‘I really wanted to write a pop love song’
Amazing. Beautiful. Creative. Emotional. Sensual. Talented. Complex. Just some of the words Marta Śniady uses in the video part of Probably the Most Beautiful Music in the World (2018) to describe her own music.
But are they her descriptions? Are they other people’s descriptions? Are they about this piece? Are they about what we should value in art? Is Śniady bragging? Is she telling the audience what to think? Is she lying? Perhaps selling herself? Poking fun at the structures of contemporary music? Openly engaging and toying with them? Reappropriating the unavoidably horrible networking aspect of being a composer, and building an entire piece around it? And why do I keep hearing the McDonald’s theme tune?
Welcome to the dizzying, futuristic, and above all fiercely immediate world of Polish composer Marta Śniady, who will debut from the Royal Academy of Music’s soloist class programme at Klang festival on 9 June and, officially, in Musikhuset Aarhus on 16 June. Śniady’s works often consist of these complex networks of references and medias, filtered through her own highly developed and individualised voice, wherein she employs the languages, timbres, and structures of contemporary music to make broader points about technology, being human, and what it means to survive and thrive in a modern society. Video, audio, and performance all coexist as inseparable equals, to create works where audience members are forced to confront both the pleasures and the horrors of present-day technology.
A major change
I first met Śniady and her music in 2014, when we both attended the annual Synthetis composition course in Radziejowice, Poland. She was writing a different kind of music back then; intense, gripping, and highly focused instrumental sound transformations, where the audience was presented with slowly shifting soundscapes. You might have encountered one of these works at last year’s Klang festival, where the New Music Orchestra performed her piece Lumen (2016).
Back in 2014, she was coming to the end of her doctoral studies at the Academy of Music in Łódź, and feeling the need for a change. ‘I was focused mainly on sound itself, trying to find extended techniques or sounds I like,’ she says, as we discuss her debut over Skype (myself in Copenhagen, Śniady in Poland, having just returned from travels around Thailand). ‘I didn't do anything with video – I did do stuff with computer music, but it was always absolute music, not connected to anything outside of the box.’
Audience members are forced to confront both the pleasures and the horrors of present-day technology
A far cry from the dense neural networks she writes today. ‘After a few years, I was getting comfortable – and bored. I figured out what kind of sounds I like, which kind of narratives I like. It was mostly 15- or 20-minute pieces going from one note to pure noise. I felt I had to go forward and do something exciting.’
She found her ‘something exciting’ in the music and teaching of Simon Steen-Andersen, who taught Śniady at Synthetis in 2015, and would go on to teach her at the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus along with Niels Rønsholdt. ‘I thought he had a very convincing way of working with medias, and I wanted to explore this path.’
So far, so standard – student-figure is inspired by teacher-figure and wants to write similar music. What is it about video that Śniady personally responds to?
‘When I was a little girl, I watched a lot of movies – I'm still a kinomaniac. This is the medium that’s really close to my heart. Also, I think it’s an easy and a little bit flashy way to go outside of music. It resonates very easily with people who are not musically educated, so it opens a lot of possibilities and allows me to connect with the public.’
It’s not important to every composer these days to connect with the public. Is this Śniady’s goal?
‘Yes – it’s important to me. I think it’s a little bit strange that at contemporary music concerts there are only classically trained people, at least in Poland. If you don’t know about extended techniques and how to work with sound, it’s not easy to understand this abstract music. I would like to be more open to anyone – and video is a good way for me to do that.’
Not to say that Śniady is only writing for the public. ‘I think it’s very exciting to figure out ways to combine music and video in a way that’s coherent!’ There’s a million different ways to do this, I suggest. ‘Mmm-hmm!’
What makes Śniady so ‘Śniady’
Having known Marta Śniady’s work both before and after her education in Aarhus, I think this passion and focus is the link between the two that makes her education in Denmark more than a quest to worship at the altar of a master. The introduction of mixed media and fourth wall breaking aspects into Śniady’s world never feels like a gimmick; it has elevated rather than distracted from her strong aesthetic.
In my view, it is precisely because Śniady was capable of achieving and maintaining extraordinary levels of focus and ‘thread’ in her abstract works that her new style feels earned rather than copied. There is nothing outrageously form-busting or avant-garde about using video. There is nothing new about writing music that claims to interact with society and make us reflect on it. For me, what makes Śniady so ‘Śniady’ is her strong personal voice, her frankness and directness about what she does and what she is trying to say, and above all her ability to marry the message with the medium in highly surprising and effective ways.
For example, In the Pink (2017) for marimba, video and audio playback, which we will hear at the debut concert. ‘I’m using extended techniques, with videos presenting the ways women try to be beautiful and take care of themselves. Sometimes it’s connected to the way they move. For example – the marimba plays with a bow, we see flossing teeth. Sometimes it’s connected with sound – low frequencies connected with heaviness. Sometimes it’s straightforward, sometimes it’s abstract – it changes through the piece.’
‘My main theme seems to be a progressive digitalisation, changing the way we live and think’
In short – Śniady knows what she’s doing. We are in safe hands. The only question is what topic she will decide to focus on. In the debut concert, she has modern life set in the crosshairs.
‘I took a look at my most recent pieces and tried to figure out the connection between them. My main theme seems to be a progressive digitalisation, changing the way we live and think. But it doesn’t change – the only thing that changes is a different focus on different aspects of our lives.’
The concert, titled Your Ultimate Guide on How to Live a Healthy Lifestyle, and performed by Denmark’s own Scenatet, consists of two pre-existing works and two newly-composed works, each representing a goal on how to achieve happiness. ‘The first is about health and being beautiful, the second is about fulfilment and being successful, the third is about social connection and love, and the fourth one is about pleasure and ego.’
We discuss the problem of putting on a debut concert (an experience I recently went through myself), and the issue of striking a balance between presenting your ‘best’ pieces versus creating a satisfying concert experience. I ask which of these two directions she has chosen, and it seems to be the second one.
‘Two of the pieces are new so I have no idea if they are my best ones! The main goal for me was to create a coherence between these four pieces – some kind of theme, some kind of picture that shows what direction I’m going in right now, and what I think is disturbing and interesting in our lives nowadays. I’m more focused on creating a show.’
A concert full of surprises
Śniady stresses in the interview that she would like to keep the content of the concert a surprise – she doesn’t want to lose the ‘wow factor’. So just one more teaser: the concert contains a love song (You Make Me Feel So Brand New (2019) for voice, sampler, audio playback, and video). How did a composer who was previously only interested in the abstract and the absolute end up writing a love song?
‘I’m interested in contemporary music, but I see that now when I’m working with new media, I’m shifting my interest to pop music, and creating something in between. And when I think pop music, I think love songs. So I really wanted to write a pop love song, which is contemporary in style.’
This to me is almost peak Śniady – rather than blindly picking up aspects of new media and haphazardly gluing them onto her works, she carefully considers all the ramifications of using such media, looks at the way of communication from all angles, and rethinks the content of her work accordingly. Without this level of attention to detail and careful thought, the works may lapse into contemporary clichés or become too ironically distant. With it, they contain such power, immediacy, and presence that they leap off the stage (or screen).
And for the future? ‘No specific plans. I don’t know where I will be next year ... I’m thinking a little bit about Germany, but we’ll see.’ Teaching commitments back in Poland mean that Śniady has mostly been going back and forth to Denmark during her studies, so it seems unlikely that she will be based here. But, as we will see in the debut concert, modern life is full of surprises. In her own words – Your Only Limit Is You (2019, for two performers, audio playback, and video).