Posts Tagged ‘shara worden’
My latest article, a profile of composer and singer/songwriter Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond) can be found exclusively at NewMusicBox. Below is the accompanying video–complete with interview footage and performance clips–produced by NewMusicBox Executive Editor Molly Sheridan.
Chamber music ensembles tend to form because of a palpable chemistry felt between the individual players. But yMusic isn’t quite like many of its contemporaries. The New York-based sextet– clarinetist Hideaki Aomori , trumpeter/French horn player CJ Camerieri, cellist Clarice Jensen, violinist/guitarist Rob Moose, violist Nadia Sirota, and flutist Alex Sopp–came together because it sensed an unnecessary musical disconnect between its individual members and wanted to correct it. During a concert at Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2008 for which indie rock sensation The National had hired violinist/guitarist Rob Moose, trumpeter/French horn player CJ Camerieri, and clarinetist Hideaki Aomori as backing musicians, Moose noticed a lack of musical intimacy.
I remember during one of the songs at The National show, seeing CJ standing like 60 feet from me across the room and not being able to hear him, and we’re playing the same song but we’re not even having a shared experience. [I] was just feeling like, You know, it’s really great that bands are having more instrumentalists play with them, but the experience was feeling a little bit lacking in terms of actual interaction and arrangement-wise, things were starting to feel a little thrown together…. Since we view the music of these bands with the same amount of integrity that we would put into a chamber music performance, there should be a group that is able to do both things.
Similarly, Camerieri saw a need for a new ensemble:
Nadia was at the after-party, we were like, Why wasn’t Nadia playing? This is insane. Hideaki was on different songs than me and Rob were on–we were like, Why aren’t people using all of us? And they we sort of realized it was because we hadn’t made it obvious that they should be using all of us. So in a weird way, yMusic , the first time we thought conceptually about the group, it was just to make it obvious to other people who we wanted to play with when they hired us for gigs. If you hire me, you should know that I’m gonna want you tor hire Hideaki to play clarinet.
Three years and seven commissions later, yMusic’s debut album Beautiful Mechanical was released on September 27 via New Amsterdam Records. The album features the works of six composers–among them indie singer-songwriters Gabriel Kahane, Annie Clark of St. Vincent, and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, all of whom yMusic had worked with extensively in the past. “In the end we realized that we have these two branches,” says Moose. “We are a commissioning ensemble that performs independently and we’re an auxiliary ensemble that performs with bands and can create arrangements for them and really help put that whole experience together.”
As an ensemble, the musicians’ cohesion transcends that of many professional ensembles entrenched in the classical tradition. Rather than interpreting the music as a group of instrumental layers that merely interact with one another, the players create a fully integrated fabric of sounds inextricable from one another. While many chamber ensembles attempt to sound as one voice, yMusic achieves it.
Beautiful Mechanical is singular in its execution: “contemporary classical” compositions packaged in a pop album context of seven tracks and a breezy 43 minutes. Each cut is a self-contained sound world all its own–from the skittish propulsion of Ryan Lott’s (Son Lux) title track to the cinematic undulations of “Daughter of the Waves” by Sarah Kirkland Snider to Judd Greenstein’s pinpoint post-Minimalism on “Clearing, Dawn, Dance.”
yMusic has created something stunning and uncanny–a vital document of the indie-classical movement that simultaneously resists and transcends the connotations associated with the subgenre. Programmatically, there is an implicit narrative of collaboration at work. Four of the six composers were featured as part of the Greenstein-curated Ecstatic Music Festival earlier this year, and three of the seven compositions were premiered at Snider and Worden’s March 16 Ecstatic concert. yMusic is also the featured band on Worden’s upcoming My Brightest Diamond album All Things Will Unwind, out October 18 from Asthmatic Kitty Records. In speaking about the ensemble’s collaboration with Worden on that record, Camerieri had this to say:
[Shara Worden] didn’t write a flute part, a clarinet part, and a viola part. She wrote an Alex Sopp part, an Hideaki part, and a Nadia Sirota part…she wrote for their individual characteristics and how they play and what’s significant to the way they sound. So it’s really specifically these people, and not their instruments….All of her special relationships with us and the way we play really come through super clear on the record. That’s sort of what yMusic is all about. It’s about us forging these releationships and making this music happen that wouldn’t normally happen, we don’t think, without the collaborative process.
