ALBUM REVIEW: Unbound by the Jasper String Quartet

by Maggie Molloy

Photo by Dario Acosta.

Over the course of their decade-long career, the Jasper String Quartet has become pretty familiar with the famous quartets of historic masters like Haydn, Beethoven, and even Bartók—so when it came time to record a new album, they decided to look for new musical inspiration a little closer to home.

Unbound is a collection of 21st century works that burst through the boundaries of traditional Western musical styles and forms. The Jaspers—comprised of violinists J Freivogel and Sae Chonabayashi, violist Sam Quintal, and cellist Rachel Henderson Freivogel—explore the furthest reaches of the string quartet repertoire with new works by seven of today’s most dynamic composers.

Featuring compositions by Caroline Shaw, Missy Mazzoli, Annie Gosfield, Judd Greenstein, David Lang, Donnacha Dennehy, and Ted Hearne, the album unfolds as a survey of today’s spectacularly diverse and dynamic string music landscape, each piece stretching the string quartet tradition in new and inventive ways.

The album begins with Caroline Shaw’s tangy and succulent “Valencia,” the video for which we premiered just last week on Second Inversion. The Jaspers bring precision and playfulness to Shaw’s billowing harmonics and bold bow strokes, evoking the brilliant colors and juicy texture of the fresh, flavorful fruit.

Missy Mazzoli’s contribution to the album, by contrast, is a bit more narrative-driven. “Death Valley Junction” is inspired by a small American town of the same name, where a woman named Marta Becket resurrected a crumbling opera house in the late 1960s and went on to perform weekly one-woman shows there for over 40 years. An airy, sparse, desert-inspired soundscape gradually gives way to a wild and exuberant dance, evoking Becket’s colorful imagination and unshakable optimism.

It’s followed by Annie Gosfield’s “The Blue Horse Walks on the Horizon,” a piece she wrote specifically for the Jaspers. Inspired by the surreal radio broadcasts and codes used by European resistance groups during World War II, the piece unfolds through shifting, repetitive figures that evoke the abstract coded messages.

Group dynamics are the key theme behind Judd Greenstein’s contribution to the album. “Four on the Floor” is an energetic, fast-paced work which explores different instrument pairings working with and against one another in constantly changing teams.

Photo by Dario Acosta.

David Lang’s “almost all the time” explores a different type of evolution. The piece begins with a simple cell of a musical idea—what he calls “a little 10 note strand of musical DNA”—but across 18 minutes expands and evolves into a beautiful genetic mutation, each detail carefully crafted under the Jaspers’ fingers.

Donnacha Dennehy’s “Pushpulling” is more elastic in its movements. Frenetic bow strokes speed ever-forward, but are slowly and patiently pulled back to silence each time—pushing and pulling the listener along for the ride.

The album closes with Ted Hearne’s circular “Excerpts from the middle of something,” the first movement of his Law of Mosaics. Unusual in its form, the piece consists of a climactic build-up that, instead of resolving, is simply repeated and revised several times. And yet, each time it is convincing: the Jaspers play each rendition with the explosive energy and enthusiasm of a grand finale.

It’s an exclamation point at the end of the album but also a metaphor, perhaps, for the album’s overarching theme: the string quartet repertoire did not die with Haydn or Beethoven, but is still alive and still evolving to this day.

Women in (New) Music: Timeline of Women Composers

by Maggie Molloy

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“New” music didn’t just start up out of the blue. The contemporary classical music we know and love and treasure today is the product of centuries of innovation and experimentation in the field.

Likewise, women didn’t just pick up instruments and staff paper in the 21st century—we are the product of hundreds of years’ worth of women who fought to have their music heard. So if we’re going to celebrate Women in (New) Music, it’s important to pay tribute to the women who paved the way.

The following timeline briefly outlines the contributions of a number of history’s most influential women composers, past and present. Please note that this list is by no means comprehensive, but rather is meant to summarize some of the key accomplishments of women composers in the Western classical music tradition.

So the next time you’re looking for some fiercely empowering musical inspiration, check out some of these ladies:

HISTORIC COMPOSERS:

inanna

Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE): Regarded by scholars as the earliest known author, poet, and composer (regardless of gender), Enheduanna was a high priestess of the moon god in the Sumerian city-state of Ur. Her temple hymns were held in high esteem, and were in use at temples across Sumer and Akkad long after her death.

Image is of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love, fertility, and warfare.

 


hildegard

 

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179): Hildegard was a German Benedictine abbess, Christian mystic, and one of earliest female composers. There are more surviving chants by Hildegard than by any other composer from the entire Middle Ages, and she was one of the first composers (male or female) to create her own idiosyncratic compositional style.

