A conversation at the composer’s home in Princeton, New Jersey
August 6, 2015—1:00 p.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
September is gearing up to be a big month for composer and New Amsterdam Records co-founder Sarah Kirkland Snider. A recording of her impressive 13-part song cycle Unremembered will be released by her label on September 4, and the North Carolina Symphony will give the world premiere of her Hiraeth just a couple of weeks later. Her 2015-16 season will also include premieres with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and as part of the BAM Next Wave Festival featuring the Young People’s Chorus of New York.
So Snider was already mentally juggling quite a few projects when she hit pause in order to sit down and chat with us. Once her husband (the composer Steven Mackey) and So Percussion’s Jason Treuting wrapped up a high-volume session in the couple’s downstairs studio, she quickly opened up about her approach to integrating disparate influences, embracing deeply emotional content, and the process of developing her signature works.
And being a female composer and mom, of course. No, no…just kidding.
Well, sort of. During the car ride between the train station and her home, we actually joked about how even well-meaning interviews with women in new music too often defaulted to questions about the impact of child rearing and gender on the creation of music, yet we also agreed that there was much that still needed to be said. In her household, she pointed out, the question might be better addressed to Steve, the parent more likely to chaperone their two small children to lessons and outside activities, but it was not one he tended to field as a matter of course. So would we talk about it, should we avoid it? We debated. In the end, the answer emerged as naturally as the bigger themes our conversation centered around: that embracing the full diversity of one’s creative life and mind was essential to generating the most interesting and powerful work—and to better understanding and supporting the artist behind the music.
Molly Sheridan: It seems as if no writer can resist pointing out how you mix pop and classical elements in your work, and clearly there are reasons for this—from instrumentation to vocal style to the artists you work with. The tone of shock that often accompanies this sort of description, however, has always seemed strange to me, as if composers were otherwise kept completely sheltered from contemporary life. Still, was this integration of elements a style that you developed over time or was it your instinct from the start?
Sarah Kirkland Snider: Well, looking back for a second, I grew up a total classical music nerd, studying piano and cello, and singing in choirs, but at home my parents were always playing pop music. So I had this life that was filled with a lot of music. I would go to my orchestra rehearsals or my piano lessons and hear classical music, and then I’d be home hearing the Beatles and Fleetwood Mac and Joni Mitchell. For me, it was all just music. I didn’t have anybody telling me that pop was down here and classical was up here. It was all just ways to express oneself musically.
I started writing music when I was a kid, but I didn’t take my first composition lesson until I was 25. At that point, my first teacher made it very clear to me that I needed to bifurcate and strip away the pop influences, set aside my interests and just focus on the classical tradition. I definitely got the message that you were supposed to keep them separate. Then going to Yale was interesting because it was a much more relaxed mindset and there were professors and students with lots of different ideologies. I became increasingly uncomfortable keeping the pop influence away. I remember leaving a seminar at Yale and getting in my car and listening to Sleater-Kinney, and I was just like, why is there this weird divide? And the reason why it was often Sleater-Kinney was because of the female issue. I was frustrated; I was the only female in my class at Yale for the first two years, so it was a constant issue for me. I realized that I was subconsciously associating all the things I didn’t like about new music—pedagogy, ideology, over-intellectualization—with a male mindset, and so I would need to go and get in my car and listen to Sleater-Kinney so that I could just steep myself in a completely different vibe and mindset.
I think that, subconsciously, that also had to do with the reason why, when I left Yale, I started incorporating my pop influences. It was a bit of a rebellion.
MS: So you felt required to strip away something that was important to you. Yet was there something valuable to be found in that because that forced you to stretch in other directions?
SKS: Absolutely. I went into composition with the zeal of a convert, and I didn’t see it as a bad thing that I was being taught to open my mind. My first lesson was with this amazing teacher, Justin Dello Joio. My undergrad degree was not in music, and so he was trying to give me all of that in our private lessons. I brought him a piano piece, and it was basically within the span of two octaves. He said, “Use the whole instrument. You’re not thinking idiomatically enough and you’re not thinking virtuosically enough about the instrument.” I started studying a lot of piano music—which I had played, but I hadn’t looked at from this perspective. I really wanted to write music that was technically demanding and challenging. We studied everything from Palestrina and Bach to Ligeti and Lutoslawski, which really pushed me as a composer.
