Sarah Kirkland Snider: Penelope
New Amsterdam Records

Penelope is such an accomplished and remarkable work, it's hard to believe that it could possibly be the debut album by NYC-based composer (and New Amsterdam Records co-director) Sarah Kirkland Snider. Ambitious too, Penelope is an hour-long song cycle that gives a modern spin to Homer's Odyssey with Snider's music paired with lyrics by playwright Ellen McLaughlin. The traditional story that recounts the adventures encountered by the Greek warrior Odysseus as he makes his way home from the Trojan wars is updated in the new work by having the story told from Penelope's point of view; in the updated re-telling, her husband returns, emotionally scarred from years of war, after which Penelope tries to help him rebuild his memory by reading to him from Homer's epic. Originally conceived as a music-theatre piece by McLaughlin and Snider, Penelope was then re-imagined to be a sixty-minute work for voice, chamber orchestra, and electronics that was tailored specifically for the performers featured on the recording.

Snider has composed a ravishing score that bridges modern classical and electronic genres and that proves even more affecting when graced by the vocalizing of Shara Worden (singer for My Brightest Diamond) and supported by the chamber ensemble Signal (conducted by Brad Lubman). In keeping with a project concept that focuses on memory and the reuniting of lovers long parted, Snider's melodies are often yearning and pregnant with emotion. The album's generally elegiac and often mournful tone is established immediately when “The Stranger with the Face of a Man I Loved” opens the album hauntingly, with Worden's delicate vocal melodies navigating intricate pathways through a full-bodied arrangement of strings, glockenspiel, and drums. Throughout the album, electronic touches occasionally make their presence felt though subtly. Instrumentally, the songs' dense arrangements emphasize strings and percussion (drums, vibes, glockenspiels) with electric guitar shadings (contributed by Grey McMurray and Steven Mackey) worked into the mix for extra colour. Some of the album's fourteen pieces are atmospheric and dirge-like, while others are poignant and even emotionally wrenching. This year or any year for that matter, one would be hard pressed to hear melodies that are more gorgeous and soul-stirring than those distinguishing “The Lotus Eaters.” Material so powerful places Penelope head and shoulders above much else that was released in 2010.

November 2010