Sarah Kirkland Snider's Mass, Rebooted For The 21st Century

Sep 28, 2020
Originally published on September 28, 2020 10:49 pm

When young composers reboot old musical formulas, exciting things can happen. Sarah Kirkland Snider's arresting Mass for the Endangered — released Sept. 25 — is a 21st century twist on the Catholic mass, which has been sung in churches for more than 1300 years.

Snider, who was not raised Catholic, fell in love with sacred choral music as a kid in New Jersey, singing in the Princeton High School choir. Now, the composer, not yet 40, has delivered her first large choral work, and it shines with multi-layered singing of uncommon beauty.

Snider's 45-minute, six-part work is patterned after the standard mass, with sections titled Kyrie, Gloria, Agnus Dei and so on. In the Credo section, members of the finely balanced British choir Gallicantus sing, "We believe in all who are silenced" — but they are not singing about the human condition as in a traditional mass. Mass for the Endangered is a prayer for the animals of our planet and their environs; the focus here is not on God but on nature itself.

The composer slyly mixes the standard liturgy with new texts by poet Nathaniel Bellows. In an anachronistic call and response, high voices sing, "Take no tooth or tusk ... no shark robbed of its skin," while lower voices intertwine in Latin.

YouTube

Musically, Snider is not exactly breaking any new ground. You can sniff out traces of Gregorian chant and the intricate high Renaissance style of, say, Giovanni Palestrina. And in the Sanctus section, the air is thick with the influence of contemporary mystics like Arvo Pärt.

While cloaked in tradition, Mass for the Endangered is no pastiche. Snider asserts her own musical personality as a composer who knows instinctively how to write for the human voice, as she demonstrated in two previous sophisticated song cycles. Both the choir and the 12-member orchestra, conducted by Gabriel Crouch, respond to Snider's music with richly tailored performances. Listen for the luminous halo effect from the high voices, backed by delicate strings, on a long-held tone to close out the Kyrie.

When she's not composing, Snider runs New Amsterdam Records, out of Brooklyn, which she co-founded in 2008. She's part of the so-called indie classical scene, resourceful musicians with a do-it-yourself aesthetic. Through her smart and resplendent exploration of age-old musical formulas, Snider's eco-inspired Mass for the Endangered is a blast from the past that resonates profoundly in the present.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

The music of the Catholic Mass dates back more than 1,300 years, and it's still inspiring composers today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SARAH KIRKLAND SNIDER SONG, "MASS FOR THE ENDANGERED: SANCTUS - BENEDICTUS")

GALLICANTUS: (Vocalizing).

MOSLEY: Sarah Kirkland Snider's new album takes cues from music written centuries ago and reboots them with a contemporary twist. It's called "Mass For The Endangered." And NPR's Tom Huizenga has this review.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: Sarah Kirkland Snider, who did not grow up Catholic, fell in love with sacred choral music as a kid in New Jersey, singing in the Princeton High School choir. Now the composer, not yet 40, has delivered her first large choral work, and it shines with multilayered singing of uncommon beauty.

(SOUNDBITE OF SARAH KIRKLAND SNIDER SONG, "MASS FOR THE ENDANGERED: CREDO")

GALLICANTUS: (Singing) We believe in all who are silent. We believe in all who are silent.

HUIZENGA: We believe in all who are silent, sing the members of the British choir Gallicantus. But they're not singing about the human condition as in a traditional Mass, which often is used to honor the dead. "Mass For The Endangered" is a prayer for the animals of our planet. The focus here is not on God but on nature itself. In a crafty way, Snider mixes the standard liturgy with new texts by poet Nathaniel Bellows. In the "Credo" section, high voices sing, take no tooth or tusk, no shark robbed of its skin, while lower voices sing in Latin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SARAH KIRKLAND SNIDER SONG, "MASS FOR THE ENDANGERED: CREDO")

GALLICANTUS: (Singing) Take no tooth or tusk (unintelligible).

(Singing in Latin).

(Singing) No shark robbed of its skin, no being denied its (unintelligible).

(Singing in Latin).

HUIZENGA: Musically, Snider is not breaking any new ground here exactly. You can sniff out traces of Gregorian chant, the high renaissance style of, say, Giovanni Palestrina. And in her "Sanctus" section, the air is thick with contemporary mystics like Arvo Part.

(SOUNDBITE OF SARAH KIRKLAND SNIDER SONG, "MASS FOR THE ENDANGERED: SANCTUS - BENEDICTUS")

GALLICANTUS: (Singing unintelligibly).

HUIZENGA: While cloaked in tradition, "Mass For The Endangered" is not a pastiche of styles. Snider asserts her own musical personality as a composer who knows instinctively how to write for the human voice as she demonstrated in two previous sophisticated song cycles. Both the choir and the 12-member orchestra, conducted by Gabriel Crouch, respond to Snider's music with detailed performances. Listen to the delicate strings and high voices as they create a halo effect on a long-held note to close out the "Kyrie."

(SOUNDBITE OF SARAH KIRKLAND SNIDER SONG, "MASS FOR THE ENDANGERED: KYRIE")

GALLICANTUS: (Vocalizing).

HUIZENGA: When she's not composing, Sarah Kirkland Snider runs New Amsterdam Records out of Brooklyn, which she co-founded in 2008. She's a part of the so-called indie classical scene - resourceful musicians with a do-it-yourself aesthetic. And by exploring age-old musical formulas, Snider's eco-inspired "Mass For The Endangered" is a blast from the past that resonates in the present.

(SOUNDBITE OF SARAH KIRKLAND SNIDER SONG, "MASS FOR THE ENDANGERED: AGNUS DEI")

GALLICANTUS: (Singing unintelligibly).

MOSLEY: The album is "Mass For The Endangered" by Sarah Kirkland Snider. And our reviewer is NPR's Tom Huizenga.

(SOUNDBITE OF SARAH KIRKLAND SNIDER SONG, "MASS FOR THE ENDANGERED: AGNUS DEI")

GALLICANTUS: (Singing unintelligibly). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.