a new work. She set about writing a piece that would celebrate the Michigan city, which was enjoying a new kind of renaissance. She talked to one of her best friends, singer-songwriter Shara Nova, who had moved to the city and rehabbed a distressed Victorian home, and began reading about the city’s history.

In addition, she discovered the poetry of Philip Levine, who was the U.S. poet laureate in 2011-2012, taking the work’s title from one of his creations. Levine grew up in Detroit and made the grittiness and determination of its working-class world a focal point of his writing. She especially liked these lines, “Out of whatever we have been/We will make something for the dark,” which end a poem about his wife, For Fran. “Somehow, that felt like a motto for all of his work but also for what I was trying to do with this piece,” she said

Unlike some of her other compositions, Something for the Dark draws little on popular music, and she acknowledges that it probably falls more within the realm of neo-romanticism. Going back to her time as a cellist in student orchestras, she has loved the work of such composers as Beethoven, Debussy, Mahler and Sibelius. “I love the orchestra music, for instance, of Anna Thorvaldsdottir [an Icelandic composer who creates atmospheric aural worlds],” she said. “I love listening to that. But when I sit down to write my own music, I want there to be melody and the development of ideas.”

In her notes on the work, Snider writes, “After a brief hint of passing doubt, Something for the Dark opens with a bold, heroic statement of hope and fortitude in the horns and trombones. I think of this music as the optimism of a very young person.” She had originally intended to return to that motif for a kind of happy ending after it underwent a transformation, but she ultimately found such an approach to be “too Pollyanna.” Instead, a motif that is largely buried but still present in the first half emerges to become the dominant theme of the work’s conclusion. 

As for the future, one of Snider’s major projects is her first opera, titled Voice. It deals with the life of Hildegard of Bingen, a now-celebrated 12th-century abbess, composer and polymath, who found her voice as mouthpiece for God. The opera was commissioned by Beth Morrison Projects with a grant from Opera America, and it is scheduled to premiere in January 2024 at Prototype, an annual New York festival of contemporary music-theater works. “I think it’s going to be different from traditional operas in a lot of ways,” Snider said. “I’m excited about it.”