So there was a lot of great stuff that came from that—thinking about rhythm differently, thinking about harmony. He definitely got me to open up. I’m really grateful for all of that. The only negative thing to say, I guess, is that I felt like there was a side of my musical personality that I couldn’t access in my writing. So it took a while for that to come out, and there’s a very practical reason that unlocked it, which has to do with Penelope.
MS: And what was that?
SKS: After Yale, the playwright Ellen McLaughlin asked me to write music for a commission she had from the Getty Center to do a piece on the five female characters of the Odyssey. Initially, it was supposed to be a song cycle, but then it became a play—a play with some music. It evolved a lot, but in the end, we had a play that she wanted to perform as a monodrama for herself.
She hadn’t sung in years and she couldn’t read music, so it was very important that I write something that she could learn by ear. She and I had been to new music concerts together, and I knew she was frustrated with a lot of the music that she would hear. She felt like there wasn’t a strong enough emotional component. I also knew the kind of music that she liked, which was the ‘60s folk tradition. I wanted to write something that she could really own and get inside of and be herself singing, as well as learn by ear. That gave me permission to write in a style that did incorporate my popular music interests.
It was initially difficult for me, because I felt the voices of my teachers on my shoulder telling me not to do a lot of the things that I was doing—not to write four-bar phrases, not to write antecedent-consequent phrases, not to have verse and chorus. A lot of the poetry that Ellen gave me was written intentionally to have a verse-chorus structure, and she had no hang-ups about that. So I felt like, okay, I need to put aside the problematic things I learned while a student at Yale and try to just write this music the way I think she would like it to be written. So, that’s what gave me permission to write Penelope in that way, but I’d never thought that I would do anything with it. In fact, I kept saying to [my husband] Steve [Mackey], “Oh, I’m spending all this time on Penelope, but you know, it’s never going to get performed again after this.” And he’s like, “You just wait and see. This is really beautiful. You should make a record out of it.” And I was like, “Really? Because this isn’t the kind of music that the new music world would embrace. I’d be blacklisted for writing this kind of music.”
Anyway, I’m sure in certain circles I have been but, bizarrely enough, it became my most successful piece, which I think says a lot more about the musical climate we’re living in now than it does about me as a composer. People are just more open to that now. I guess a cynical person would say that classical institutions are desperate to bring in new audiences, and they’re throwing out all of their important principles. Whatever. It became my most performed piece and the piece that’s gotten me the most commissions. So it’s been an interesting lesson.
The other lesson I took from it was that I really enjoyed writing that kind of music. It felt really good to access that side of myself again. It was the kind of music that I had written from the time I was ten, mixing Debussy and Joni Mitchell, and to me that felt very natural. This is me when I’m in the dark and nobody’s watching. I can just let all of this come to the forefront and not feel self-conscious about it. But, actually, I find that I do still feel self-conscious about it. It’s always an issue, because once you get taught these shoulds and shouldn’ts, it’s hard to get them out of your head.
MS: It’s so interesting that this piece became your calling card, but it started out as this sort of secret side project.
SKS: It really was a secret shame. I probably shouldn’t say that, but honestly, it was. I felt so self-critical, and so apologetic. And I felt very worried about how [the recording] would be perceived by the classical world, and so it completely floored me that it made these top ten lists and that certain classical critics were saying nice things about it.
MS: We put so much stock in the authenticity of a creative voice. In a sense, whether you were willing to admit it to yourself or not, were you taking steps toward your authentic self through this work? For as admittedly loaded as all those words are.
SKS: It wasn’t consciously that, but I think it was that. What I was trying to do when I wrote that music was just immerse myself in the story. Ultimately, I was trying to write from the point of view of this woman who was dealing with this very difficult situation. That more than anything is the guiding principal that I try to have in mind when I’m writing a piece of music. It’s like: What is the emotional story here? And how do I immerse myself in that? And how do I be true, most true to that emotion? And how do I be the most honest, and the most candid, and put aside all of those well-intentioned shoulds and shouldn’ts that I learned in graduate school? I try to think about mood and emotion more than style, or all of that. Because I think that all of that stuff separates you from what is really a true emotion that you’re feeling. I think all of that can be very emotionally crippling actually and can really strangle you creatively. I didn’t write any music for my first six months at Yale because I was so worried about breaking any rule that was in one of my teacher’s minds.