 


maddalena-casulana

 

 

Maddalena Casulana (1544-1590): Casulana was the first woman in Western music history to print and publish her music, and the first to regard herself as a professional composer.

 

 


francesca-caccini

 

 

Francesca Caccini (1587-1645): Caccini had a successful career as a singer, teacher, and composer, and was one of the most prolific composers of dramatic music in the 17th century. She was also the highest-paid musician at the Florentine court.

 


barbara-strozzi

 

Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677): Strozzi was the most prolific composer, man or woman, of printed secular vocal music in Venice during the mid-17th century. Her father, a poet and librettist himself, nurtured her ambitions as a composer and introduced her to the intellectual elite of Venice. Unlike her male contemporaries, she was restricted to performing at intimate, private gatherings rather than for large, public audiences.

 


elisabeth-jacquet-de-la-guerre

 

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729): Born into a family of musicians and instrument makers, Jacquet de la Guerre was the original child prodigy in music. From the age of five, she sang, composed, and played the harpsichord at Louis XIV’s court, supported by the king’s mistress. Throughout her life, she enjoyed the patronage of the king and dedicated most of her works to him.

 


maria-szymanowska

 

Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831): Szymanowska was one of the first professional virtuoso pianists of the 19th century. She toured extensively throughout Europe and composed for the court at St. Petersburg, gave concerts, taught music, and ran an influential salon. She wrote a number of piano pieces and songs which made her an important forerunner to Chopin.

 


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Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847): Later known as Fanny Hensel (after her marriage), she was the sister of the early Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn. Though she was as talented and musically precocious as her brother, a musical career was considered inappropriate for a woman of her wealth and class at the time. After her marriage she played piano and performed her compositions at small, private gatherings of friends and invited guests, and she published much of her music under her brother’s name.

 


clara-schumann

 

Clara Schumann (1819-1896): Clara Schumann was one of the most distinguished composers and pianists of the Romantic era. Though she was married to the composer Robert Schumann, she tended to be the more famous of the two, and was the main breadwinner for their family. Together, Robert and Clara championed the musical career of Johannes Brahms, and she was the first to perform any of his works publicly.

 


amy-beach

 

Amy Beach (1867-1944): A child prodigy, pianist, and composer, Amy Beach taught herself to compose by studying and playing the works of other composers. Though social conventions of the time excluded her from studying or teaching at any of the top universities, she went on to become the first American woman to publish a symphony and other large-scale works.

 


marion-bauer

 

Marion Bauer (1882-1955): Bauer was an influential composer, teacher, and music critic who played an active role in shaping American musical identity in the early half of the 20th century. She held leadership roles in a number of composers’ societies, and helped found the American Music Guild, the American Music Center, and the American Composer’s Alliance.

 


rebecca-clarke

 

Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979): Clarke was a classical composer and violist best known for her chamber music featuring the viola. She became one of the first female professional orchestral players. Most of her works have yet to be published (or have only recently been published).

 

 


florence-beatrice-price

 

Florence Beatrice Price (1887-1953): Price was the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, and the first to have a composition performed by a major orchestra. Though she was classically trained, her music incorporated elements of African-American spirituals, emphasizing the rhythm and syncopation of the spirituals rather than just the text.

 


nadia-boulanger

Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979): Boulanger was a composer, conductor, and one of the most influential pedagogues of the 20th century. Many of her students went on to become leading composers of the 20th century, including Aaron Copland, Quincy Jones, Elliott Carter, Virgil Thomson, Philip Glass, Ástor Piazzolla, and many more. Boulanger was the first woman to conduct many major orchestras in America and Europe, including the BBC Symphony, Boston Symphony, Hallé, New York Philharmonic, and Philadelphia orchestras.

 


germaine-tailleferre

 

Germaine Tailleferre (1892 – 1983): Tailleferre was the only female member of the group of French composers called Les Six, who were known for writing highly individual works which drew from a wide range of influences, including neoclassical. She composed hundreds of works in all genres, including many film scores.

 


lili-boulanger

 

Lili Boulanger (1893-1918): Lili Boulanger was a child prodigy and a student of her older sister, Nadia. At the age of 19, she became the first woman composer to win the Prix de Rome for her piece Faust et Hélène, but her compositional career was cut short when she died at the age of 24 from chronic illness.

 

 


ruth-crawford-seeger

 

Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953): Seeger was a modernist composer and American folk music specialist, and she was the first woman to win a Guggenheim Fellowship in music. She was a prominent member of a group of American composers known as the “ultramoderns,” and her music influenced later composers including Elliott Carter.

