It was an easy choice for the composer Sarah Kirkland Snider when, in 2015, she was one of nine female composers the New Music Ensemble at Grand Valley State University commissioned for their Music in their words project. They asked the composers to write music incorporating the speaking voice of a 20th century composer who had influenced their own work. As a great admirer of the Estonian composer’s music, Snider had absorbed much of Arvo Pärt’s catalog. She had carefully studied every measure of her 1984 Te Deum. Among his favorite works by Pärt were his tabula rasa (1977), Berliner Mass (1990) and a string quartet version of Brothers, a 1977 work originally written for violin, string orchestra and percussion. Her organ music, which Snider says goes in another direction, also fascinates her.
“I first met Pärt in the 1990s, when I was not thinking about the possibility of becoming a composer. I didn’t consider it a career option living in New York at the time,” she said in an interview with The Utah Review. “His music was inspiring on a very emotional and personal level. There’s this big cosmic space in the spiritual element of his writing. It is an undeniable religion not in terms of being a religious person but as a sense of being and feeling truly divine.
You are freethe result of this commission, will receive its premiere in Utah during the season opener of the 45th anniversary of the NOVA Chamber Music SeriesSeptember 18 at 3 p.m. at Libby Gardner Hall at the University of Utah.
The theme of the season is Connections and the first concert focuses on how musical connections spring from inspiration. Snider’s work will be joined by a performance of one of Pärt’s most popular works, Spiegel in Spiegel(1978). The music is versatile – a favorite of ballet and contemporary dance choreographers, documentary filmmakers and club DJ remixers. Russian violinist Vladimir Spivakov commissioned Pärt to write a piece for violin and piano, which he premiered in 1978 at the Moscow Conservatory with pianist Boris Bekhterev.
Meanwhile, Snider’s work, as she describes in a program note, honors Pärt’s music as “‘both an endless calm and a burning house’, which I found poignant.” As for the field recording incorporated into the work, it used a video clip of an interview he did with Björk, the quintessentially eclectic pop star. Snider adds, “Listening to their conversation about how music affects a listener, I heard a simple undulating F major triad on marimba, piano, and clarinet. From there, I tried to let the play flow relatively without agenda or judgment, which I don’t often do. The work, which lasts just over six minutes, is written for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and marimba.
The interview was a chance find for Snider. “Someone mentioned that crazy interview Pärt did with Björk and I found it on Youtube. It’s an endearing, wonderful conversation where the two are in a zone on the same page,” she explains. “He has his own charming language and I found different clips of Pärt speaking that would be part of the piece.”
The interview was part of a 1997 BBC documentary on musical minimalists. Pärt’s mantra, as expressed, is: “In art everything is possible, but not everything is necessary.” Curious as it may seem pairing Björk with Pärt for an interview, the Icelandic pop star and experimental composer has collaborated with Pärt’s son (Michael), who has worked with such great directors as Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Jackson and Chatrichalerm Yukol, Prince of Thailand, as well as composer Howard Shore and Canadian indie rock band Arcade Fire.
Like Pärt, Snider believes that the artistic merits of music should not be compromised as they are capable of inducing emotionally powerful responses in the listener. And, as she explains, the music of minimalists such as Pärt and others who confidently returned to the arena of tonality provided effective opposition to the prevailing theoretical discourse in music schools that often privileged the philosophical abstraction to emotional honesty.
“My piece is a short, meditative reflection that can mean whatever it wants to the individual listener,” says Snider. She adds that although the piece can be performed with or without a field recording, many ensembles have chosen to use it. It is akin to the listener’s experience with the soundtrack while watching a movie and absorbing all of its media elements.
Snider is a prodigious composer who works in many forms and ensembles and the calendar is filled with performances of her music. Among the projects in which she collaborated, she composed part of the music for The measure of all things a documentary directed by Sam Green, which premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. The film included original footage of individuals who are listed in the Guinness World Records book, the subjects of Green’s work.
Also on the concert will be the Utah premiere of a 2020 work, Seen by Nathalie Joachim, which is scored for wind quintet. The Imani Winds premiered the work in 2021, which was commissioned by The Phillips Collection. Joachim links the work to themes of cultural memory in Whitfield Lovell’s Close Series,in which the artist incorporates found objects of symbolic significance into his storytelling drawings of ordinary African Americans.
As a program note by Jeff Counts puts it, “‘Like Lovell’s drawings, the work — a series of five short musical portraits — strives to present each player and object on the basis of their immediacy.’ Ultimately, Lovell and Joachim hope to give every viewer and listener “the opportunity to make sense of a little piece of a stranger’s past.”
The concert will end with the 1949 piano quintet composed by Russian composer Nikolai Medtner. Joining as pianist Cahill Smith, who is a fellow member of the Fry Street Quartet at Utah State University School of Music. The musicians of the Fry Street Quartet are the current musical directors of the series. NOVA subscribers discovered some of Medtner’s solo pieces, which Smith performed during a filmed concert that concluded the 2020-21 season.
As The Utah Review noted at the time, Smith has made it a “great mission” that interpretations of Medtner’s music not be limited to rare occurrences. In a recorded interview with Fry Street Quartet cellist Anne Francis Bayless, as part of the NOVA podcast series, Smith said, “I guess the common criticism of Medtner is that his music is outdated. That he was content to stay with the harmonic vocabulary of Brahms, maybe… Brahms more, I would say… Until the 1950s. So writing this traditional tonal music in a lot of traditional forms, but trying to say something something new with them.
As Counts’ program note explains, “Medtner spent the last three decades of his life in obscurity and poverty. In addition to Rachmaninoff, contemporary pianists like Cahill Smith should be thanked for what little we know of Nikolai today. The welcome evangelistic efforts of people like Smith are bringing his forgotten catalog to life in the 21st century, and they are growing in strength. The Piano Quintet (1949) was a 45-year project for Medtner and his last completed work. It was the noble summary of a promising career, made a little tragic perhaps by the silence she received (and still receives) in return, but which also lends weight to the generous declaration of her friend much more famous.
For more information on tickets and the season, see the NOVA chamber music series website.