I actually think it’s one of the more interesting questions about the whole gender issue that nobody wants to touch—that women are acculturated to be in touch with their emotions. Girls are taught by society that it’s okay to cry and talk about their feelings. And music is an inherently emotional medium—at least I would argue that it is. Stravinsky might say otherwise, but for me there’s no other art form that is as viscerally engaging. So it’s a strange thing to then feel you have to have an intellectual foil for every earnest expression, which was one of the messages I got in my studies.
MS: You did have a long road to your official start as a composer. Now your work seems so sophisticated and carefully considered. There’s a lot of core skill—probably what you walked away with from Yale and the associated studies. So there were these skills learned, but it sounds like you struggled with how to fit your innate approach into that toolbox.
SKS: The music that I wrote at Yale was definitely emotional. No question about it. But it was this painful process of extracting it. I had a teacher who early on said, “You know, as a woman, you’re going to encounter some discrimination about your writing if it’s very melodic and lyrical. For a man to write melodic, lyrical music, that’s courageous. If a woman writes it, it’s sentimental.” When I got to Yale, I remember having a conversation with another teacher there who said something very similar. So there was always this push and pull, where I felt like, eff that: I’m just going to write as emotionally as possible because the only way we’re going to change this is if women actually do it so much that it becomes a normal, unremarkable thing. But at the same time, you know, you have to worry about competitions or your teachers recommending you for things. I often felt like there was a certain way to be emotional that was acceptable, and there was a certain way that wasn’t. Plus there were all these technical goals that I was wanting to achieve with the music at the same time. It would take me a lot of time to write a piece that I felt really good about.
MS: Do those pieces now feel like homework assignments, in a way, because you were exploring craft and you were going about it in a way that allowed you to produce quality music, but there were some fundamental things skewed about it?
SKS: You would think that, but actually, even when I had to do fugue exercises, I would wind up breaking whatever rules I had in order to make the piece more expressive. That’s why I got in to writing music. My earliest memories are musical ones where I was singing and narrating everything in song. I want to communicate with a listener and that’s always been important to me. So even my homework assignments were always probably some of the more overwrought with emotion. It’s just the way that I think musically.
MS: You have orchestral premieres coming up this season in North Carolina and in Detroit. I was thinking about the success of Penelope and the album release of your song cycle Unremembered in September and wondering about how you apply this voice when you now sit down to compose for these more traditional formats. Do you have to change your aesthetic or your approach to create the work? Do you feel like you’re actually shifting gears, or is it more a case of “This is the music I make. I’m simply going to create a piece for this type of ensemble.”?
SKS: I really don’t feel like I’m shifting gears. I think that all of my music is narrative driven—that’s what I’m the most interested in musically—mood and storytelling and atmosphere. So all of that is how I’m thinking when I’m composing. I’m not thinking about genre and style.
In the case of Unremembered, that was a project where the commissions came from two different places and the piece sort of evolved over time. It started out as a Roomful of Teeth commission. I wrote these five songs, based on these poems that I asked my friend Nathaniel [Bellows] to write. These poems felt like a leather-bound book of old stories that I wanted to dive into. I really loved writing those songs, so when we were finished, Nathaniel kept writing more poems and I decided to make it a song cycle. At the same time, I got a commission from the Ecstatic Music Festival, and because the commission was coming from Ecstatic, which is run by my [New Amsterdam Records] co-director Judd [Greenstein], it felt informal and relaxed, and they also are open to music that brings together different influences—in fact, they seek that. So I felt comfortable going into my most interior, honest, musical self. It’s a place that all of my music comes from, but here it had more opportunity to really show that melding of influences because it’s written for voice and you’re hearing non-classical singers. Well, I shouldn’t call them non-classical. They all have classical training. Padma [Newsome] and Shara [Worden] both have degrees in classical music—Shara in opera, Padma in composition—but they sing in a style that brings together lots of different influences. I think to me the music is not really any different from the other music I write, it just sounds different because of these singers.
Yet it’s a really interesting question because I do think that there’s an element of unselfconsciousness that I have writing a piece like Unremembered compared to writing a piece for, say, a piano competition. When you’re thinking about who you’re writing for, for me that definitely winds up influencing the music. If I’m thinking about a classical institution and their values and their history, that’s going to inevitably bring out something different in me than a piece written for my good friends who love all the same bands and the same classical composers that I do, and who understand that love of both worlds. For Unremembered, I felt like I could go even deeper into that because Shara had become my closest friend and we’d had so many conversations about classical versus pop music, and all of the frustrations that we had dealing with the lack of infrastructure to support music written in the cracks between those worlds. She also just so comfortably can inhabit both worlds, which is something that so few singers can do, so I felt like I could really let it rip. Like I can just close my eyes, be in the dark room, summon the most me that always felt a little bit repressed, and just let it say whatever the hell it wants to.
