(2015) Duration: 29′ (film trailer excerpt above is 3 min)
for picc. (sep. player), 2 fl, 2 ob, E.H. (sep. player), 2 clar (Bb), 2 bsns — 4,2,3,1 — timp — perc. (3): glock, BD, vib., marimba, tri., sus. cym., slapstick, celeste, snare drum, tenor drum — hrp — pno — strings
–with film by Mark DeChiazza (piece can also be performed without film)
Co-Commissioned by North Carolina Symphony and Princeton Symphony Orchestra
World Premiere: North Carolina Symphony, UNC Chapel Hill Memorial Hall, September 24, 2015.
“…For Snider, that lost homeland consists of memories of childhood visits to her grandparents in Salisbury, North Carolina, shot through with grief for her father, who died shortly after she started writing the piece. Unsurprisingly, the music is quite dark, though never grim. She achieves this effect in ways both obvious and subtle: large swaths of minor-key harmonies; well-placed bursts of dissonance or eerie drones that cut against the cheerier melodies; dense orchestral writing that feels heavy, like the humid summer air of her memories; and the overall architecture, which never quite functions how you expect.
For instance, the final build—a memorable passage with echoing, interlocking lines in the strings and brass over a simple melody in various lower voices, all buoyed by an insistent snare drum line—seems to gain momentum over a few minutes (or maybe more or less, as time flows in unusual ways through the piece), working toward some expected grand climax. But instead, at what could be a peak, the music dissipates into something much more somber, gradually dissolving into nothingness. One could make a case that this is a metaphor for loss, but that reading might be too heavy-handed. Overall, Snider’s command of the orchestra is fantastic, even if her colors are always highly saturated. It’s an engrossing composition that I look forward to hearing again.”
— Dan Ruccia, Indy Week, “With the N.C. Symphony, Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Hiraeth thrums with the persistence of memory,” October 5, 2015
“The featured work of the first half was the second in a series of three world premiere performances of Hiraeth, by the acclaimed young composer, Sarah Kirkland Snider. Hiraeth is a Welsh word that is said to depict “a feeling of homesickness for a land that never existed or one to which you can never return.” Although the thirty-minute work is not described as a tone poem, that would be a satisfying descriptor of the remembrances and the longing for the times the composer spent in North Carolina. Visual accompaniment for the piece was a large screen showing scenes of seemingly everyday life in small towns and pastoral areas, produced by Mark DeChiazza…
The music definitely needed no supplementation. The scoring called for a large contingent of instruments. The orchestration was glorious, even luxuriant, with its rich palette of dark and light hues. One could well be reminded of the wonderful tone poems of Richard Strauss. The honored composer was present, appearing on stage to make her well-deserved bows to the exuberant audience.”
–Paul D. Williams, Classical Voice of North Carolina, September 25, 2015
Hiraeth is a Welsh word with no direct English equivalent. The University of Wales defines it as “homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed; a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness.” Oxford and Merriam Webster define it as “a homesickness for a home you cannot return to, or that never was.”
In 2013 the North Carolina Symphony commissioned me to write a large-scale piece about my family ties to the state. My father grew up in the small town of Salisbury, and his ancestors had been in North Carolina for thirteen generations (or so the legend goes.) His mother was an avid historian who helped found the Salisbury Historic Foundation and fought to preserve much of the town and surrounding areas. She assiduously educated my brother and me on our great-grandparents, great-aunts and uncles, and cousins–their names, personalities, and accomplishments–going back several generations. It was very important to her that we knew where we came from. We were very close with my Dad’s side of the family, and spent a lot of time in Salisbury as I grew up. All of this fostered in me a deep feeling that while New Jersey was my circumstantial home, North Carolina was my spiritual one — a safe harbor, a place that would, if all else failed, take care of me somehow.
My plan was to write a personal meditation on notions of home, family, and identity, as seen through the lens of my childhood memories of North Carolina. I was delighted to have Princeton Symphony Orchestra join as co-commissioner of the work; there could be no more fitting partner for this project than the orchestra of my own hometown, the locus of all my other childhood memories. Upon receiving the commission, I began imagining a film accompaniment for the piece. Because music is so abstract and the theme for this commission so specific, I thought it might be interesting to have a visual component explore some of the memories that inspired the piece. Sunlight was a salient feature of my memories of North Carolina — the play of light and shadow on wax Myrtle trees on my grandparents’ patio, the burnished late-day light filtering through their sunroom windows, or the soothing, consoling sunlight of winter, which looked and felt very different to me from the light up North. I knew of a filmmaker, Mark DeChiazza, who made beautiful films for concert music, and I thought he might be able to capture this. With the support of several historic foundations in Salisbury, we were able to make it happen.
My father was thrilled about all of this. That his daughter was co-commissioned by his two hometown orchestras to explore notions of family history was a source of great pride and excitement for him. Shortly after I received the commission, however, my dad was diagnosed with a rare, untreatable cancer. I had just begun writing the piece when, three months later, he was gone.
I could no longer write the piece I’d planned to write. My musical ideas were now refracted through the lens of grief and the anguish and disorientation of letting go. My Dad, with whom I was very close, was my primary living connection to North Carolina. The memories of my time there were newly painful to recall, because I could no longer share them with him. And the memories themselves almost felt surreal, difficult to compartmentalize: how do we reconcile the importance of places in our past that hold no future for us? Reeling from the shock and pain of his absence, what had initially begun as a rosy, nostalgic exploration of childhood was now suffused with melancholy and angst. The material grew darker, my thinking about the piece more complex.
Mark’s and my thinking about the film changed as well. We had initially envisioned an abstract visual poem of town and landscape, but because the piece is ultimately about family, Mark suggested we bring some aspect of humanity into it. We decided to shoot images of my own children (then 6 and 4 years old) re-creating my father’s and my memories of Salisbury: playing in parks, backyards, and railroad tracks; running around downtown; and lazing quietly around the house. He suggested the film include my father’s identical twin, Britt Snider, to offer a different narrative perspective. We also shot scenes of social gatherings — the kind that populated our visits down there, where the grown-ups would drink bourbon, smoke cigarettes, and tell stories while children ran amok through the proceedings. For these scenes, we brought together friends of my parents and grandparents who are still living in Salisbury, and just let the cameras roll.
Ultimately, Hiraeth is both elegy and personal meditation, steeped in the hazy, half-recollected textures and sensations that surround a memory. At times I consciously strove to emulate the logic and architecture of a dream, the way memory sometimes feels: motifs overlap in evolving ways; thoughts wander and interrupt one another suddenly; and frequently, one memory is imbued with the color and perfume of another. But mostly I just tried to immerse myself in my own hiraeth for this time and place I can’t return to, and give voice to what rose to the surface.