Part of a song cycle inspired by the Odyssey (let’s hear it for the classics! anyone?), “This Is What You’re Like” is an adroitly constructed composition for female voice, chamber orchestra, and electronics that treads the sometimes blurry line (in New York City, anyway) between indie pop and classical ensemble piece.
For all its stringed drama, layered presentation, dynamic changes, and uncertain chords, however, this is a song that does not forget that it is in fact a song—an impressive accomplishment for a classically trained composer, who would be excused if she had had all semblance of recognizable melody and structure knocked out of her in graduate school. But no: the Yale School of Music-educated Snider anchors the intermittently dense proceedings with a recurring, bittersweet melodic refrain that I’d call a chorus except that she plays with it each time so it’s never quite the same twice. It’s a lovely and affecting melody, with an enticing added beat in the second half, as the lyrics change (the first time we hear it) from “This is what you’re like,” to “This is what you once were like.” I especially like the refrain’s second visitation, when the lyrics change and the melody is almost but not quite swallowed by surging, dissonant orchestration. The song benefits greatly from Shara Worden’s dusky, charismatic presence; her eclectic background makes the My Brightest Diamond singer a natural for the project.
The overall work is called Penelope and debuted as a multimedia theater piece with music by Snider and lyrics by the playwright Ellen McLaughlin back in February ’08. It’s progressed through a number of revisions and performances since then; the song cycle version, featuring the ensemble Signal, premiered in May ’09 but even this was altered once Worden got involved. The first performance of the work in its current form came in April of this year; the long-awaited album will be released in October on New Amsterdam Records, a NYC-based label co-founded by Snider and dedicated to presenting the works of composers and performers “whose music slips through the cracks between genres,” says the web site.