I get very confused by this question because I think about this a lot, and I wonder: How is the music different? I don’t want to think of it as being different, because then it feels like I’m holding back in some pieces. Writing this orchestra piece I’m writing now, I don’t feel like I’m holding back anything. I feel as at home writing this as I did writing Unremembered. But I listened to so much pop and rock music growing up that it felt like a home to me. Classical music did too, but in some ways, pop felt even more like a home because there weren’t things I didn’t know. I’d performed classical music since I was kid, but I was always aware that there was so much history and theory I didn’t know — I felt very intimidated and ignorant, and that stressed me out. Whereas with rock music, I’d communed with that music so deeply that it felt like it didn’t have anything over me.
MS: Well, where you might argue that a decade ago this intermingling was a specific side stream, those delineations continue to disappear by the year. You developed your own voice in the midst of that transition.
SKS: Now it’s normal. It’s almost weird if you don’t do it.
MS: Now, even when it comes to such a tradition-bound ensemble as the orchestra, it seems like the media has been suggesting that there is a swell of interest in new work—perhaps especially by this cohort of composers more comfortable with more mainstream musical idioms. Are you seeing evidence of such a move?
SKS: It’s tough because it gets to this idea of accessibility and no composer wants to talk about this. Because how do you define what’s accessible? And calling something accessible makes it sound dumbed down or not challenging, or like you’re compromising. But at the same time, audiences say things like, “I love this music. I felt like I could get into this music. Other new music, I can’t get into. I don’t understand. It feels like I need a degree to understand it.” There’s something real to that.
I think there’s something about narrative. I think there’s something about people feeling like they have a way in and can follow along—follow a story or that there’s some rhythmic hook or beautiful textures. I think it does have to do with things as basic as melody and narrative and having the form be something that feels grok-able by an average person. Average person? See, it’s so hard to talk about this!
MS: You’ve mentioned narrative a few times now. And a lot of your projects end up with additional elements, whether that’s videos or images, to carry some of that narrative weight, or there are performers on stage singing, using language. That seems like a preference for you.
SKS: I’ve always been very interested in narrative, and I’ve always been very interested in tension and release, which is really all that narrative is. Having problems and conflicts in the music, and then resolving them, all of those things are what drew me to classical music as a child. I was fascinated by the stories that Beethoven would tell, and the stories that Chopin would tell. I thought of them as stories. As a kid, I would want to know, “How was this conflict going to get resolved? And how are these characters going to figure out how to agree or co-exist?”
So I’ve always been really interested in that. This orchestra piece that I’m just finishing now for North Carolina, we created a film component to go with it. I was working with Mark DeChiazza, who works with new music composers and creates film that doesn’t compete too much with the music, but somehow complements it and provides another dimension, or another lens, through which to experience the music. He was saying that he feels like he’s picturing to score, as opposed to scoring to picture. When I’m writing this music, it feels like I’m making a film, or writing novel, or a short story. I really think about it in those kinds of terms. That’s how I get from one note to the next.
I need to have that, but when I was first studying composition, I was fighting that impulse a lot, because that wasn’t in fashion; having climaxes—that’s romantic and not really cool. You’re putting your heart on your sleeve. One of my teachers used to say that my music was too clear, that the audience always knew where they were in my pieces. I thought that was a good thing! There was a lot of new music where I had no idea where I was. The form felt totally random and arbitrary, and that would drive me nuts. I’m not trying to slag on any other kinds of music, but I need order. I think for me it’s because the world is such a chaotic place, and music feels like a place where I can actually take comfort in the order of things. So it’s an interest in telling stories, but I think it’s also a need for things to have purpose and meaning and reason behind them. I think that’s a huge part of what drives me—taking the chaos and the randomness of the universe and putting it into something meaningful to me emotionally.
MS: So if we can come down from the philosophical for a second, how does this actually work? What is your working process?
