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5 out of 5 stars 2 customer reviews

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Audio CD, October 26, 2010
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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

Penelope is a song cycle by composer Sarah Kirkland Snider, with lyrics by playwright Ellen McLaughlin,
featuring vocalist Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond and the chamber orchestra Signal, conducted by Brad Lubman. Inspired by Homer's epic poem, the Odyssey, Penelope is a meditation on memory, identity, and what it means to come home.
Suspended somewhere between art song, indie rock, and chamber folk, the music of Penelope moves organically from moments of elegiac strings-and-harp reflection to dusky post-rock textures with drums,
guitars and electronics, all directed by a strong sense of melody and a craftsman's approach to songwriting.
Penelope originated as a music-theater monodrama, co-written by McLaughlin and Snider in 2007-2008 and commissioned by the J. Paul Getty Center. In the work, originally scored for alto/actor and string
quartet, a woman's husband appears at her door after an absence of twenty years, suffering from brain damage. A veteran of an unnamed war, he doesn't know who he is and she doesn't know who he's become. While they wait together for his return to himself, she reads him the Odyssey, and in the journey of that book, she finds a way into her former husband's memory and the terror and trauma of war.


Homer's Odyssey has been a very deep well of inspiration for artists from centuries ago right up to today.

Sarah Kirkland Snider's new song cycle, Penelope, makes a modern twist on the ancient saga.

The compelling story of the Greek warrior Odysseus' trip home from the Trojan wars, has sparked movies, like the Coen Brothers' Oh Brother Where Art Thou, operas, such as Monteverdi's moving The Return of Ulysses, and even pop songs like Tim Buckley's haunting 'Song to the Siren.'

Kirkland Snider's new work, originally a theater piece, deftly weaves pop, jazz, and classical. The texts, by Ellen McLaughlin, are sung by Shara Worden from the band My Brightest Diamond.

Kirkland Snider's song cycle is told from the woman's point of view Penelope, that is, Odysseus' faithful wife, who waits at home, wondering if her husband will ever return, dead or alive.

McLaughlin's poems update the story to modern times. Penelope's long-lost husband turns up unexpectedly, emotionally damaged after years spent at war. In an attempt to rebuild his memory, she reads aloud to him from Homer's Odyssey.

Kirkland's dark-hued score is inventive and subtle, with a mix of watery, undulating strings, guitars, percussion and electronics that submerges you completely within the story.

Some songs flaunt melodic hooks, others are atmospheric. And all are aided by Worden's vocals, mournful, urgent and expressive. Brad Lubman conducts the tight little chamber ensemble known as Signal., Deceptive Cadence, Classical Detour, Thomas Huizenga, October 2010
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Product Details

  • Orchestra: Signal
  • Conductor: Brad Lubman
  • Composer: Sarah Kirkland Snider
  • Audio CD (October 26, 2010)
  • Number of Discs: 1
  • Label: New Amsterdam
  • ASIN: B0040Y7F50
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #107,239 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

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The back-story to this album has already been well described, so I won't try to retell it here. But while the story certainly adds a layer of meaning that enhances the listening experience, it should be mentioned that it's a beautiful song cycle even if you knew nothing about its origins.

There is a dreamy, melancholic feel to this album, but it is energetic enough not to put you to sleep. It's definitely not background music - you are drawn in and forced to listen, as the lyrics take you on a kind of journey. The main influence is classical, but it's rather amazing how other genres like jazz and rock are seamlessly incorporated so that it all sounds like a completely natural genre of its own. All of it together somehow manages to convey the depths of the human experience, from bittersweet tenderness to loss, grief and hope.

I think that the reviewer J. Dawson, who recommended Hadestown instead of this album "if you are interested in listening to a song cycle about Greek mythology", is COMPLETELY missing the point of this album.

For one thing, Penelope isn't a song cycle about Greek mythology. The imagined story of Odysseus' homecoming is used as a vehicle to tell a story about the trauma of war from a woman's point of view. Hadestown is a great album, but it isn't really a song cycle about Greek mythology, either. It uses a completely different Greek myth (that of Eurydice) as a vehicle to tell a story about materialism and selling out, which is a quite different meaning from the original myth. It's called 'artistic license', and there's nothing wrong with that.

But to call Penelope a cheap imitation of Hadestown is a ridiculous statement. It sounds like Penelope just wasn't J. Dawson's cup of tea, and he tried to come up with a cheap intellectual justification for that. The two albums tell two completely different stories, using two completely different musical styles. You can't compare them, because they're apples & oranges.
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Format: Audio CD
Pitchfork Review of Penelope:

The quietly devastating song cycle Penelope begins with an unexpected homecoming. A man returns to his wife's doorstep after 20 years in an unnamed war, suffering brain damage-- a shadow of his former self. The woman takes this mournful figure in gravely, sorting through her ambivalence, bitterness, and grief by reading to him from Homer's Odyssey. The story's parallels to their lives-- a husband striving heroically over vast distances and years to return to his wife-- become a psychological probe for the woman to sound the depths of her shell-shocked husband's ruined mind. Speaking to him through the poem, she is able to gently coax him back from oblivion.

This eloquent meditation on death, memory, being lost, and homecoming is the work of three women. Playwright and poet Ellen McLaughlin wrote the incisive lyrics; Sarah Kirkland Snider composed the dreamily disquieting score; and Shara Worden, the smoky-voiced contralto of My Brightest Diamond, sings it. Together, they render the titular woman's voice with unsettling clarity. Penelope is a gorgeous piece of music, but it is more-- it is also a hauntingly vivid psychological portrait, one that explores a dark scenario with a light, almost quizzical touch, finding poetic resonances everywhere.

Snider's score, written for the new-music ensemble Signal, is the work's worried heart. Penelope lives entirely inside the heads of two people who can't communicate, and her music, coursing with mute anxiety, reflects that solitude. The strings hover like low-hanging fog, repeating a few harmonically troubled chords in softly insistent strokes-- the veil of confusion that clouds the man's memories, perhaps, or the heavy silence that settles in between the newly estranged married couple.
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