> Choral and Song
Newsome, Worden; Stith; The Unremembered Orchestra, Outwater. English texts. New Amsterdam Records 29284
IN HER CYCLE OF THIRTEEN SONGS for multiple voices and chamber orchestra, Sarah Kirkland Snider uses poems by Nathaniel Bellows to address various topics—memory, natural beauty and the intermingling of mystery, pain and pleasure that often accompanies recollections from childhood. She calls on an array of styles to conjure her evocative, strangely beautiful soundscapes. The first song, “Prelude,” begins with a gently swooping a cappella female voice outlining tones of an E Dorian scale. It’s soon joined by a second accompanying voice and a shimmering electro-acoustic accompaniment with windswept sound effects. The tonality is fairly static throughout, in a postminimalist manner. If you don’t find this especially promising, fear not—Kirkland brings considerable stylistic and tonal diversity to bear on the tracks that follow.
The third song, “The Barn,” has a vigorous, driving start in G#-minor, with shifting meters, hammering drums, wild instrumental swoops and background vocals like siren calls amid the tumult. It’s quite stimulating, disturbing even—an appropriate backdrop to a tale of a ghostly young girl who appears to the poet and tells of how “the dance of life continues after death.” Snider excels at capturing the hazy swirl of memories that can haunt an entire lifetime. Her tonal language is often quite sophisticated and harmonically probing, with impressively layered textures of voices and instruments. “The Witch,” the longest entry, features strings hammering an insistent three eighth-note motif, cascading bell-like riffs from a hyperamplified celeste, driving toms, and intruding sheets of sound with background vocal wails; it has the hallucinatory, anarchic feel of the late Beatles. “Slaughterhouse” is especially good at harnessing the expressive, creepy power of dissonance. Elsewhere, Snider shows the influence of Michael Nyman’s film music and of David Lang, one of her teachers.
Sometimes the solo voice is woven into the instrumental fabric; this is an intriguing effect, but it renders Bellows’s poetry incomprehensible without the written texts. Nonetheless, the three alluring, flexible vocalists—Padma Newsome, DM Stith, and Shara Worden—provide affecting, lyrical renderings of Snider’s melodies, which are otherworldly and ear-catching. Creative overdubbing is used liberally (Snider describes Unremembered as a cycle for seven voices). Edwin Outwater conducts a good-sized, impressive-sounding chamber orchestra, and “sound design” is credited to Michael Hammond, Lawson White, and Snider, referring presumably to the skillful way electric and acoustic sounds have been interwoven. Snider clearly has a lot to say that’s worth listening to, and Bellows’ poems (which are accompanied in the booklet by attractive stained glass-style artwork), seem perfectly matched to her restless, inquisitive artistic sensibility. —Joshua Rosenblum
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