SKS: I start with tunes. I get a lot of melodies — motives usually, more than melodies, like short little melodic cells — stuck in my head. I sing them into my iPhone, and I have thousands of these. I take walks, and I’ll think about where an idea could go next. But it always starts with these little motivic cells. Then I’ll go to the piano and see what my hands have to say about it, because I find that my hands have other things to say than my brain does—so many years of being a pianist, so I always like to see what comes out of that. But then most of my music I just write directly into the computer. I don’t sit at the piano or a keyboard. I just hear things, and it’s a very intuitive process.
I use a lot of the craft that I was taught, and if I get stuck, that really helps a lot. Steve and I often joke, well, if you’re stuck, did you go through the inversion? Did you go through the retrograde inversion? Did you try—? You know, these tools that you wouldn’t think would be associated with the kind of music that we write, but that sometimes can be very helpful. And all of those things are a part of the toolbox which helps you see what your clay looks like: the shape of it, the feel of it, the texture, the look, and all of that. So I spend a lot of time doing that, trying to intellectually massage my material, but it always comes from a more emotional place initially.
MS: What about the fact that, at least for pieces such as Penelope and Unremembered, you’re writing for some very particular voices? Though it was interesting to me to realize that they had actually been written for several sets of very unique voices throughout a project’s evolution. So was that a conscious part of the compositional creation of the work? Or just a feature—that your work then can showcase that sort of artist?
SKS: After the theater version of Penelope was complete and I decided that I wanted to make a song cycle version out of it, there was this interim period where I worked with Signal and a classical singer— Rachel Calloway, who is an amazing singer, and I loved working with her. But I found that she wasn’t as comfortable singing it in a more pop style—which makes perfect sense. I realized it wasn’t really fair to ask a classical singer to go outside of that persona. It really needed to be sung by somebody who was coming organically from both worlds at the same time.
So I thought of Shara because I knew her music, and I had read that she had studied opera. Judd and I were talking about this one day, and I said, “You know, the only person I can imagine doing this is Shara Worden, but we don’t know her. How do I get her to do this? Why would she want to do this?” And he said, ” Actually, she’s a friend of Padma’s.” So I sent Shara an email out of the blue, and we met at a practice room in Midtown and played through some things. Immediately it was like, “Oh, this is exactly what Penelope needs. I don’t have to articulate anything to Shara about how it should be sung.” She just immediately got it.
So I went back home, opened up the cycle, and I changed a lot of things and tried to make it more relaxed and open to what Shara brings. That was a fun experience, artistically gratifying, but it still ultimately wasn’t something that was conceived from the ground up for Shara. And I wanted to do that. So, after the Roomful of Teeth versions of Unremembered, I then wrote eight more songs—just letting my imagination run wild, knowing Shara’s voice as well as I did at that point in time. It felt very natural; I had lots of ideas. I knew they would work for her, and I knew that she would get it. Working with her is like a mind meld. We don’t really have to talk about anything. She looks at the music, she sings it, and we’re there. You just don’t have that opportunity too many times in life, and that artistic connection we have has brought us closer as friends. It’s all part of the same thing.
MS: It seems that for a lot of these projects, that’s a palpable thing—that the artists have a sense of family or feel a part of a band. Is that an important aspect of music making to you?
SKS: Definitely. Particularly if it’s a piece like Unremembered—and this is why I’m so excited to see lots of young new performers who are bringing different sides of their musical loves together in their performance technique, because I think that that’s something we weren’t seeing for such a long time. But with Penelope and still to a degree with Unremembered, I worry: How will this piece live on after Shara or after I’m gone? Because it’s such a specific kind of voice. It’s really tough to find that. Who knows what the future holds for this kind of music. Understandably, if Shara hasn’t been available to sing it, a lot of institutions and ensembles haven’t wanted to do it because who else were they going to find to sing this music that way?
I want my music to sound like it was written by these other performers. In the case of, say, Penelope and Unremembered, I want it to be performed in a way that sounds like they wrote it. They own it. And yet, I do have this composer control freakiness where I write every single note and every single inflection, and there’s not a thing that they do that I hadn’t asked for. But I want it to look in the end like my hand is invisible in the product; it was just this thing made by this character. Not made by Shara, or David [Stith], or Padma per se, but by the characters who are singing these songs. That’s very important to me.
MS: What is your approach to text setting in that case?
