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DSO to premiere piece by 2013 Lebenbom Award winner

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Sarah Kirkland Snider, whose composition “Something for the Dark” premieres Thursday evening with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, started out writing a “bright, happy” piece.

“I started with an optimistic and hopeful-sounding melody,” says the 42-year-old composer from Princeton, N.J. “I thought, ‘OK — maybe this will be a narrative about hope, because a lot of my music is pretty dark.”

But musical compositions, a bit like novels in formation, sometimes go their own way, never mind their creator’s intentions. And for better or worse, Snider says, the piece as it came out “drifts darker as it goes on. I guess that’s just my wont.”

Snider was the 2013 winner of the DSO’s Elaine Lebenbom Memorial Award for Female Composers, an honor that comes with $10,000 and a commission for a major work to premiere at Orchestra Hall.

Once she knew she was writing for the DSO, Snider turned to some Detroit poets she loves for inspiration, finally settling on Philip Levine’s “For Fran.”

The Pulitzer-winning poet, who took working-class Detroit as his subject, often focused on endurance, Snider notes.

“That’s something Levine writes a lot about,” she says, “this idea of weathering difficult circumstances and creating something from that. And I thought that was such a beautiful idea.”

A line in “For Fran” particularly touched Snider, and ended up supplying the title: “Out of whatever we have been / We will make something for the dark.”

“Something for the Dark” is just 12 minutes long. “I wouldn’t call it a symphony,” Snider says, who got her Master of Music degree from Yale, “because that implies something longer and grander, with more angles to the narrative. I think of this as a little character piece. It’s a story.”

The story took about six months, Snider says, to complete.

“In the early stages, I mess around with the piano,” she says, “because I find my hands come up with certain ideas that my brain can’t. But then,” Snider adds, “I go straight to the computer and compose there.”

Snider, who co-directs a “post-genre” classical record label in Brooklyn in addition to writing music, says she came to professional composing late.

“I went to Yale for graduate school when I was 28 or 29,” she says. “I’d always been writing music, but took awhile to commit to it as a career. I didn’t really start receiving commissions till my early 30s.”

Snider loved grad school, she says, and being surrounded by “all those fantastic players and super-smart kids from all over.”

But going through an academic program with students considerably younger than herself was a little odd.

Snider laughs. “I felt like the continuing-ed lady. All my peers were 22 or 23.”

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