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 was born and raised in the small town of Salisbury, and according to family lore, his ancestors had been in North Carolina for thirteen generations. Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my family in Salisbury. My grandmother, who worked as a local historic preservationist, assiduously educated my brother, cousin, and me on our ancestors going back several generations. From a young age, all of this created 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 belonging, as seen through the prism of my childhood memories of North Carolina. Then, life interfered: shortly after receiving the commission, my father was diagnosed with a rare, untreatable cancer. Three months later he was gone. Reeling from the shock and pain of his loss, my initial ideas about the piece were now suffused with melancholy and angst. In thinking about my father’s life—all its joys, tragedies, triumphs, and misfortunes—my reflections on small-town North Carolina shifted from rosy recollection to something more complex and realistic. It was a place that had signified home and belonging for me as a child, but it was also a place that had borne witness to terrible events in our nation’s history and was culturally steeped in denial and many narrow ways of thinking—narrowness that was not without impact on my father and his family, privileged though they were.
Ultimately, Hiraeth is both an elegy for my father and a personal reflection on the layered, conflicting emotions and dreamlike sensations that attend memories of the past. Formally, I strove to emulate the architectural logic of memory: motifs overlap in evolving ways; thoughts wander and interrupt one another. Frequently, one memory, with a specific set of emotional evocations, is imbued with the color and perfume of another — harmonically, motivically, or texturally. Mostly I tried to immerse myself in the complex feelings I have for this time and place I can't return to—the naive childhood affection, and the clear-eyed adult perspective—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.
The film also features Snider’s father’s identical twin, Britt snider, as well as members of her extended family.
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.”
"Snider’s nearly 30-minute tone poem 'Hiraeth' was bright and propulsive this night, evoking Twentieth-Century American art music like Samuel Barber and Charles Ives without sounding formal or labored.”
The New Yorker
"...Sarah Kirkland Snider’s poignant, deeply personal 'Hiraeth,' complemented by a film by Mark DeChiazza, is equally noteworthy..."
“…[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
“['Hiraeth' is] 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.”