Violist Nadia Sirota clarifies the unifying principle of yMusic:
I don’t think we ever really set out to be like, Oh man, let’s have this rock sensibility and apply it to chamber music or let’s have a classical sensibility and apply it to rock music. I think part of the reason we gravitated towards each other is because all of us have very, very wide-ranging tastes, and we like to be involved in projects where we just perceive the music to be good, no matter in what side of the aisle it lies…. to be a successful player of orchestral instruments in the early part of the 21st century means finding a niche and doing some weird stuff there.
“We Added It Up” from the forthcoming My Brightest Diamond album All Things Will Unwind (release date October 18).
In collaborating with the ensemble, composer Ryan Lott sees yMusic’s virtuosity extending beyond technical ability in a way that distinguishes the group among its peers. “If you want to call them classical musicians, they’re classical musicians for an iPod world, where Mozart and Mos Def are together on a playlist,” says Lott. “They’re the product of a world in which music is profoundly diverse, and they have the skill and the open-mindedness to embrace all of it.”
Lott’s contribution to the album is the title track, the name of which is indicative of yMusic’s overall style, according to Rob Moose. “I think sometimes the danger in classical training and classical music is that you get lost in the pursuit of the technique or the craft, and can lose sight of the music behind it,” says Moose. “So our group’s aesthetic is obviously to always project those things simultaneously and let them energize each other. The name of that piece kind of sums up how we approach music.
Composer/singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane explains the group’s singularity in this way:
I had taken for granted the rarity of their masterful hybrid musicianship as individuals, and as a group, by which I mean: nowhere else will you find a group of players who have both an innate sense of phrasing in the more ‘legit’ classical sense, and at the same time have exquisite sense for rhythm–not the case among your average highly-trained classical musician–and pop-oriented groove. It’s a real glory when writing the kind of music that my peers and I do to have such intuitively resourceful musicians to interpret it.
Beautiful Mechanical Compositions In Focus
Composer: Annie Clark (St. Vincent)
Track: “Proven Badlands”
- Compositional Features: A coolly seductive flute melody underscored by an unsettling cello ostinato and punctuated by cityscape trumpet accents.
- What to Listen For: Echoes of “Marrow,” from 2009’s Actor, particularly the four-note motive reminiscent of the line, “H.E.L.P./Help me, help me.” You can hear Clark’s voice in the flute melodies. More overtly, “Proven Badlands” is a continuing exposition of the central melodic theme of “The Sequel.”
Composer: Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond)
Track: “A Whistle, a Tune, A Macaroon”
- Compositional Features: Woodwind-centric textures—including what sounds like sonic archery—and plenty of quivering tone colors,
- What to Listen For: The clarity of melodic tone, tranquility, and an uncluttered and deliberate splatial sense reminiscent of “If I Were Queen” tranquility from A Thousand Shark’s Teeth.
Composer: Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond)
Track: “A Paper, a Pen, a Note to a Friend”
- Compositional Features: Worden’s most vivid and idiosyncratic writing for instruments yet, full of fits and starts and loaded with nuanced articulations. Tongue-in-cheek for the ears, this a subtle and deceptively complex work.
- What to Listen For: The danceable opening groove is a close relative of the expressionistic percussion painting of “Ding Dang” (from the forthcoming All Things Will Unwind) and the thumb piano motives in “Apple” (from a Thousand Shark’s Teeth) and “Everything is in Line” (from the former album). A continuation of the overall playful, almost coquettish quality of the instrumental writing from All Things Will Unwind.