 


LIVING COMPOSERS:

ellen-taaffe-zwilich

 

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: Zwilich was the first female composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. She is one of the most frequently played living composers, and her works draw from a wide range of influences, including atonal, post-modernist, and neo-romantic.

 

 


libby-larsen
Libby Larsen:
 
One of America’s most prolific and most frequently performed living composers, Larsen has cultivated a catalog of over 500 works spanning virtually every genre. She was the first woman to serve as a resident composer with a major orchestra, and she went on to become one of the founders of the American Composers Forum.

 

 


julia-wolfe

 

Julia Wolfe: Perhaps best known as one of the three founders of the wildly innovative Bang on a Can new music collective, Wolfe’s compositional style is just as urgent and relentlessly powerful as her career. In 2015, she earned the Pulitzer Prize for music, and this year, she was named a MacArthur Fellow—the first full-time classical composer to receive this distinguished award since 2003.

 


jennifer-higdon

 

Jennifer Higdon: One of America’s most critically-acclaimed and frequently performed living composers, Higdon has both a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award under her belt. She enjoys several hundred live performances a year of her works, and her compositions have been recorded on over four dozen CDs.

 

 


lisa-bielawa

 

Lisa Bielawa: A prominent composer and vocalist both within and beyond New York’s thriving contemporary classical scene, Bielawa takes her inspiration from literary sources and close artistic collaborations. In 1997, she co-founded the MATA Festival, which has gone on to become New York’s leading showcase for vital new music by emerging composers.

 


amanda-harberg

 

Amanda Harberg: A New Jersey-based composer, pianist, and educator, Harberg’s music has been widely commissioned and performed both in the United States and abroad. She is also the founder and director of the Music in Montclair series, which pairs performances of traditional classical music with new works by living composers.

 


shara-nova

 

Shara Nova: Best known as the lead singer and songwriter for her chamber pop band My Brightest Diamond, Nova is also equally at home as a composer, mezzo-soprano extraordinaire, and musical chameleon. Career highlights include composing and starring in her own psychedelic Baroque chamber opera titled You Us We All and collaborating with practically every major musical voice in New York City (and beyond).

 


sarah-kirkland-sniderSarah Kirkland Snider: Perhaps best known for her rapturous and vividly orchestrated song cycles Penelope and Unremembered, Snider’s utterly immersive compositions have been commissioned and performed by many of the most prestigious orchestras, ensembles, and soloists throughout the world. A passionate advocate for new music, Snider also serves as co-director, along with William Brittle and Judd Greenstein, of New Amsterdam Records—a label which consistently churns out adventurous and thought-provoking new music.


anna-thorvaldsdottir

 

Anna Thorvaldsdottir: As a composer, Thorvaldsdottir is known for creating large sonic structures which immerse the the listener in their austere, somber, and utterly spellbinding soundscapes. She’s the recipient of the prestigious Nordic Council Music Prize and The New York Philharmonic’s Kravis Emerging Composer Award.

 

 


angelique-poteat

 

Angelique Poteat: A powerful compositional voice and new music advocate, Poteat is a Seattle-based composer and clarinetist whose works have been commissioned and performed by the Seattle Symphony, North Corner Chamber Orchestra, and many others. Her five-movement composition Listen to the Girls, scored for girl choir and large orchestra, explores harmful and unfair societal expectations of women.

 


kate-moore

 

Kate Moore: Moore’s award-winning compositions blur the line between acoustic and electroacoustic media, at times even crossing over into sound installation territory. She specializes in creating surprising performance scenarios which feature virtuosic instrumentalists and musicians set amidst unusual and alternative performance circumstances.

 


missy-mazzoli

 

Missy Mazzoli: Mazzoli is a Brooklyn-based composer and keyboardist who’s works flow seamlessly between chamber-operatic, electronic, and abstract sound worlds. She’s also the founder and keyboardist of the all-female new age art pop ensemble Victoire, a group dedicated to the performance of her works.

 

 


caroline-shaw

Caroline Shaw: Perhaps best known as a Grammy Award-winning singer in the boundary-bursting vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, Shaw is also a prominent violinist and composer in contemporary music. She has performed around the world as a violinist in ACME (American Contemporary Music Ensemble), and in 2013 she became the youngest ever recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her a capella composition Partita for 8 Voices.

 


Are we missing someone? We plan to continue updating and expanding this index of women composers as time goes on. Send your submissions to maggiem@king.org and we’ll make sure your favorite female composers are added to the list.