SKS: God, I feel like I sound so emo. But again, it’s just getting back to this emotional center. I’m fascinated by complex emotions—the places where affection crosses over and merges with dread, or regret merges with gratitude. And so I’m always thinking about the emotion and then the ideas come from there. I want the text setting to sound very natural, so I’m very particular about the texts that I set. That’s why I wanted to work with Nathaniel, because we’re old friends and I knew that he would be able to understand that and could write using very direct, concise language that packed a big punch imagistically. That was really important to me, because one problem I have with a lot of new music text setting is that there’s so much language being crammed into a musical phrase, and music really bloats a text. If you have too many words, you can lose some of the punch emotionally or musically. So I start with texts that I really like, and then I really just think about it in terms of storytelling and narrative and the emotion of the characters who are singing these lines.
MS: And Nathaniel helped you out there, right, because he actually sent you illustrations?
SKS: Yeah, that was a wonderful surprise. He sent me the poems, and then he was like, “Oh, by the way, I did some illustrations. I don’t know if you want to see them. Maybe they’d be useful.” And my mind was blown. They really inspired me tremendously, and I got immediate musical ideas upon looking at them, which was really interesting to me because that was the first time that had ever happened. I would see a picture of a girl running in one corner of the illustration, and I would hear one motive. And I would look at another part of the illustration where there were kids around a camp fire, and I would immediately hear something else. It was really great to have that be such an organic part of the writing process because I felt like I was really plugging into his psyche, where these stories came from for him emotionally.
MS: Listening to Unremembered yesterday, I really felt as if with this piece you had reached a certain significant point of arrival as an artist.
SKS: Well, something I’ve never said on record about Penelope is the extent to which it didn’t feel representative of me and all that I’d gone through as a composer in a lot of ways. It was getting back to my teenage me in a way, integrating my love of pop music, but it was leaving out all of this technique that I had worked so hard to bring into my music. That complexity is a big part of who I am as a composer, so it was nice with Unremembered to feel like I could put some of that back in. Everybody got to know me as the writer of Penelope and thought that that was what I did, the only kind of music I’d ever written. Nobody knew about this string quartet that I wrote, which sounds like the Second Viennese School, or this cello piece which was very Kodály, and these other pieces I’d written which were so different sounding from Penelope but which also felt like a really important part of my musical personality. Unremembered is still closer to Penelope than it is to that string quartet, but it was nice to feel like okay, this is 100% my piece, my design. I can make these songs anything I want.
So it’s funny when you say this feels like an arrival. I guess in a way it is because it is the first piece I’ve written where I’ve really brought together these two sides of my personality equally. I’m finding a way to integrate them that feels truer to the hybrid animal I feel like I am.
MS: I also heard in this piece perhaps darker, more aggressive language, and I wondered, since we were speaking about gender and expectations earlier, if the inclusion of male voices in the work had any influence on opening you up there?
SKS: I don’t think that having male voices really allowed me to explore a more aggressive side of myself musically. I mean, you look at The Witch, which is a song Shara sings, and that’s one of the most aggressive performances on the album. But it was really fun for me to get to explore that side of myself in vocal writing. I have a darker personality, I would say, than a lighter one. I felt like my whole life growing up was about putting on a smile and being a good girl and not showing that side of myself, and so when I get to go into the music that I’m writing and let that out, it just feels so great. Because it’s like I can finally say these things I’ve been wanting to say, and I won’t offend anybody. Maybe I will offend them musically, but I won’t be impolite. It’s great to be able to explore that side of myself in a very safe space.
I think being able to authentically access emotion really shows in the music itself. I’ve always felt like my nerves were on the outside. I’m hypersensitive and when I was a kid, I always felt like there was something wrong with me because I seemed to feel things in this outsized way compared to my friends, and I felt like that was weird—but it actually helps my work now. So there are good and bad sides to having—let’s call them—emotionally quirky personalities.
I’m trying to think of some helpful things to say about mental issues, and I’m failing. [Composer and New Amsterdam co-founder] Bill [Brittelle] and I talk about this a lot because we feel like it’s such a huge part of our writing, but we feel like we’re not supposed to talk about it. It’s weird because in pop and rock music, it’s good if you talk about it. It sells more albums and it sells more magazines. There’s something weird about new music where we like to divorce our personal side from the music. As a composer, you’re supposed to represent yourself more as like a good student who is articulate and responsible and intellectually and emotionally in control. This is why I thought it was so great that Nico Muhly came forward to talk about his personal struggles with mental well-being. It would be great for composers to be more comfortable talking about who they really are, and not be afraid to show the full 360 of their personhood.