Composer: Gabriel Kahane
- Compositional Features: Spacious Americana courtesy of the trumpet, complete with the characteristic inscrutable melody and chromatic movements; plenty of chord suspensions with delayed resolutions
- What to Listen For: Significant chordal accompaniment in the guitar, as on the forthcoming Where Are the Arms; the flute contains traces of a descending melody from “Craigslistlieder I: You Look Sexy.”
Note: The phrase “ready-made collaborators,” referenced in the article’s title, is attributed to Nadia Sirota.
For more information about yMusic’s Beautiful Mechanical, visit New Amsterdam Records here.
In the course of publishing an interview, editing is inevitable. My recent three-part interview with Sufjan Stevens is no exception. In this post comprised of discussions that didn’t make it into the interview proper, the artist talks about the music of Asthmatic Kitty labelmate Shara Worden–who will open for Stevens at his August 2 concert in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park–architecture,the term “composer,” his perspective on contemporary music criticism, and more.
Daniel J Kushner: Your music has been appropriated for a wide variety of music purposes, as string quartet music, hip-hop samples, and also as ballet music. Does this extrapolation of your work s inform how you think about what you do?
Sufjan Stevens: Yeah. I mean, I think that music has a function, and we forget that it can have mutiple functions and it can be site-specific…And I think there’s something very iconoclastic about going into an H&M store and being accosted by techno music or dance music, because I think that that’s a misuse of form. The form itself, it’s meant to engage with movement and bodies, and you know, the dance floor. And we go in the restaurant, and there are these speakers everywhere and they’re imposing this music on us. And I think that we’ve become even careless in how we do music and exploit it, and it’s part of this constant soundtrack. So I think about function a lot.
One of the reasons why I don’t like to play outdoor festivals is cause I think there’s something really sacrilegious about blasting sound through a huge PA system in an outdoor environment. There’s something very environmentally irresponsible about that, you know? There’s something very strange about that that I’ve always had trouble dealing with. I like to think that music can have multiple functions but should always be sort of deliberate and responsible and sort of accommodating to each environment….I don’t think as a society we’re ever going to grow weary of music. I think it’s always going to be valuable. It’s funny, cause I think of architecture as being vital. Architecture is this sort of discipline in creating space which [sic] we inhabit, and architecture matters more than anything else because it’s all about physical matter that covers us. We live in these rooms, in these spaces.
Music has no physical matter at all, it’s just waves, I guess. I don’t even know what it is. It’s just waves. And yet emotionally and psychologically it matters to us probably far more than architecture. I think people have more opinions and allegiances to songs and styles than they would to architecture, for some reason. And I don’t know why that it is, even though it doesn’t matter—like physically doesn’t have matter. It still matters more to people. It’s a mysterious thing.
Kushner: I wouldn’t ask the question about labels if it didn’t seem so relevant. In talking to contemporary composers, it just seems to be this ever-present issue that some people really take personally. Is it contemporary classical? Is it indie classical? There are all these terms floating out there that people choose either to utilize or avoid. It’s a really perplexing problem without a real answer. The label itself doesn’t say anything or explain anything about the music itself.
Stevens: Yeah, well music journalism and music criticism today is pretty sloppy and irresponsible with language, and there’s actually no accountability in terms of the kind of flagrant labels they use. There are a lot of run-on lists of descriptors and modifiers that aren’t usually very responsible. And I think I’m less interested in these descriptors and modifiers than I am in concrete nouns. I think if you’re going to call something what it is, you should use a noun, because a noun holds up better…
[Writers are] really desperate to kind of describe something, but they describe it as a list of modifiers that are constantly cross-referencing or alluding to previous work. It just feels very kind of insular and circular and reductive….it makes for really clumsy prose, cause as a reader you have to wade through all those references and there’s no concrete terminology on which to stand so that as a reader you feel confident about the subject at hand. Maybe it’s just an inherent problem in music journalism or writing about music, because music doesn’t have shape or form—like you said, it’s ephemeral. It’s extremely subjective, and it’s a mysterious phenomenon, and the desperate need to categorize is indication of how mysterious music is.
