Posts Tagged ‘ellen mclaughlin’
When the song cycle Penelope is released on Tuesday, October 26, 2010, for many intrepid music lovers it will be an introduction to the work of composer/New Amsterdam Records co-founder Sarah Kirkland Snider. Performed by the chamber ensemble Signal and singer Shara Worden under the direction of Brad Lubman, the album is being released by New Amsterdam.
My first introduction to Sarah Kirkland Snider and her compositional creations, was also through Penelope, back in late 2009, when I first spoke with the composer about an in-progress song cycle project in collaboration with My Brightest Diamond frontwoman Shara Worden, a classically trained mezzo-soprano/songwriter with a penchant for engrossing art rock songs that can simultaneously capture essences of opera, garage rock, cabaret, soul and the blues.
Ms. Snider told me that Penelope would in effect be a re-imagining of Homer’s Odyssey, told from the perspective of Homer’s wife. This alone sounded like a smart premise, but merely discussing a work that had yet to be released as an album did not prepare me for actually listening to Penelope, the work. To my recollection, Penelope is the most vivid, mesmerizing psychological nightmare set to music I’ve heard.
Like most of the New Amsterdam composers, Ms. Snider composes music that is perhaps best defined (if any attempt should be made at all) by the “chamber music” settings that serve as the most appropriate environments for experiencing it. That particular environment is more often than not the “rock concert/nightclub/lounge venue,” in which those who subscribe to the polite diligence of traditional classical concert etiquette and more rowdy attendees are equally at home. Galapagos Art Space, in DUMBO, Brooklyn, where New Amsterdam hosts its monthly Archipelago series, is an excellent example:
Stylistically, Penelope at once possesses an unabashed pop sensibility and a subtle sophistication, as it merges more traditional chamber orchestra instrumentation with the thoughtful incorporation of quintessential rock sonics–electric guitar and drums. The strings do most of the heavy lifting with the melodic and harmonic themes, but the complex textures and confluence of timbres provide the most reward after repeat listens.
The use of electronics is particularly artful here. Unlike other contemporary compositions that place electronic sounds at the forefront of the sonic palette (which is not necessarily a bad thing), Penelope utilizes electronic sounds only so far as they enhance the dreamlike prism through which Penelope views her predicament. Rather than dominating the mix, the electronics often add merely one more texture, imbuing the music with an intangible ambience that suggests the instability of her mental state.
It should be noted here that the production value of the recording is particularly high. Producer Lawson White–whose work is also showcased in William Brittelle’s Mohair Time Warp and the recent release from Missy Mazzoli’s Victoire, entitled Cathedral City–achieves the ideal balance of the instruments, voice, and electronic manipulation. The result is a supremely polished yet genuine and spontaneous-sounding album that bursts with maturity.
The lyrics, written by playwright Ellen McLaughlin, detail the experiences of a comparatively modern Penelope, who quickly finds that her life shares an eery affinity with that of another Wife Penelope from antiquity. A brief synopsis, according to the official Penelope web site, is as follows:
In the work, originally scored for alto/actor and string quartet, a woman’s husband appears at her door after an absence of twenty years, suffering from brain damage. A veteran of an unnamed war, he doesn’t know who he is and she doesn’t know who he’s become. While they wait together for his return to himself, she reads him the Odyssey, and in the journey of that book, she finds a way into her former husband’s memory and the terror and trauma of war.
The remarkable thing about Ms. McLaughlin’s text is that while the basic plot seems intentionally vague and open-ended, the individual emotions expressed, feelings revealed, and images evoked are very specific and loaded with immediacy.
This striking paradox has the effect of making the listener Penelope’s sounding board–as if she has temporarily escaped the house to which her long-lost husband has returned, in order to breathlessly, perhaps deliriously convey her plight to whomever will listen. And so, while we can surmise from the song cycle’s plot that her husband has indeed physically returned, we really can only verify this fact through Penelope’s psychological perception, her memories–however credible.
