Hiraeth is a Welsh word with no direct English equivalent. The University of Wales defines it as “homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed; a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness.” Oxford and Merriam Webster define it as “a homesickness for a home you cannot return to, or that never was.”
In 2013 the North Carolina Symphony commissioned me to write a large-scale piece about my family ties to the state. My father grew up in the small town of Salisbury, and his ancestors had been in North Carolina for thirteen generations. His mother was an avid historian who helped found the Salisbury Historic Foundation and fought to preserve much of the town and surrounding parts of Rowan County. She assiduously educated my brother and me on our great-grandparents, great-aunts and uncles and cousins–their names, personalities, and accomplishments–going back several generations. It was very important to her that we knew where we came from. We were very close with my Dad’s side of the family, and spent a lot of time in Salisbury as I grew up. All of this fostered in me a deep feeling that while New Jersey was my circumstantial home, North Carolina was my spiritual one — a safe harbor, a place that, if all else failed, would take care of me somehow.
My plan was to write a personal meditation on notions of home, family, and what it means to belong, as seen through the lens of my childhood memories of North Carolina. Because music is abstract and the theme for this commission was so specific, I thought it might be interesting to create a visual component of the piece to explore some of the memories that inspired the music. Sunlight was a salient feature of my North Carolina memories — the play of light and shadow on wax Myrtle trees on my grandparents’ patio, the late-day sun filtering through their porch windows, or the pale, consoling daylight of winter. The fragrant air, the dense humidity, the rhythms of Southern speech cadence and gesticulations: I had very specific sense memories of North Carolina. I knew of a filmmaker, Mark DeChiazza, who made beautiful films for concert music, and I thought he might be able to capture some of this. With the support of several historic foundations in Salisbury, we were able to make it happen.
Then, life interfered: shortly after receiving the commission and creating the plans for the film, my father was diagnosed with a rare, untreatable cancer. Three months later he was gone. I felt I could no longer write the piece I’d planned to write. Reeling from the shock and pain of his loss, my initial conception of a nostalgic exploration of childhood and memory was now suffused with melancholy and angst. In thinking about my father’s life—all its joys and tragedies, triumphs and injustices—the material grew darker and more personal. My reflections on small-town North Carolina also became more complex — it was a place that signified warmth, home, and belonging for me, but it had also borne witness to terrible events in our nation’s history and was culturally steeped in many narrow ways of thinking, narrowness that was not without tragic impact on my family. My feelings about North Carolina were complicated, particularly vis a vis my father’s life, and that emotional complexity kept tugging at my musical impulses.
Mark’s and my thinking about the film changed, too: we had initially envisioned an abstract poem of town and landscape, but Mark now suggested we bring humanity into it. I let Mark have free rein and what evolved was a dreamlike recasting of my father’s and my memories of childhood in small-town North Carolina, featuring my own children, my uncle (my father’s identical twin), and close family friends.
Ultimately, Hiraeth is both elegy and personal reflection — an exploration of the hazy, dreamlike textures and sensations that attend nostalgia and recollection, and a meditation on the nature of memory itself. At times I consciously strove to emulate the logic and architecture of memory — motifs overlap in evolving ways, thoughts wander and interrupt one another. Frequently, one memory, with a specific set of emotional evocations, is layered with the color and perfume of another — harmonically, motivically, or texturally. Mostly I just tried to immerse myself in my own hiraeth for this time and space I can’t return to, and give voice to what rose to the surface.
About the film for Hiraeth:
DeChiazza’s film, which partners with live performance of composer Sarah Kirkland Snider’s 27-minute orchestral work Hiraeth, aims to realize moments that never existed—rarefied memories from an imagined childhood. The film’s imagery could be understood as an intricate collage of invented home movies—an idealized and amped-up version of dad’s old super-8s.
Shot on location around Salisbury, NC, where Snider’s father grew up and where, as a child, she would visit her grandparents’ home. DeChiazza cast Jasper and Dylan, Snider’s own children, as the primary subjects of his film, drawn to the immediate and tactile way that children explore their surroundings through play, and how childhood memories are shaped through this mode of encountering the world.
With real people and places as raw material, the camera’s eye constructs a fictional nostalgic past, selectively focusing on some elements while leaving others obscured in luminous haze. It can draw very close, or pull back to skirt the periphery of its subjects as it seeks to simplify what is complicated and lingers to burnish the beautiful.
The children exist within a story that is always kept slightly outside of our frame—we are right beside it but always looking at a tangent to it. Evading narrative’s factual details, we instead become steeped in the tones, colors, and textures it exudes—a poetry that can be understood through sensation and experience.
Winnipeg Free Press
“A deeply moving elegy…brought to the fore by Mark DeChiazza’s exquisite film in which fleeting images of Snider’s own family members – including her father’s identical twin brother whose exit at the film’s end truly gripped the heart — evoke the wonder of the past...['Hiraeth'] ebbs and flows like a river of memory, with Snider’s expansive writing highly textural at times, while also often punctuated by jagged syncopated rhythms. Many in the audience said later they were touched by the piece.”
“…[Hiraeth] is quite dark, though never grim. She achieves this effect in ways both obvious and subtle: large swaths of minor-key harmonies; well-placed bursts of dissonance or eerie drones that cut against the cheerier melodies; dense orchestral writing that feels heavy, like the humid summer air of her memories; and the overall architecture, which never quite functions how you expect...Overall, Snider’s command of the orchestra is fantastic...engrossing.”
Classical Voice of North Carolina
“...glorious, even luxuriant, with its rich palette of dark and light hues. One could well be reminded of the wonderful tone poems of Richard Strauss. The honored composer was present, appearing on stage to make her well-deserved bows to the exuberant audience.”