Kushner: I was wondering what you thought of the current music scene in New York, particularly the Ecstatic Music Festival?
Stevens: [Shara Worden] did a My Brightest Diamond show with all new material…I was kind of blown away by Shara’s new songs because they’re really exuberant and very generous and dynamic, and they were very confusing too. I was having that conundrum, that labeling conundrum, wanting to to reduce it to a formula, form or term, and afterwards I was just baffled by it all. And I kind of liked being really confused. Some of it was like weird 60s Gospel/Broadway theater, there was like a theatrical element to it, there was dance. Some of it was just real simple folk, but then it had all these really kind of dense wind arrangements, tone colors and flourishes. But then it had these big fat beats too. It was very beat heavy, and it felt kind of like poppy and hip-hoppy. She’s becoming more soulful…I was really confused by it all, but where her other previous stuff has been very focused, you know? She was doing this dark gothic rock thing, and all this new material is really turned away from that and is much more dynamic, more joyful.
Kushner: It seems like she’s emerging into the most natural version of her creative self, or a fuller representation of her creativity. I think that was the nature of that festival as a whole. I think if you walked away confused in terms of how to categorize something, it’s probably a good thing. For me, this happens in your music too. In the cases of songwriters like you and Shara and others, I don’t really separate composer from singer-songwriter. I think you’re all composers who happen to use song as your medium of choice.
Gustav Mahler is a composer, but he’s most well known for writing songs. Technically, he was a songwriter, but no one refers to him as a songwriter. I don’t know what distingiuishes someone from being a composer or not being a composer. I don’t make that distinction, but as we’ve determined, that distinction doesn’t matter so much. [Editor's note: Upon initial publication, the quote contained in this paragraph was incorrectly attributed to Sufjan Stevens. This quote was in fact spoken by the interviewer.]
Stevens: Who cares what I think, too, because I think that my hesitation with the term composer, it’s like personal hang-ups with the connotations of that word, composer and composition. And my instinct is to dumb down what I do. I always just want to keep it simple. People ask me what I do for a living, I say, “I write songs.” They say, what kind of music, and I just say, “Pop music.” End of conversation. It’s such a vague, kind of all-encompassing term, but it’s good enough for me.
Kushner: Is the connotation of the composer that it’s too complex and not accessible enough?
Stevens: Maybe, that it’s too important, more important than I’m willing to concede.
Kushner: Maybe music somehow feels more personal [than architecture]. You can take ownership and make it your own more than you can take ownership of that great building you walked by. I think that’s what it is, at least in part…
Stevens: An object, just by the nature of its physical being, resists possession in a way because it’s an object, you know. You can’t carry around a building obviously. You can’t possess it, in a way. I guess you can own it, like real estate, but that’s short=lived anyway. Music is nebulous. We talk about intellectual property of music, but that’s just politics. I don’t know what that means. That’s why I really believe that the song sustains its own consciousness and is dispossessed of its owner, and then it basically yields to the multitudes of listeners, of consumers, and everyone owns the song.
It’s such a relief for me to acknowledge that because I feel far less possessive of my own music, and I feel lest earnest and less despairing about its worth, or its value, and more willing to just make it, create it, do my best work possible, and then give it away.
Kushner: Precisely because it never belonged to you to begin with?
Stevens: Yeah. It’s not concrete so it doesn’t feel like I own it. It feels nebulous.
Kushner: The implication that you’re presenting is really interesting, which is that the physical things that one can make into a commodity or possess, those are the things that you actually can’t control, and it’s the things that seem totally intangible and unattainable, and those are the things you can really own. I think that’s a really epiphanic thought. It’s kind of revelatory, and it flies in the face of our culture for sure…
Stevens: We’re born into this world naked and screaming, with no possessions. And we leave in the same way, you know? We can’t take it with us. All we have is our bodies and our souls and that’s it. I don’t even think our bodies are our own. I think that’s just borrowed. So give it away, that’s what I say. Give it away.
