(2016) Duration: 12’
for picc. (sep. player), 2 fl, 2 ob, E.H. (sep. player), 3 clar (Bb), 2 bsns, cbsn (sep. player) — 4,4,3,1 — timp — perc. (3): toms, glock, tri, tamtam, BD, vib., marimba, sus. cym., crash cym., sleigh bells, celeste, snare drum, chimes, crotales (A#6, A#7, D#7) — hrp — pno, celesta — strings
Co-Commissioned by Detroit Symphony Orchestra, in honor of Elaine Lebenbom (2013 Winner of Detroit Symphony Orchestra Elaine Lebenbom Award)
World Premiere: Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra Hall, Detroit, MI, April 14-16, 2016.
“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.”
–Garrett Schumann, “Brilliant Design Illuminates Core of Dark Music, “Classical Voice North America, April 21, 2016
Something for the Dark takes its title from a poem by Philip Levine, the Detroit-born-and-raised, Pulitzer Prize-winning former U.S. Poet Laureate who was best known for his poems about the city’s working class. The poem, written for Levine’s wife and entitled “For Fran,” reads:
“She packs the flower beds with leaves,
Rags, dampened papers, ties with twine
The lemon tree, but winter carves
Its features on the uprooted stem.
I see the true vein in her neck
And where the smaller ones have broken
Blueing the skin, and where the dark
Cold lines of weariness have eaten
Out through the winding of the bone.
On the hard ground where Adam strayed,
Where nothing but his wants remain,
What do we do to those we need,
To those whose need of us endures
Even the knowledge of what we are?
I turn to her whose future bears
The promise of the appalling air,
My living wife, Frances Levine,
Mother of Theodore, John, and Mark,
Out of whatever we have been
We will make something for the dark.”
When I received the commission to write this piece, I thought I would try to write something about hope and endurance. Early into my sketches for the piece, I stumbled onto an idea that sounded to me like hope incarnate: a bold, full-hearted little melody surrounded by dignity and sunlight and shiny things. I thought that maybe I would open the piece with it and then have the music journey through some adversity to an even bigger, bolder statement of optimism. Growth! Triumph! A happy ending! But that wasn’t what happened. The piece opens with the statement of hope, and sets out on an uncertain journey to find it again, but instead encounters strange new echoes of the motif in different, unfamiliar settings. It chases digressions, trying to resolve related but new musical arguments. Eventually it finds its way to solid ground, though this place is quite a bit darker than where we began. But to my mind this arrival feels more trustworthy, more complete, more worthy of celebration, because it feels more real.
While writing the piece, I was reading some Detroit poets for their take on the city, and grew better acquainted with the work of Philip Levine. The last two lines of “For Fran” struck me as an apt motto for the kind of clear-eyed reflections on endurance that run through his poems about Detroit. In preparing the flower beds for winter, Levine’s wife becomes a symbol of the promise of renewal in general: “Out of whatever we have been/ We will make something for the dark.” Levine has said that much of his poetry about Detroit was born of “the hope that [Detroit] might be reborn inside itself, out of its own ruins, phoenix-like, rising out of its own ashes. Except I don’t see it in heroic terms. The triumphs are small, personal, daily. Nothing grandly heroic is taking place; just animals and men and flowers and plants asserting their right to be, even in this most devastated of American cities.”
Something for the Dark is a meditation on renewal, and the hard-won wisdom that attends the small, personal, daily triumphs of asserting one’s right to be.