02. The Elixir of Exactly Eight Hours of Sleep™
03. A Do-Little Potion: For Conversing With Animals
04. Pracktical Practices for When Plagued by a Plague
05. A Spell for Sudden Sobriety
06. Dedication - A Drop of Good
"When preparing to write Tiffany’s Spellbook, I read volumes about the myriad disparate magical traditions that have existed throughout human history. These ranged from the lighthearted and the whimsical, to the deeply, even gravely, serious; from those that saw magic as a useful fiction, to others that saw magick as concrete fact. But, throughout all the spellwork I studied, one common theme emerged. Everything involved therein, from ritual components to times of magickal significance, helped to direct the caster’s intentions, served to manifest their “will to create something” into something created. Interestingly, as I put pen to paper to write this cycle, I’ve done the same thing: shaped my desire for this piece into the piece itself. So, if the score is a grimoire, the recital is a ritual, then the actual piece of music, the song cycle itself, in a way, is a spell.
But, at the end of the day, it’s still just notes and rhythms, words, and intentions. Maybe that just makes Tiffany’s Spellbook a piece of music, and nothing more. Or maybe those intentions make it, just ever so slightly, a piece of magick. That’s not a judgment that I, the author, get to make. That lies wholly in the hands of the listener. That’s down to you."
-Evan L. Snyder, composer
NOTES ON THE ALBUM - by Frank K. DeWald
One could categorize Tiffany’s Spellbook (or, to use its full title, Tiffandra’s Grimoire of Spells, Potions, and other Such Magics: A Pracktical Guide to Witchcraft for the 21st-Century Practitioner) as a song cycle consisting of a foreword, four spells and a dedication—but it is more than that. When properly presented, it becomes a miniature solo opera, combining recitative and arioso in a form that has its roots in Monteverdi. The soloist “speaks” directly to the audience throughout (even literally at the beginning and the end), establishing a direct connection with the listener. The cycle involves an element of staging as well, with the composer asking the soloist to perform with score in hand—“the spellbook itself functions as a vital component of the performance.” Alternatively, a prop spellbook containing only text, not music, is acceptable.
Soprano Tamara Wilson and composer Evan Snyder first crossed paths at a Minnesota music festival during the summer of 2019. She was a guest artist, and he was a composition fellow working with Libby Larsen. After hearing an excerpt from an earlier cycle, Ulysses (written for tenor Richard Fracker), Wilson was intrigued. She approached the composer and asked to see more examples of his work. He obliged and, liking what she heard, she began a conversation with him about commissioning a new work—something resembling, in her words, a set of “modern incantations for witches.” Tiffany’s Spellbook is the result of that conversation.
It is no surprise that Snyder writes effectively for the voice, as he is a singer himself. His love of singing began in high school and continued as he earned his bachelor’s degree in vocal performance at Michigan State University. His passion to compose began in high school as well, when he undertook an independent study of music theory that resulted in a piece premiered by his school’s Treble Ensemble, and continued in graduate school where he earned master’s degrees in both composition and theory. His opera, A Capacity for Evil, was produced in 2018 by Detroit’s Opera MODO with remarkable success. He has collaborated closely with many singers, suiting his works to their particular strengths.
This cycle consists of four “spells,” bookended by a “Foreword” and a “Dedication.” The composer leaves the exact order of the spells to the performer, but he insists that the work begin and end with the specific movements written for that purpose. He considers the piece a work in progress, keeping open the possibility of adding more spells in the future, and eventually allowing performers to choose among multiple spells.
Snyder uses two unifying devices throughout the work. The first is the florid piano introduction that is essentially the same for each movement, intended to facilitate the re-ordering of spells. The other—already inherent in the introductions—is the use of the Lydian mode. Snyder typically composes in a free-tonality–based style that doesn’t shy from dissonance, but his use of the raised fourth in both melodic lines and clustered harmonies gives an especially warm color to Tiffany’s Spellbook. It pervades the entire work, from the F sharp that opens the Foreword (in what is essentially C major) to the exact same harmony at the end of the “Dedication”—although the very last measure of that movement introduces a sense of incompleteness, of possibly more to come, by shifting to B-flat–based Lydian.
The texts by composer Snyder (and, in one case, by soprano Wilson) are mostly conversational but occasionally exhibit a more poetic sensibility. The first spell is for creating “Exactly Eight Hours of Sleep.” The composer asks the soloist to begin “slyly, salesman-like.” The tongue-in-cheek addition of ™ after the elixir’s official name further enhances the business aspect of this approach. Snyder sets the list of ingredients to flowing, lyrical passages, but returns to the commercial aspect of the matter with a concluding list of side effects disclaimers. The second spell, set to a text by Wilson, advises how to make a potion for talking to animals. A running line of chromatic figures in the piano part binds the ingredients together. Again, the song ends with its tongue in its cheek, advising that the animals to whom one may now speak may be a tad upset that you killed some of their friends in the process. A note in the score adds further whimsy by advising that ethical sourcing of the ingredients (whatever that may mean in this case) might lead to a better outcome.
The third spell, “Practical Practices for When Plagued by a Plague,” is firmly rooted in the 2020s. The opening recitative-like passage accompanied by simple chords in the piano part yields to more lyricism as the soloist lists typical medieval tricks to ward off contagion. But more contemporary advice follows, ending with an admonishment to “wear a damn mask.” The final spell (so far) reflects the composer’s love of classical Latin. Framed as a prayer to Bacchus in recitative form, it offers a remedy for excess inebriation. As the soloist begins a litany of various drinks, Snyder segues to a seductive waltz, suggesting a certain emotional longing for the same.
Snyder sets whimsy aside in the concluding “Dedication.” The soloist becomes serious, testifying to the positive power of magic in impassioned phrases that culminate in a powerful C-major cadence. And yet, it is with a sense of mystery that Snyder brings “this fair illusion” to a close.
Tiffany’s Spellbook is an intriguing blend of tradition and modern-day sensibilities, both in its poetry and in its music. Soprano Wilson plans to premiere the work at the Cleveland Institute of Music in the spring of 2022.