NOTE: Sufjan Stevens’s August 2 concert at the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn is sold out. For more information on the August 3 concert, visit Celebrate Brooklyn! here.
I read on the subway. When people are reading books, I read people, and really think all the time about what is happening between the interactions.
This is Part 2 of an article about Brooklyn-based photographer and musician Sarah Small’s Tableaux Vivants (living picture), a series of performance art pieces featuring live models–both clothed and unclothed–music, and dramatic movements. Having successfully presented seven small-scale tableaux featuring anywhere from five to 36 models at various venues through New York City, Small will stage her largest performance to date–Tableau Vivant of The Delirium Constructions, with a cast of 120 under the direction of Adam J. Thompson, an expanded musical score featuring Brooklyn Rider, Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, and Rima Fand, choreography by Vanessa Walters, and two authentic wedding ceremonies officiated by the artist–at Brooklyn’s breathtaking Skylight One Hanson on May 23 and 24.
What compels Small herself to pursue such a daunting multidisciplinary artistic statement, particularly through the use of nudes?
Since the beginning of her career as a photographer at the age of 13, Small’s aesthetic, reminiscent of 16th century Mannerism, has explored the phenomena that occur when two or more seemingly irreconcilable themes, embodied by her models–aggression vs. placidness, youth vs. experience, sexuality vs. discretion.
Laura at Evelyn’s
“I’ve always, since Day One, been very interested in getting up close and as close as possible,” remembers the artist. “It’s always been about just like here: all my pictures in high school are almost all heads and/or bodies and as humanly close and intimate as possible.” This fascination solidified in the form of an ongoing series of still images entitled The Delirium Constructions, which became the foundation for Tableaux Vivants. Fundamentally, a Small Tableau strives to illuminate a human experience in which freedom of expression is of the utmost value. The artist explains:
In actuality, I’m not very interested in working with subjects that are contextualized into a certain subset of person or subculture or something like that. That’s one of the reasons I like working with nudes…I think where the relationship between the viewer and the imagery–be it the Tableau or the still work–comes from is this kind of off-balance feeling of like ‘What exactly is shocking me? Why is this shocking when it is simply just an angry woman or a nude?’–and I really think it has to do with the contrast or the state between the two or three elements, and less about the elements as individual placeholders.
The nudity is vital not so much because of the visual aesthetic, but rather because of what the state of being nude does to the model, and by extension, the person watching. For mezzo-soprano Abigail Wright, participation in Tableau resulted in an epiphany regarding the essence of performance. “The one thing I really love, and would absolutely recommend to any singer I know–even though I know that 95% of them would never take me up on the suggestion, just even the audition process– singing nude for somebody completely changes your concept of singing,” asserts Wright, “because the minute you take your clothes off, you’re like, ‘OK, what do I do with my arms? What do I do with my…wait what do I…wait…OK.’ “
In short, the relationship with the audience changes, and Wright’s priorities as performer snap into focus. “They see everything,” she says. “It makes no sense to do anything that’s not honest. And it’s like pushing a button that just resets your vulnerability and your honesty, and it’s fascinating.”
Small corroborates the importance of being nude, rather than appearing nude. “It’s less about nude and it’s more about naked–actually being in a state without clothing,” says Small. “That nude somehow equals sexy or sex, immediately, to a lot of people–I feel like that element has gotten in the way of achieving what I’m trying to achieve.”
Molly Watching Wes
The desired result is what the artist calls the “inflation of reality.” The artistic process, including the device of nudity, seems to be a means to a revelatory end, for both the performers and the audience members. “My job as director is really just to promote excitement, safety, and just open communication,” clarifies Small. “People grow out whatever sense of themselves, whatever pocket of expression that maybe they’ve been hiding or maybe is fully them that they want to experience or reflect outward publicly.”
