Sarah Kirkland Snider’s new song cycle, “Unremembered,” begins and ends with billowing, eerie voices and the phrase “Someone breathed into my ear /The vapor of the dead.” In between, ghosts and mysterious figures lurk in shadowy thickets, lonely swamps and abandoned slaughterhouses. The macabre atmosphere is Snider’s own brand of New England gothic that would make Edgar Allan Poe proud. It is also a study in the beguiling power of memory.
The cycle’s 13 songs, scored for chamber orchestra, voices and electronics, uses texts by writer and artist Nathaniel Bellows. He draws, literally, from childhood memories in rural Massachusetts. The poems are accompanied by labyrinthine illustrations textured somewhere between cubism and stained-glass windows.
Snider’s music, like the images, is multilayered, often angular, and deftly blends ideas from rock and post-minimalist composers such as David Lang, one of her teachers. In “The Barn,” where we meet the specter of a white-gloved girl, strings slither and drums detonate like bombs, propelling a nightmarish chaos. Quieter songs are meticulously orchestrated, too. “The Swan” sways with misty strings, an undulating harp and the painterly touch of an oboe, while “The Speakers” displays an intricate weave of soft piano chords, acoustic guitar, celeste and gently rumbling electronics. Snider’s score, both terrifying and tender, gets a penetrating performance by conductor Edwin Outwater and a hand-picked orchestra, including members of ACME, Alarm Will Sound and So Percussion.
But it is Snider’s fresh, instinctive way with voices that sets her apart from most of her peers in the so-called indie classical school. Not just the soloists, like the commanding Shara Worden, who also appeared on the composer’s arresting 2010 song cycle “Penelope,” but groups of voices are stretched and layered with extended techniques. They pulsate in a shimmering bed of sound in “The River,” take flight with interlocking patterns in “The Girl” and unfold in fanfares of Renaissance-like polyphony to open “The Song.” DM Stith and Padma Newsome bravely join Worden to share the narrative solo duties.
Snider’s and Bellows’s mysterious and unsettling creations may strike some as child’s play, embellished with gloom — Schumann’s “Kinderszenen” meets “Nightmare on Elm Street.” But they just may contain clues to understanding the darker truths of adulthood.
Imagine the interior of the cathedral in Salzburg — lots of gold on white, wedding-cake ornate, the first of many churches built in the Italian baroque style during the counter-reformation in Austria and southern Germany. But as the seat of an archbishop who was also an elector of the Holy Roman Empire, Salzburg Cathedral has a grandeur all its own. High up in this richly resonant space the walls are pierced by a series of symmetrical shallow balconies that run the length of the nave.
It was for this particular room and acoustic that Heinrich Biber composed his elaborate “Salzburg Mass” for 54 individual vocal and instrumental parts in 1682. Creating an early version of surround-sound, Biber grouped six choirs and instrumental ensembles in the balconies around the cathedral, each individual musician responsible for a single line of the score. The sumptuous complexity of this 54-part texture might be described by comparing it with the choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, written a century and a half later, which deploys just 36 individual instrumental and vocal lines.
Long considered the greatest violinist of his day, Biber’s stock as a composer continues to rise. If his church music is complex, it wears its erudition lightly and tunefully, moving with a lilting gait. Compelling evidence is a superb CD recorded last January by the doyen of the original instrument movement in Spain, Jordi Savall. He conducts Hespèrion XXI, Le Concert des Nations and La Capella Reial de Catalunya in breathtaking performances that amount to an auditory extravaganza. Though Savall and his musicians have performed Biber in Salzburg, they chose the resonant 11th-century Collegiate Church of St. Vincent in Cardona Castle for this recording.
The flavorful essence of these performances is captured in one of the hymn texts: “Beat the kettledrum, blow the trumpets, play the violins, singers, rejoice! Oh happiest day!” In this loving realization, the joy is infectious.