By Garrett Schumann
DETROIT — Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Something for the Dark, which the Detroit Symphony Orchestra commissioned and premiered on April 14, represents the best of what a commission can yield. It is an an imposing achievement marked by Snider’s unique musical language and decisive artistic vision.
Snider wrote Something for the Dark as recipient of the Detroit Symphony’s Elaine Lebenbom Award for Female Composers, which will announce its ninth winner this summer. The orchestra premiered Snider’s piece under the baton of Giancarlo Guerrero, music director of the Nashville Symphony, who is a well known advocate for the music of contemporary American composers. Something for the Dark is confident and focused, and stands out in a time when many of the most celebrated new orchestral works are loud and orgiastic. However, this is not to say that Snider shies away from the evocative, stunning textures today’s audiences expect from living composers.
The charms of Something for the Dark serve a grand structural purpose. Snider persuasively develops a complex music form. It is a veritable master class in the craft of contemporary music composition. The work represents an impressive achievement in managing the multiple time scales at play in music. Immediate moments are not only fascinating, but also connect with and contribute to the music’s overall shape and destiny.
That said, the design of Something for the Dark may not be immediately apparent to every listener. The work’s final minute is extremely, even puzzlingly, distant in character from its opening. The music begins energetically and almost majestically with a pronounced low brass melody that is draped around the humming, gurgling ball of the orchestra’s winds and strings. However, the piece does not ultimately return to this space to conclude astoundingly or alarmingly: It ends softly and calmly, in an ambiguous state of relaxation or exhaustion.
The work traverses the dramatic change between its beginning and end upon a foundation of interlocking and interacting layers of rhythm. Snider conveys melodic ideas within these pulsating webs, and transforms them cleverly to propel the piece forward so subtly that it would be easy not to notice how it gets from Point A to Point B. The metaphor of journeying from one place to another is helpful to understanding Something for the Dark, because the piece is really a singular deescalation, like a long exhalation. Thus, the differences that abound between either end of Something for the Dark’s duration do not signal the opposition of contrasting ideas, but rather suggest a gradual evolution.
Snider makes this design less obvious, yet ineluctable, through her brilliant use of counterpoint. Specifically, she often introduces melodic ideas in the background of one section, only to bring them to the foreground of the next. This device serves as connective tissue, binding together passages that otherwise differ greatly. Snider’s use of counterpoint produces, on a small scale, the same sense of inevitable surprise elicited by the totality of the work’s structure. As a result, every moment of the Something for the Dark seems to prepare the listener to accept its overall form as the music’s absolute destiny.
Explaining the genesis of the work to this writer, Snider said: “I thought I would write a piece inspired by thoughts on endurance, wisdom, and renewal, as those are universal themes every human deals with.” Within the storied walls of midtown Detroit’s Orchestra Hall, Snider’s Something for the Dark displayed just such universal appeal and accessibility.
[You can sample other works by Snider on the composer’s website.]
Garrett Schumann is a composer and internationally published music scholar who serves as artistic director for ÆPEX Contemporary Performance. Learn more about Garrett at garrettschumann.com or on Twitter @garrt.