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. In 2009 Snider re-conceived Penelope as a song cycle, expanding and tailoring it to the unique talents of vocalist Shara Worden and the chamber orchestra Signal, and collaborating with programmer Michael Hammond on sound design.
The album has met tremendous critical success. Pitchfork rated it at a 8.3, calling it 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.” NPR remarked that Penelope “deftly weaves pop and classical” with a score that is “inventive and subtle, with a mix of watery, undulating strings, guitars, percussion and electronics that submerges you completely within the story.” The album has also been called “achingly stark… easily the most beautiful album of the year” (The Indie Handbook) and “accomplished and remarkable… gorgeous and soul-stirring” (textura). It was also hailed as one of the 5 Best Genre-Defying Albums of the Year (2010) by NPR, and named #3 favorite album of 2010 by Textura.