SNOW REQUIEM (2015)
SOP, VLN, STR ORCH, PERC, CHOR
(excerpt, full recording available on Soundcloud)
WRITTEN FOR: OBERLIN CONTEMPORARY MUSIC ENSEMBLE
PREMIERE: 2015-03-06 (OBERLIN, OH)
LATEST PERFORMANCE: 2015-03-07 (CLEVELAND, OH)
I began writing Snow Requiem in 2013, after being haunted by author David Laskin’s account of one of the deadliest winter storms in U.S. history. Dubbed the "Children’s Blizzard" by the press, the storm’s name reflects the disproportionately affected children who had rushed to far-away schoolhouses in the morning while weather was good, only to find themselves trapped indoors by mid-afternoon without food and water . . . or worse, frozen on the prairie as they tried to flee. It was a blizzard that saw wind speeds of up to 80 mph, single-day temperature drops of as much as 55 degrees Fahrenheit, and snow drifts of 10-20 feet, all over the course of 8 hours.
Such a sudden shift in weather brought an onslaught of unprecedented conditions in a region otherwise accustomed to extreme weather. Tiny ice crystals as sharp as daggers flung themselves at the eyes of their victims and froze them shut. Bolts of electricity appeared in mid-air, standing onlookers’ hair on end and sparking ablaze any metal object within the storm’s wake. Snow powder as fine as flour flew in such thick masses that you literally couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. As one resident described, recounting the experience of his family during the storm:
“The air itself seemed to be streaming sideways in billows of grit. The snow felt like frozen sand against their eyelids and nostrils and lips. They couldn’t face into the wind or open their eyes, even for a second. The wind was blowing so hard that if you fell you couldn’t get up again.”
Though it’s title may suggest it, Snow Requiem (completed just after the Children’s Blizzard’s 125th anniversary) is not program music in the conventional sense. It tells no story. Instead, it draws together disparate sources in an attempt to transcribe in symphonic sound an event that left no aural recordings. Its musical unfolding is structured from temperature and wind readings taken during the storm from the weather station in Huron, South Dakota and bookended by my own transcription of two Norwegian folk songs from the Homestead-era immigrant communities in the affected areas. The first comes from the tradition of tralling, a form of nonsense-syllable singing that is particularly prevalent in children’s music. The second comes from the Hardanger fiddle repertoire, a violin-like instrument with sympathetic strings inside its body that resonate the notes of the bowed strings. These two songs form a hidden structure that repeats throughout, sometimes obscured by clouds of orchestral noise, sometimes highlighted by textless vocal chorales, always present in the conductor’s beating of time.
Ultimately, this music is and isn’t a requiem. It shares similarities with previous attempts at the form (Machaut, Mozart, Brahms, Ligeti) while bearing no relation to the catholic mass. It has no words, yet it has a text. It is no epitaph. Rather, it’s a collage of sonic elements in proximity to the storm and those who suffered through it: the folk songs of May Hunt that kept her schoolchildren's spirits up while they waited out the night underneath a frozen haystack they had burrowed into with their bare hands; the hypothermia-induced aural hallucinations of Peter Graber that gradually subsided as the temperature of his prairie-trapped body fell below 87 degrees; the wordless hymns of Etta Shattuck that lulled her to sleep on her deathbed weeks after being trapped in the blizzard; the deafening roar of the wind and snow as it rolled across the plains, and the even more deafening quiet that surrounded it.