All images courtesy of the artist.
For ticket information on the May 23 and 24 performances of Sarah Small’s Tableau Vivant of The Delirium Constructions at Skylight One Hanson in Brooklyn, N.Y. visit http://www.livingpictureprojects.com/.
Mezzo-soprano Abigail Wright, a professional opera singer more than accustomed to being on stage, recalls a humorous yet deceptively prickly exchange with her mother regarding a recent career choice, which found her singing nude in front of hundreds of people: “You know, my mother is having a lovely time with the nudity. I love my mother’s first response: Well just be careful. ‘Be careful of what?’ It’s a slippery slope. ‘What?’ Well I don’t wanna hear about you doing porn! You know, as if the two were related.”
The gig, indeed far removed from the infamous skin trade, is Brooklyn-based photographer and musician Sarah Small’s Tableaux Vivants (living picture), a series of performance art pieces featuring live models — both clothed and unclothed — music and dramatic movements. Having successfully presented seven small-scale tableaux featuring anywhere from five to 36 models at various venues throughout New York City, Small will stage her largest performance to date — Tableau Vivant of The Delirium Constructions, with a cast of 120 under the direction of Adam J. Thompson, an expanded musical score featuring Brooklyn Rider, Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, and Rima Fand, choreography by Vanessa Walters, and two authentic wedding ceremonies officiated by the artist–at Brooklyn’s breathtaking Skylight One Hanson on May 23 and 24.
Perhaps the most immediate question bracing the uninitiated is Why? And why are the participants so heartily invested in the endeavor — so much so that many of the intrepid would shed their clothes to realize Small’s vision?
For Mary Tierney, a 64-year-old actor and experienced clothed Tableau performer, it was not just Sarah Small the artist, but Sarah Small the person, who proved so compelling. “I liked her very much, her youthful energy and this creative idea, and that reminded me of when I would have an idea when I was about her age, and take it to the limits,” says Tierney of their meeting. “And I always wanna respond to that, and I believe in her — and the force, just the sheer force of this idea and her energy and her belief in it.”
Abigail Wright’s experience with Small began with a conspicuous 5-hour tension headache following her Tableau debut. Since then her role has undergone a remarkable progression, culminating in the singer’s emergence as composer, having set to music a set of gibberish text by Small, which Wright then translated into a distinct language. The resulting aria, “Aula jezpol,” depicts a story of creation in which divine love (ifeliof) and its polar opposite, hatred, are united to form a new earth:
Aula Jezpol, om ponquey don mailya
Let’s go to Eternity, all things (molecules, energy) join together (literally “wear intercourse”)
Though this original aria will not yet be sung at the May performances, its message seems implicitly communicated through the collaboration between artist and performers. Wright’s artistic partnership with Small has been characterized by an increasingly frequent, almost systematic encounter with the unfamiliar:
[Sarah] accidentally or intentionally — I’m not really sure yet — likes to throw things in my direction to make me even more uncomfortable. It’s like the first time, so now I’m singing. And now I’m singing nude. And now I’m singing nude a cappella. And now I’m the model that signals all the other models to leave the stage, and I have to walk off, back to the audience, by myself. And you know, I’ve finally gotten comfortable with that, to the point where it’s fun. Like it’s a fun, scary challenge that I really enjoy. And now she’s like, “Hey, how ’bout you write your own aria? How ’bout you write a celebratory aria in minor?” You know, she doesn’t ever really stop challenging me, and I kind of adore that about her… She fosters growth in me from things that I never would have expected, like writing this aria.
For ticket information on the May 23 and 24 performances of Sarah Small’s Tableau Vivant of the Delirium Constructions at Skylight One Hanson in Brooklyn, N.Y. visit http://www.livingpictureprojects.com/.
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.