Sarah Kirkland Snider’s song cycle “Penelope” is about coming home. Taking off from Homer’s “Odyssey,” its libretto — by actor-playwright Ellen McLaughlin — tells of a man who returns home from a nameless war, his psyche in tatters. His wife, the title character, tries to restore him and their bond by reading “Odyssey” to him. The piece, which makes its Boston debut in a production by Beth Morrison at the Gardner Museum on Thursday, traces a journey from pain and alienation to reconnection and, ultimately, to a whole, integrated self.
It may not stretch the metaphor too much to suggest that the composer herself underwent a similar journey. Snider took a circuitous route to composing, and always felt like a late bloomer who had to play catch-up. When “Penelope” became one of the most acclaimed song cycles of the last decade, “it was nice to feel like I could feel free, make myself whole again, and incorporate all these musical values that I loved,” she said by phone from her New Jersey home.
Snider was never sure that the “composer” label was for her, even though she’d been making up songs from a young age, and in her early teens wrote piano music she describes as “somewhere between early Debussy and Joni Mitchell.” That’s an apt summary of her early influences, both the classical works she learned and the ’70s pop her father loved. “I had these two streams in my life all the time,” she said. “I didn’t have anyone saying that one was high or low or better than the other. It was all just music.”
Not until after college did Snider discover her calling. Having skipped a music major at Wesleyan University, she hustled into classes and private lessons in New York, cobbled together a DIY bachelor’s in music, and, at 29, enrolled in graduate school at Yale.
“Even at that point, I felt like the Continuing Ed lady,” said Snider, whose classmates were mostly in their early 20s. And at Yale, where modernism held sway, “there was this implicit judgment about music that had any kind of populist values.”
She shared her frustrations with Judd Greenstein, a fellow composer. Why shouldn’t they write tonal music with regular, four-bar phrases? Why were elements from pop music forbidden? “To embrace all the music that we really love and not feel like any of it isn’t allowed in our classical music — that was really where we were coming from,” she said. New Amsterdam, the record label Snider and Greenstein founded in 2008 with composer William Brittelle, welcomed artists who shared a spirit of openness, rather than any unifying aesthetic.
“Penelope” originated around the same time, when McLaughlin was writing a play reimagining “The Odyssey” through Penelope’s eyes. Snider’s newfound directness was less manifesto than pragmatism: “Penelope” was initially cast as a sequence of songs to be sung by McLaughlin, who didn’t read notation and needed music simple enough to learn by ear. But McLaughlin also emboldened Snider to embrace her full stylistic range. “I want this music to really sound like something that the character would sing,” Snider recounted McLaughlin saying, “so feel free to incorporate your folk and pop influence, because that’s what this character would actually sound like.”
Even so, the writing process was torturous — with Snider still wary after graduate school’s ideological warfare. “It’s, like, all half notes and whole notes; it’s, like, nursery-rhyme simple,” she remembers telling her husband, composer Steven Mackey. “And he would say, ‘This is beautiful and it’s going to have legs beyond this play.’ ”
Mackey was right. What makes “Penelope” so gently devastating is the way Snider precisely captures the mood of McLaughlin’s text: alternately desolate, agitated, or coldly detached. Musical syntax matters less than the complex web of loss, recrimination, and self-understanding evoked.
Rewritten for chamber ensemble and tailored to Shara Worden, the vocalist of art-pop band My Brightest Diamond, “Penelope” became one of New Amsterdam’s biggest early successes. (The Gardner concert will feature Carla Kihlstedt, a similarly versatile and eclectic singer and violinist, marking the first time anyone other than Worden has sung “Penelope” in its completed form.) The 2010 New Amsterdam recording made year-end lists spanning indie, classical, and “genre-defying” categories.
Yet the most important consequence may be not the accolades “Penelope” received, but the self-assurance it unlocked in its composer. Snider thinks of her most recent cycle, “Unremembered,” as a sibling piece — “like an older sister who’s sort of freer to be herself.” Indeed, listening to Snider talk about the meaning of “Penelope,” one might think she was talking about her own journey, her freedom almost as hard-won.
“I think every human being can relate to that feeling of alienation or lack of connection, whether it’s from a relationship with another person or if you’ve gone through a difficult period in your life, feeling like you can’t get back to the person you were before that,” Snider said. “When she’s singing about home — which is supposed to be [Odysseus] singing about home — I was thinking that home is actually a concept inside ourselves, a sense of feeling at peace, anchored and tethered in some way to a place where we belong. That’s what I was thinking about: the feeling of being unmoored, and the feeling of being connected again.”
Sarah Kirkland Snider: Penelope
Carla Kihlstedt with Firebird Ensemble. At Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Thursday at 7 p.m. Tickets $5-$15.
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