Nathaniel, do you feel a proprietary sense toward these songs, to the extent that you might play them yourself within your own milieu?
BELLOWS: No. [Laughs]
You couldn’t adapt them? Or if Padma were to get a sore throat one night…?
SNIDER: We did try at one point. I wanted him to sing.
BELLOW: I can’t read music at all.… I just learned it all by ear. I think what I do, I do OK on my own, but when I have to translate it to an actual real setting, it’s a disaster.
SNIDER: But I love his voice. At some point I’m going to figure out how to get him singing on there.
Do you anticipate having to do much coaching with instrumentalists during your tour, in terms of style and approach?
SNIDER: There will be. But the great thing about having worked with Shara, Padma, and David already on the music is that they know it so well, they’ll also be able to give pointers and tips. Shara is very big on, “Can you play it like this, so that I can do it like this?” and, “When I lean with my shoulder, then you’ll know I want the downbeat.” With this kind of music, there’s a lot of “feel” instruction, because classical players for the most part tend to play on the front of the beat, and this music tends to want to sit on the back of the beat. That’s the pop influence, and so that sometimes needs to be discussed and explained.
Not every drummer is Ted Poor, who did such extraordinary work on Penelope.
SNIDER: No, but actually there are so many drummers now who are really good at it, coming out of the schools. In Unremembered I actually tried to dial back the drumming. Live, it’s so hard with a drum kit and a chamber ensemble – the balance issues are so tricky.
And also, I didn’t realize that Penelope was going to get the attention that it got. I didn’t know that it was going to wind up being my calling card. In the classical world everybody identified me then as the “rock/classical crossover” person. I didn’t want to feel like everything I do is known for having a drum kit, being that far on the rock spectrum. Penelope was all the way to one side of what I do and what my tastes are. It was music for a play, and [playwright] Ellen [McLaughlin] was very particular: “I want it to sound more folk, more pop.” Unremembered I wanted to be completely driven by the emotion in the narrative, so the palette, I didn’t want that dictated by a stylistic agenda.
BELLOWS: It was very liberating for me to just let go of the text and the drawings, and be like, Whatever you hear, you should write it as such. I didn’t feel territorial about “the slaughterhouse really sounds like x, y, and z to me, so please do that.” I was just like, go for it. It was totally freeing on some level not to have to have oversight, like “my experience with the girl who hung herself in the woods sounds like this.” It was so much more interesting to hear what [Sarah’s] experience in interpreting that vignette was. And every single thing she gave me, I was like, that’s awesome – it felt true to the memory, but a new memory.
SNIDER: The thing that was special about writing this music is that it felt uniquely personal, in a way, because there wasn’t any overarching commissioner or institution I had to worry about pleasing or squaring with the values they represent. Roomful commissioned the first five songs, but then Judd and Ecstatic… we’re so much on the same page ideologically, so he was just like, “Just write the rest of the cycle, and do whatever you want.” At that point, it’s almost like thinking of it the way a band would think of it, where you’re just writing with your friends. It was really like, how should this music sound in a world where I’m not worrying about, “Will this orchestra’s audience be OK with it? Will the donors and the board of this ensemble be OK with it?” There’s something special about that.
BELLOWS: It took a long time, too, so you really had space to do it. We wrote this over four years.
SNIDER: Yeah. I mean, there’s just no way I would have written “The Witch” for an orchestra [commission]. As much as I’d like to think that I’m bold in that way, I don’t think that I would have felt quite comfortable.
Composers talk about this a lot: I think there is a significant influence that comes from who’s commissioning you. It affects the piece you end up writing. Writing Unremembered felt very diaristic and personal, so it stands out from my other pieces in that sense.
What lessons did you learn in the process of creating Unremembered together that you can apply, going forward?
BELLOWS: This has been so educational for me, in terms of working with anybody but especially in working with Sarah, and I think that the stuff we’ve done since Unremembered has been better and better. The Mass that had its preview here at National Sawdust, [to Sarah] I still think that is one of the most beautiful pieces of music you’ve ever written, the Kyrie, which is the first part.
Of course, it’s a Mass. You didn’t have to write any words, did you?
BELLOWS: Oh my god… [laughs]
I’m kidding, I know these are elaborate new works with original texts.
BELLOWS: When she said, “I got commissioned to write a Mass… would you want to write a Mass? Because I don’t want to write it unless you write the text” – because we have this history of writing together, I knew that my idea, she would at least consider it. I said, I want to write about endangered animals, and she was like, “That’s a great idea.”
SNIDER: I loved it immediately.
BELLOWS: We’re in the same pocket thematically, emotionally. It reaffirmed that we’ve got a working relationship that’s on the same page a lot of the time.
SNIDER: Collaborating is really difficult, because you have to relinquish control sometimes. You have to be comfortable with that, and you have to have a sense of trust in the other person. I’ve been in other collaborations where one person didn’t feel that trust. It can be really hard to communicate; there are moments of tension that are hard to overcome. And with [Nathaniel], we’ve had some fights… or not fights, but some moments of…
SNIDER: Yeah, frustrations. It’s like co-parenting, almost. You’re raising this child together, and you’re saying: “I think it should be like this” … “No, I think it should be like this.” We have a good vocabulary emotionally as friends for working those things out, so when I was asked to write the Mass, it was like, I don’t want to do this with anybody but you. For a million reasons: I love his work, and his voice artistically, but there is also the importance of having that trust.
BELLOWS: And what was so gratifying in this Kyrie was it was sort of a live edit. She would say, “I have this idea, can you switch this around, can you write something new?” I was like, yeah, let’s do that, and it made the poem better. The music is unbelievable. And when we had to give our little spiel in the beginning before the piece was played, when Sarah talked and then I read the piece, I could just tell that people felt what we are meaning to try to project. It felt very gratifying that people were like, “We get what you’re trying to do,” then they heard the music and it was even more so. Even the nonverbal response, it’s what you look for. It validates whatever complexities are within a collaboration.
SNIDER: As composers go, I am extremely particular about my text, which is an uncomfortable place for me to be with my personality and as a woman. It does require a lot of assertion of your viewpoints and opinions. I’m not really comfortable with confrontation a lot of times. So I think that’s another reason why this relationship is so important to me: because I’m so particular, and if the text isn’t leading me in a certain way emotionally, then I need to discuss that with the writer, or find other text.
David Lang was my teacher at Yale, and we talked about this a lot, because has the same obsession with finding the right text. And he always said, “Sarah, you have to write your own text.” He does that a lot, where he adapts his own. But I would rather work really closely with somebody who’s a much better writer than I am, so I feel very lucky.
BELLOWS: Because I write my own stuff outside of this – I’m not a librettist as a career; I write novels and I write poems, and those are my own things – it’s a very different grip on the work with her. In our case, I have to be more flexible, I have to be more open-minded – it’s not the finished draft, it’s a work in progress. With my own stuff, I can have my own rules and my own parameters. It’s just a shift of approach, which I feel is really helpful. It’s good to move outside of your comfort zone. And then to get this result, where it’s like, “I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t write all those Unremembered songs”… I have such unbelievable respect for the complexity, the nuance, the emotional content that’s in everything she writes.
Shara Nova, DM Stith, Padma Newsome, and the Knights perform Unremembered by Sarah Kirkland Snider and Nathaniel Bellows on March 19 at 7:30 pm at Le Poisson Rouge; www.lpr.com