Missy Mazzoli: Vespers for a New Dark Age
New Amsterdam Records

Brooklyn-based composer Missy Mazzoli follows up her exceptional 2012 release Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt with the equally stellar Vespers for a New Dark Age. Over two years in the making, the work dazzles on sonic grounds, brought to life as it is by Mazzoli's all-female ensemble Victoire (violinist Olivia De Prato, clarinetist Eileen Mack, double bassist Eleonore Oppenheim, keyboardists Lorna Dune and Mazzoli, and vocalists Mellissa Hughes [soprano], Martha Cluver [soprano], and Virginia Warnken Kelsey [altoist]) and drummer Glenn Kotche (of Wilco fame).

Also arresting on conceptual grounds, the work clothes the traditional vespers (from the Latin, the word means “evening”) prayer service in modern garb by replacing the standard sacred verses with poems by Matthew Zapruder. In doing so, Mazzoli's work questions what role the supernatural plays in a technology-dominated culture and explores what haunts us in this “New Dark Age” we so very definitely find ourselves in.

That Mazzoli drew on her experience writing operas and vocal music is borne out by the soaring quasi-baroque vocalizing that figures so prominently. But the material is as captivating on non-vocal terms, too: a front-line of strings, clarinet, and keyboards is bolstered by the contributions of Kotche, whose huge percussive arsenal includes crotales, glockenspiel, and cymbals. Structurally, Vespers for a New Dark Age is also striking in the way it strategically intersperses three electronic interludes; in these experimental settings, where the violin is central to the first and mallet percussion to the second, Mazzoli and Dune use sampling to reference material from the acoustic movements already heard and anticipate those still to come.

On purely listening terms, the recording casts a powerful spell. In augmenting the singers' incantatory vocal lines with resplendent instrumental textures, Mazzoli has fashioned an engrossing classical-electronic-vocal epic that sounds like the product of a much larger ensemble than the chamber-sized one it actually is. As a compositional work, the eight-part Vespers for a New Dark Age weighs in at a svelte thirty-one minutes, but a serenading, synth-heavy remix by Lorna Dune of “A Thousand Tongues” (featuring an entrancingly ethereal vocal by Savoir Adore's Deidre Muro) appears at album's end to top up the release to a still-modest thirty-eight minutes. Such concision isn't unwelcome in these parts, however, and as a release Vespers for a New Dark Age hardly feels lacking when it's packed with such ravishing detail.

March 2015