News 88.9 KNPR
Classical 89.7 KCNV

member station

Deceptive Cadence

Song Of A Haunted Childhood


The Witch
Nathaniel Bellows, Courtesy of the artist
The Witch

Even the clearest recollections from childhood tend to be coauthored by time and imagination. Looking back on early memories, fun or frightening, we know the mind can play tricks on itself. Did everything happen exactly as our adult brains remember?

Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider captures these surreal mind games with her new song cycle Unremembered, a follow-up to her much-lauded Penelope. In 13 warped and eerie songs, Snider dives into the world of a New England childhood, specifically that of her collaborator, poet and illustrator Nathaniel Bellows. His stanzas settle into antique rhythms, and they channel the ghostly simplicity of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. The accompanying artwork, with its distorted perspectives, looks like panes of stained glass. Unremembered, especially in its most sinister song, "The Witch," refracts reality just as memory does.

From the first stabs of strings and militant drums, "The Witch" throws you in the middle of a hunt — a frightened child flees an ominous specter. The icy voice of Shara Worden (from My Brightest Diamond) portrays the child, stuttering: "I saw the witch out in the woods / As we sang around the fire / Stooped and white, curled and dry / A bone enrobed in briar." Even though Bellows' words speak of a moment long ago, the music tugs them into the present. Snider's forceful orchestra, led by sharp stomps from the cellos, chases Worden, sometimes enveloping her completely.

Support comes from

The terror subsides after the perspective shifts to adulthood: "I was so young," Worden reminds herself. The following calm — also headed by the cellos, this time warm and sweeping — is like the exhalation after waking up from a bad dream. But it's only temporary relief. A celeste melody from the beginning returns, hauntingly. The witch might not be real, but the memory lives forever.

(Sarah Kirkland Snider's Unremembered is released Sept. 4.)

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit

You won’t find a paywall here. Come as often as you like — we’re not counting. You’ve found a like-minded tribe that cherishes what a free press stands for.  If you can spend another couple of minutes making a pledge of as little as $5, you’ll feel like a superhero defending democracy for less than the cost of a month of Netflix.

More Stories