Sara Kirkland Snider ~ Composer of Music

Voice with Orchestra

The Blue Hour

Promo video here

(2017) Duration: 70′

Collaborative song cycle, co-composed with Rachel Grimes, Angélica Negrón, Shara Nova, and Caroline Shaw.

For mezzo-soprano and string orchestra. Text by Carolyn Forché.

Commissioned by: A Far Cry
World Premiere: A Far Cry, Sixth and I Synagogue, Washington Performing Arts, Washington, D.C., November 3, 2017.


“Bringing new works into the world through commissions was always part of its agenda, but A Far Cry’s latest project — a hauntingly beautiful, evening-length song-cycle titled “The Blue Hour” — reflects a whole new level of ambition, care, and capacity…The new piece, which received its local premiere on Friday night in Jordan Hall, is a rare species in contemporary classical music: a successful group composition…There is an aura of deep personal intimacy in this work…and bearing witness to a century’s multiple darknesses… These themes seem to have all been registered and deftly amplified by the project’s composers, whose own settings, interspersed in no apparent order, manage to cohere stylistically while still retaining differences in individual voice, like distinct beads of a single necklace. The music they have written has a poised, almost ritualized bearing, and its dominant impulse is toward a cool silvery lyricism, clouded at times by dissonant images in the text — and by harsh sonorities (crushed strings, wild arpeggiations) rising up from the strings.”

–Jeremy Eichler, “A Far Cry’s ‘Blue Hour,’ Aglow in Jordan Hall,” The Boston Globe, November 12, 2017

“Working together, composers Rachel Grimes, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Angélica Negrón, Shara Nova and Caroline Shaw, the Grammy Award-winning singer Luciana Souza and the 18 string players of A Far Cry have come up with a gorgeous and remarkably unified work. The composers split responsibility for the 38 songs pretty evenly and seemed to have come to an understanding that, except for occasional instrumental drama (bits of dancing Bach, feathery “hair” images, a fountain of whirling arpeggios, the rasp of graveyard dust and one siege of tense angst early on), the strings would provide a comfortable and lyrical world for the poet’s mind to inhabit.”

–Joan Reinthaler, “The Blue Hour Song Cycle Mesmerizes,” The Washington Post, November 5, 2017.

The Blue Hour is less about the fact that the five composers are women and more about the shared aesthetic of the five composers—which is emotionally direct, unapologetically lyrical, luminously consonant, and melodically expressive. Snider has previously commented on the challenges of staying true to this aesthetic in new music’s dichotomy of “serious/cerebral/systems-based/complex/masculine vs. less serious/emotional/intuitive/simple/feminine.” However, the sincere, genuine expressivity of the music is precisely the thing that makes The Blue Hour so successful—it serves the text above all else and creates a lush sonic landscape that is reflective of the poetry. The Blue Hour is a remarkable achievement by five of today’s leading composers… The final result of these disparate parts coming together is an incredibly moving work that certainly accomplishes the intent of the project: to elicit empathy and provide “a lens through which to see our own world with greater clarity.””

–Amanda Cook, “A Far Cry and Luciana Souza Present Blue Hour in Boston,” I Care If You Listen, November 21, 2017.

Program Note:

One way that humans strive to control uncontrollable realities such as death is by imposing arbitrary rules and structures on the chaotic and inevitable. Another is by participating in the difficult but necessary act of being active members of a community or communities. The Blue Hour, in its conception, its process, and its content, lives and breathes these paradoxes. The work, on its premiere tour this November after a long process of composition and workshopping, is an ambitious collaboration between five composers (Rachel Grimes, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Angélica Negrón, Shara Nova, and Caroline Shaw), a vocalist (Grammy-winner Luciana Souza), and the democratic, self-conducted string collective A Far Cry.

The work uses as its text Carolyn Forché’s poem, “On Earth,” which catalogs the scattered thoughts, visions, and imagery of a life passing ever closer to death, organized through the objective but arbitrary tool of alphabetization. This explicitly rationalized poetic form simultaneously evokes cold modernism and its ancient predecessors in biblical and gnostic abecedaries. The music that sets the poem draws similarly from an eclectic set of influences, at times setting the text quite literally (as with explicit references to Bach and settings that evoke plainchant and Renaissance polyphony), and at times using extended string techniques to create kaleidoscopic sound-paintings of Forché’s moments of fantastical, jarring imagery. The work also gleams with power ballads – unapologetic lyricism and no-nonsense songwriting that is often associated with contemporary non-classical genres but which here contributes to the intimacy and universality of the subject matter. The various movements, each entirely written by one of the composers, access the personal vernaculars and interests of each composer as they pass through the ordered but nonlinear narrative of Forché’s poem, contributing to the scope and scale of the work and its underlying subjects.

When the five composers and members of A Far Cry sat down for a meeting in the summer of 2016 about the possibility of bringing this song cycle to life, the group discussed in depth what justification there was for attempting a collaboration on such a scale for such a deeply personal work. As collaborators shared their own takes on the meaningful urgency of the project, the following statement took hold as a sort of “mission statement:”

In a time when we are seeing masses of people dehumanized – by war, displacement, poverty – we are looking here at a single life, the beautiful detail of one human existence. There is something precious in that; that through our sense of empathy with this one individual, we are given a lens through which to see our own world with greater clarity.

– Program note by Alex Fortes

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