“I’m still learning to write music, actually,” says National Composition Contest awardee Steven Snowden. I’m speaking to him over the phone: I’m in Minneapolis, he’s at the prestigious MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, and both of us are surrounded by snow. His area code suggests Missouri, but his current address is in Boston. During our talk, he speaks of teaching in Hong Kong, growing up in Texas, and hardly a moment goes by where he’s not namedropping a different university where he has studied or been commissioned. Knowing all this, it’s uncanny that he would consider himself, 35, as still learning his craft.
He may feel this humility because of MacDowell itself. The walls of his studio are lined with signed plaques of all the artists who have stayed there before him. Amy Beach’s name is up there. Other studios have housed Aaron Copland, Willa Cather, Michael Chabon, and countless others. Snowden is here working on a litany of commissions from faculty pieces for the universities of Arizona and Missouri to a collaboration with a hip-hop choreographer at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
The stakes are high, but Snowden takes his good fortune in stride. He puts his own heart into the compositions, but still knows that he has to rely on others to make them happen. Even if it’s just him in the studio at first, his works are a collaborative process: “I don’t want it to sound exactly the way I expect. It should be a mix of my work and the work of the performers. I intentionally leave a little room for interpretation in my notation.” Leaving words like “menacing” and “sinister” in his compositional maps, there’s much room for interpretive creativity. Perhaps it’s his knowledge of this element that keeps his own ego in check. In their performance of “Bird Catching From Above”, the Lydian Quartet share this shedding of ego. You can see the animation in their faces as their bodies move towards the climax of the piece, as if their very beings are shaken by the movement of the arpeggios.
This is a joyful moment, but the sounds created aren’t particularly bright or even in a major key. It’s an element I was excited to discuss with Snowden: what makes a piece that he considers menacing turn into something overwhelmingly positive in effect? “I think it has to do with constructing a wide range of music. If I want to write something that expresses joy, a lot of that is juxtaposing it with something that sounds dark. It’s all context.” Indeed, the essence of pieces like “The Taos Hum” are only concerned with melody as an afterthought. I ask Snowden if his is a mathematical mind that composes without sound. “I wouldn’t use the word mathematics… I make sketches, then add descriptive words. I’ll put little markers in for section lengths. I can see the form all at once.”
We talk on about how minimalist and repetitive sounds can represent both joy and sadness. It’s felt in Snowden’s 2013 piece “Devil’s Nine Questions,” the second movement of which reveals a single piano note repeated until no longer bound by measure count. The quartet follows in a slow building pattern that fuses itself with the busy sound of the other two movements, shedding a peaceful light on what’s largely a foreboding piece akin to a Jonny Greenwood film score.
It isn’t just dark and light that Snowden seeks to juxtapose. His is a keen eye that can connect images to sounds, or even a lack thereof. The only thing he’s hearing apart from my questions is the light noises the snow makes as it piles up on branches before falling to the earth. He recalls Morton Feldman’s use of silence in between sounds. He puts this combination of image and sound together in “Appalachian Polaroids:” “It’s pretty straightforward. It’s one that I feel best represents who I am, as a person or where I come from musically.” Beginning with a field recording of a traditional Appalachian folk song, “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” the Aeolus Quartet begins playing along with the crackling vocal melody, and subsequently rises and falls with a beautiful silence that’s likely similar to the one Snowden can see in the falling snow.
Though it’s clear from his pieces that his composition chops are well intact, it’s hardly the most noticeable element of Snowden’s philosophy. “I realize how little it matters that I impress anyone… Ultimately it’s getting to the audience and making that connection with them.” His project “Voices of the Dust Bowl” combines dated images, his own music, and field recordings of migrant workers talking about how there was no work to be found in 1941. Eerie auxiliary percussion and sustained notes join men and women discussing their families’ unfortunate move into labor camps. The piece is one of the most concretely human of Snowden’s, and the music itself is merely the vehicle through which a genuine reaction can be had.
And Snowden is happy to be this vehicle himself. The trials of the Dust Bowl were certainly not his to bear, but he’s happy to help educate and interact with his listeners about it. He’s currently working on a piece to accompany images of the Silent Sentinels, a 1910s women’s suffrage group that went as far as hunger strikes to further their cause. “If I can help someone promote a voice that has something to say, that’s important to me.” Few classical artists achieve such a worthy status as a mouthpiece for social issues.
Snowden and I agree that the word “classical” doesn’t really get to the core of his particular genre. I ask him how he explains it. He laughs as he thinks of talking about his work to his relatives. “I usually use the word ‘experimental.’ I say ‘I make experimental musical for classically trained musicians.’” Indeed, words don’t seem to capture it either, much like how I don’t think our conversation can quite capture what it’s like to make art at MacDowell. “I don’t want to use the word humbling, but it’s pretty astounding to be surrounded by so many artists.” It’s through his surroundings that he still considers his music as a work in progress. It’s weird to hear someone so skilled say such things, but it could prove that he’s got a lot more in his bag of tricks. We’ll have to let his new commissions speak for themselves.