One could interpret our protagonist’s words to represent her own inner dialogue, an interior conflict between her eager expectations of her connection with her husband and the tragically somber reality of an irreparable chasm that has formed between them.
The listener only hears directly from Penelope herself, and although she appeals to her husband directly, he never voices his own perspective. It’s possible that the wife still awaits her lover’s return, or that he returned long ago, and she is still bound to the bitter memories of their ill-fated reunion.
In order to communicate through music the mental disorientation, the contagion of dizzying desperation that comes with the realization of a life built together now decimated, Ms. Snider gives vocalist Shara Worden beautifully understated step-wise melodies that captivate as they meander, and quickly embed themselves in your consciousness, never to relinquish their spell. One of many highlights in the song cycle, “The Lotus Eaters” is nearly impossible to banish from your mind once it nestles in and finds its home there.
When larger melodic intervals do emerge, their occurrence is all the more dramatic and emotionally rending. The passage of time is suspended, and the hypnotic quality of Ms. Worden’s clear, nearly vibrato-less tone–with a disarming smoky timbre in the lower registers–takes over.
And while the back-and-forth sway of the melodies induces a kind of aural seasickness, Ms. Snider implements precise rhythmic devices that augment the ebb-and-flow of the music with deceptively complex shifts in time signature and an intuitive sense of when one phrase ends and the next begins.
This elusive sense of time is exemplified in the cycle’s opening song, “The Stranger with the Face of a Man I Loved.” The NPR story linked below contains the complete song:
“The Stranger with the Face of a Man I Loved”
He Left me here/Half a life ago/But this is where he came/A stranger with the face of a man I loved/This house, this house, where the past of our times/I try to remember/And the rest of the time…(I try to forget the times he lied and I lied before)/Before you just left me….just left me here.
As I reflected on the cryptic lyrics above, I remembered that the subject matter– a jilted woman left to choose between being forever mired in her infatuation with his memory or accepting the harsh reality that he will never return–has a very resonant precedent: in the music of Shara Worden and My Brightest Diamond (MBD).
A doppelgänger of the “The Stranger” is “Gone Away,” from MBD’s debut album Bring Me the Workhorse. The link to audio for a live in-studio version of “Gone Away” may be found here:
Far away you’ve gone and left me here/So cold without you, so lonely dear/May, June, July, I come to town/Every minute I go takes the smell of your clothes further away…’Cause you’ve gone away/Where there isn’t a telephone wire/Still I wait by the phone/You don’t even write to say goodbye, say goodbye.
I have saved every piece of paper/Like grocery lists and old cards/To-do lists and race scores/So just in case you change your mind and come back/I’ve kept everything safe.
When the two songs are heard side-by-side, the listener begins to envision an even more collaborative partnership between Ms. Snider and Ms. Worden, in which the vocalist’s pitch-perfect knack for aching melancholy finds a fortuitous friend in the composer’s engrossing, cinematic soundscapes.
But where the heroine of Ms. Worden’s “Gone Away” seems utterly lost in the wake of her beloved’s absence with no real hope of recovering (similar to Cio-Cio San of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly), Ms. Snider’s Penelope longs to be rid of her persistent apparition, and a seemingly strong resolve may well lift the burden. But ultimately, Penelope is doomed.. In “Baby Teeth, Bones, and Bullets,” the penultimate song, Ms. Worden sings:
Let a wind come, let a wind come/Blow it all away/ Let a rain storm, let a rain storm/ Let a rain swallow me/Can’t you do that?/can’t you do that?/Can’t you hide me God?…Can’t you save me from you?
But why is Penelope’s struggle to be free of the haunting memories utterly futile? We get the answer in “Home.”
Home is where I’m going but never coming/Home is some place I can’t recall….No, no you can’t go home she says, the world/Where do you think you’re going?/We’re not done with you/The world is never done with you.
The world wants her travelers to stay lost/The world swats their eyes as they run through it/She grasps at them, pulling and tugging/She grasps at them.