I think this is related to what I was talking about with regard to the pop and classical bifurcation in the early- to mid-20th century. We’d had World War II and nothing you could say in music could do justice to the horror of the Holocaust. So music became as intellectualized as possible—let’s not even try to comment emotionally, because nothing we could say could address all of this. And also, of course, the rise of science and objectivism, and the prizing of those rational values over irrational ones. As a result, I just feel like, generation after generation, we were taught to tamp down our emotions, both in our music and personally in the way that we relate to audiences. One of my frustrations in grad school was just this, the fact that in seminar we would never talk about the emotional meaning of something. We would never talk about how a piece of music made us feel. It was always about more dispassionate, scientific pursuits—the form, the harmony, the gesture, articulations.
I think we’re still recovering from that, but I feel like we’re coming into this golden age now where there are a lot of composers who are more comfortable incorporating lots of different styles into their music, and being more themselves in the way they relate to the audience, which makes perhaps the music more accessible to audiences. Who knows? But the audiences are enjoying it, and it shows on their faces when they come rushing up to the composers afterwards and are telling them how much they loved it. I mean, when we were down in North Carolina recently, it was like we were rock stars. There was a long receiving line of audience members, and their genuine and enthusiastic expressions of delight were so moving. You know, while there are these dire reports saying that classical music is dying, they’re notably not being written by people who are actually in the field. I see tremendous growth happening in terms of the relationships between the audience and the composers and the administrators, and this sense of excitement about the potential there.
MS: So with your perspective at this point, how does the work of New Amsterdam compare with other similar aesthetic shifts but from earlier times, such as Bang on a Can? Because it seems like there are intersections, but also some strikingly different aspects.
SKS: Bang on a Can—I mean, they’re gods and goddesses. Their influence on composers of my generation is huge. The praises of it can’t really be sung highly enough. But I think the music of the world of Bang on a Can and the music of the world of New Amsterdam are a bit different. I think a lot of it has to do with, of course, the time in which both originated. [For BoaC] there was still this idea that you had to sort of define yourself in the language that was created by your enemy. They were rebelling against modernist strictures, but it was still like, “Okay, we need to write music that is defensible in terms of systems, and practices, and processes.” There were still a lot of shoulds and shouldn’ts, to be honest. And when Judd and Bill and I first started talking about New Amsterdam, we felt like, gosh, there’s still this sense of you can do this, you can’t do that. So let’s do all the things that we’re really not supposed to do. Let’s bring in bad taste. Let’s bring in indecorous musical behavior. Let’s write climaxes. Let’s wear our hearts on our sleeves. Let’s tell stories with clear narrative arcs. Let’s bring in cheesy electric guitar. What is the music that would come out of us if we hadn’t had a single composition lesson, or been exposed to the worlds of who was successful as a composer and who wasn’t? It was really a thought experiment. We all had some anxiety about it to varying degrees.
So that was the ideology, or the philosophy, the ethos, whatever, behind starting New Amsterdam. I think that also is what separates it a bit from Bang on a Can. It is a different time. I don’t really know how they pulled off what they did; it’s so much easier for us. We have the luxury now of living in a freer time and place. We like that New Amsterdam is really hard to describe. We just want it to be a place where composers are exploring all the music that they love, while still using the tools of their training as composers to write it.
MS: With all that freedom, do you feel now that you’ve sort of settled into a voice that you will hone, or are you still exploring.
SKS: I feel like it’s an honest reflection of everything—of my loves as a person on the planet, and my loves as a composer specifically. So I feel really good about it in that sense. But at the same time, I hope that I’m always growing and changing. I think that will keep me interested in the music that I’m writing, and hopefully keep me interesting as a composer. I never want to feel like I’m stuck in a comfort zone. That kind of terrifies me.
In fact, one thing that was troublesome to me about Penelope was that I would get commissions where people would say, “Can you write something like Penelope?” I felt a little bit pigeon holed by that. That’s why I started incorporating more chromaticism immediately after Penelope. I needed to remind myself that that wasn’t the only thing I can do. There’s a whole other world of music that I want to write.
This is a tough thing for a composer. If you get a bunch of good reviews telling you that you did this one thing really well, then you want to keep doing that thing and keep getting that positive feedback. But I think you can get stuck writing the same piece over and over. Composition can start to lose the luster if that happens. So I hope that I’m always able to keep evolving my voice.