Name: Sarah Kirkland Snider
Current Release: Mass for the Endangered on New Amsterdam/ Nonesuch
Recommendation: Gregory Spears’s Requiem.This is one of my all-time favorite pieces; a gorgeous, otherworldly work of vocal music spanning influences from medieval France, Feldman, Reich, Greek mythology, 19th century Breton fairy tales, and more. But mostly it just sounds like my friend Greg, who writes transporting and hauntingly beautiful music.
If you enjoyed this interview with Sarah Kirkland Snider, visit her website to find out more about her work and music.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
Some of my earliest memories are of singing wordless tunes. I started writing stuff down when I was 7 or 8, but I didn’t show it to anyone until high school, when I showed it to my piano teacher, who encouraged me. I kept writing all through college, but without any sense of career aspiration, and in fact, I didn’t have my first real composition lesson until I was 25. I grew up mostly pre-internet and didn’t have a lot of exposure to new music, and I certainly didn’t know of any female composers (living or dead), so composition just wasn’t on my radar as a professional possibility. As a kid, my heroes were Mozart, Bach, Debussy, Chopin, and Joni Mitchell. As a teenager/college student, I got into indie music; PJ Harvey, Sleater-Kinney, and Liz Phair were my female idols. As I got into new music, Arvo Pärt, Meredith Monk, John Adams, Louis Andriessen, and Julia Wolfe were big for me.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I think composers are born with an original voice, and learning to be a composer is about learning to trust it. When I first started studying composition in my 20s, I definitely filtered my voice through the values of my teacher, emulating his music and trying to write what I thought would please him. I did this to an extent all through graduate school – every piece was a struggle to reconcile my impulses with what I thought would win the most approval from my teachers. After school, I found myself reaching back to the instincts I’d had since childhood. I was deeply grateful for the technique and craft I’d learned in school, but I found that I needed to unlearn some of the dogma. In a funny way, it’s about getting back to the voice you’ve always had.
What were some of the most important creative challenges when starting out as a composer and how have they changed over time?
Aside from trusting oneself, which is the greatest challenge, I think it can be really hard to know what kind of music to write. Most composers love many different styles and genres of music, and it’s easy to feel confused about what you feel most called to make. Especially if you have any kind of success early on--you can feel either encouraged or pigeonholed, and start believing you’re supposed to keep writing that same piece. My earliest success was with a song cycle that was all the way to one side of my interests, compositionally (Penelope.) After the Penelope record came out, I received commissions from people referencing Penelope when asking me to write something new for them, which sometimes made me feel pressured to go in that direction again. But my interests are always evolving, and I tend to want to go someplace different from where I’ve just been. Over the years I’ve gotten better at communicating my interests so that commissioners and I can be on the same page, but I still struggle sometimes with what I most want to say, because there is so much I want to try. It’s a relatively good problem to have, I guess.
Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
I had to look up haptics! I think workspace can be incredibly helpful in stimulating creativity, but honestly, since having two kids I haven’t had the time to organize and optimize my workspace. I’ve gotten really good at working wherever I am, whatever room in the house is quietest—or working on planes, in doctor’s offices, wherever I have my laptop and headphones. However, during this COVID chapter, with the kids home 24-7, I’ve maxed out on my adaptability, so we’re actually building me a workshed in our backyard. It will be light and airy and empty, with no internet, and I cannot wait.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
My life and my music tend to blend a bit messily, as is the case when you have children. I don’t really have a fixed schedule—my days change depending on phone calls, appointments, our babysitter’s schedule, etc. Ideally, I try to exercise in the morning after I’ve gotten the kids ready for school, and then work on music for the morning and early afternoon hours, and then do email and admin in the afternoon, but it rarely works out like that. I’m often composing at night after the kids go to bed and the house is quiet. When I’m really into composing a piece, I find it never really turns off in my brain, so I’m frequently excusing myself from whatever I’m doing with the family in order to sing an idea into my phone so I don’t forget it. In that sense, my work and non-work life are very mixed-up. It’s the same for my husband (who is also a composer), so our kids are quite used to it by now!
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
For me, some of my favorite compositional ideas have popped into mind while doing incredibly mundane things, like washing the dishes, walking the dogs, or putting my kids to bed. Creativity is a very elusive thing and kind of works according to its own rules. You can try to have the ideal space, mentally and physically, to conjure it, but that doesn’t mean it will come. What I’ve generally found is that my best work starts to happen after I’ve put in some time trying – if I warm up my creative brain like a muscle, it’s more likely to yield ideas. But you have to do the hard work of staring at the blank page and coming up with ideas you *don’t* like first, which can be incredibly frustrating and discouraging.
So, it’s very easy to procrastinate when getting started. I really don’t like the process of starting a piece. But if there’s one thing that does help me in the beginning, it’s walking. I find walking, particularly in the woods near our house, helps put me in a frame of mind to see a bigger picture and understand what I want to say.
Could you take me through the process of composing on the basis of one of your pieces that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
In the case of Mass for the Endangered, the environment and climate change are issues I care deeply about, so the musical ideas came relatively quickly. When I feel a strong emotional connection to a project, that tends to happen for me. With this piece, I began with the piano motive that starts the Kyrie, and the piece just kind of grew from there. But it doesn’t always work that way for me—starting at the beginning. I just try to start somewhere, and sometimes it turns out to be the beginning, but just as often it winds up being something in the middle, or the end. In this case, I wrote the Kyrie fairly quickly and then the Gloria, Credo, Sanctus/Benedictus, and the Agnus Dei. Every movement begins with some kind of motivic material, some kind of hook, either in the instruments or the voices, and then I spin things out from there. I tend to be interested in phrase-oriented, developmental music, so I spend a lot of time working on ways to manipulate and develop my initial motivic ideas. I heard those five movements performed in a premiere given by the wonderful Trinity Wall Street Choir and then I majorly revised the piece and decided to add the Alleluia (I felt like the premiere hadn’t heard enough from the men, so I wanted to add a movement that featured them.) Editing and revision are a big part of the process for me with every piece I write; in this case, I spent almost as much time revising the piece after the premiere as I spent writing it beforehand.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
I use Sibelius notation software when I’m composing, and I feel zero guilt or shame about taking advantage of the playback feature. Yes, it can be terribly misleading for sound, orchestration, feel, etc, but it can also be very helpful in thinking about form and pacing. It eliminates the need to hack through the score at the piano, and obviously makes it much easier to imagine a section transposed, re-notated, inverted, etc. Machines can’t write a good piece of music for you, but they can make it much easier for you to do so.