With Unremembered (New Amsterdam Records), Sarah Kirkland Snider cements her reputation—begun with 2010’s Penelope—as the finest composer for voice of her generation. This song cycle, built around Nathaniel Bellows’ poems and illustrations, uses an orchestra (with the Ensemble Signal as its core) of the most acclaimed players working today, including violinists Max Moston and Rachel Golub, violist Caleb Burhans, percussionist Jason Treuting, cellist Catherine Kim, and pianist Timo Andres, with singers Shara Worden, DM Stith, and Padma Newsome.
Unremembered finds its space at the uncomfortable, shadowy intersection between expansive gesture, baroque ornamentation, and modern interiority. Snider’s 13 songs dance with myth and use images of death and decay (in both straight and subversive ways) to pry and poke its real subject: the gaps in our memory, where memory fails to show us an objective truth, but also where that failure seems to comfort and uplift us. The songs on Unremembered deal with place in a concrete way, but acknowledge that as soon as we remember a place or a time, that original place is gone, supplanted by the (subtly or greatly) different place we remember. On “The Barn,” Worden’s small and far-away voice repeats, “You who live outside of life, you’re not alone, not yet,” and punctuated by the silver rain of a harpsichord, it establishes something out of reach. Stith’s voice reaches in front of Worden to foreground the ambiguity and terror as the scene is shaded by keening, buzzing strings and insistent percussion. As the song drifts on, refrains of “not yet” ringing through it, it finds an uplifting wave of cello and viola. Elsewhere, on “The Estate,” a moody harp and a vocal melody conjuring Scottish balladry create a feeling of suspension, of being in between where you were and where you should be. A warm feeling moves through the echo and the harmonies, triangulating between the voice, the smoky strings, and the dry, lonely horn. It finds a simultaneous comfort and loneliness in leaving, with lines like, “They told me then to leave this place or stay and lose it all.”
Throughout Unremembered, Snider creates a devotional music unmoored to any specific tradition. “The Guest” features spine-tingling harmonies rising to talk about dreams guiding someone out of the house, only to fall again, set in relief against blood-dark cello. The high strings and the whispering reeds turn that misguided, staggering search into a rich, multi-faceted hymn conjuring Mahler and Strauss as the voices roar, “They guided her out of the house,” over and over again. “The Swan,” while not as obvious a metaphorical image as a lamb, finds something deeper in the banal horror of a swan backed over by a truck. With a paper-thin and beautiful moan of voice and violins, this incongruous beauty is kept from floating away in its lightness by Nuiko Wadden’s harp and Andres’ piano.
“The Slaughterhouse,” a showcase for Andres’ piano and Stith’s voice, pulls these threads together in its story of touring an abattoir, wondering “why hadn’t they torn it down,” why someone would leave something they no longer needed as a monument to death. That smell of death also sets the atmosphere beneath the almost jazz inflections on “The Orchard,” full of loose-limbed swinging as it leans into the sour assessment of, “This was our greed and was its gift. We raised the thing that died to give.”
Everything here is in its place, but there’s still an appealing grit; you’d never accuse this ornate chamber music of looseness, but neither does it feel hermetic. Even at its most abstruse, everything is fed by a beating, glowing heart. The production by Snider and Lawson White, as well as the sound design by those two assisted by Michael Hammond, lets every piece of this album shine and makes it sound undeniably contemporary. The biggest piece of that contemporary feel is the use of percussion. Percussive sounds occupy enough space, enough air in the room, to cut through the lusher moments and drive the pieces along the way beats would drive a rock band. On songs like “The Barn,” where percussion provides a crunching, earthy low end of gravity, or the sudden lightning-crack cymbal hits of “The Witch,” it’s made clear this is a record made for this time and a record this time needs. The multiplicity of musical languages spoken so deftly highlights the ambiguity of image and the melancholy of both remembering and not and can be unpacked again and again, still revealing treasures.