 

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from this Friday’s playlist. Tune in during the indicated hours below on Friday, August 12 to hear these pieces. In the meantime, you’ll hear other great new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre 24/7!

Daniel Wohl: 323 (Transit) on New Amsterdam Records

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Like so much of what we play on Second Inversion, “323” by Daniel Wohl is difficult to categorize.  It’s an exuberant piece full of interesting sounds, found noises, and jangly percussion that I’m fairly sure is pots and pans yet the overall feel of the piece can be summed up with the word “radiant.”  It’s music that pulsates and cuts into your tympanic membrane with its soft edges.  “323” is like if drone and a junkyard gave birth to… a solar system?  It’s confusing, but it is a bold confusion that truly works and inspires. – Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 1pm hour today to hear this recording.


Darcy James Argue: Phobos (Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society) on New Amsterdam Records

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If you’re someone who is immersed in (small ‘c’) classical music most or all of the time, it can be refreshing (and necessary) to bend your ears on something that really challenges you to think about what makes music “classical.”  Where are the boundaries of the art form?  Darcy James Argue’s track Phobos can help you grapple with (if not answer) these questions.  This is first and foremost jazz, but it has so many elements more closely associated with other types of music that it really forces listeners to ask themselves some tough questions (if they are insistent on classifying the music at all!).  Among the shades of minimalism and post-rock, those big-band “jazz” chords begin to sound like tone clusters…  Listen to the barriers fall!  Wonderful! – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 4pm hour today to hear this recording.


Missy Mazzoli: Vespers for a New Dark Age (Victoire, Lorna Dune, and Glenn Kotche) on New Amsterdam Records

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The Western classical music tradition as we know it began in the Church. And both the Church and the Western classical music tradition have historically excluded women from positions of power and authority.

Which is a big part of what makes composer Missy Mazzoli’s 30-minute masterwork Vespers for a New Dark Age so striking, so liberating, and—for lack of a better word—so brilliant. Performed with her all-female new age art pop ensemble Victoire, electro keyboardist Lorna Dune, and rock drummer Glenn Kotche, the piece reimagines the traditional vespers prayer service in the modern age, replacing the customary sacred verses with the haunting and elegant poetry of Matthew Zapruder.

The result is a 21st century version of the vespers service which explores the intersection of our modern technological age with the old-fashioned formality of religious services. Oh, and I guess it could also be heard as a feminist assertion of women’s immense (and too often forgotten) contributions to the classical music tradition. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 6pm hour today to hear this recording.


Kevin Puts: River’s Rush (Marin Alsop, Peabody Symphony Orchestra) on NAXOS Records

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With its churning arpeggios and big, muscular orchestration, this piece reminds me of hurtling down the Salmon River in Idaho on a whitewater rafting trip. The tremendous excitement that the opening music generates is matched by the beauty of a lushly-orchestrated, flowing middle section. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his opera Silent Night, Puts is known for his flute and piano concertos and four symphonies, but this stand-alone work might be my new favorite. – Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 9pm hour today to hear this recording.

ALBUM REVIEW: Michael Mizrahi’s “Currents”

by Maggie Molloy

Mizrahi-Hi-Res-10_oClassical music is fluid. Try as we might, we can never pin down a definitive “beginning” or “end” to the arbitrary musical eras we’ve created. And while we may broadly categorize music as Baroque or Classical, Romantic or Modern, ultimately all of these seemingly individualized movements blend into a much broader pool: the Western classical music tradition.

But this pool is not static—it continues to change and evolve as composers and performers continue to make waves in the contemporary music world.

That’s the premise behind pianist Michael Mizrahi’s new album of solo piano works, “Currents.” Recently released on the New Amsterdam record label, the album brings together six impeccably performed and expertly recorded new American piano works, almost all of which were written specifically for Mizrahi’s idiosyncratic sound, style, and musical approach.

The result is a unique addition to the 21st century solo piano repertoire that, as the title suggests, embodies movement forward, building on the great piano works of the past while also expanding and propelling the solo piano works of the future. The album features works by Sarah Kirkland Snider, Troy Herion, Mark Dancigers, Asha Srinivasan, Missy Mazzoli, and Patrick Burke.

 

The album begins with the title track: “The Currents” by Sarah Kirkland Snider. Perhaps best known for her song cycles (which feature the inimitable voices of Shara Worden and Padma Newsome), this solo piano piece carries the same flowing lyricism and sensitivity as Snider’s vocal music—but without any of the words. Mizrahi’s fingers swim gracefully through the ebb and flow of the piece, beautifully capturing the depth and breadth of colors that make the currents come to life.

The piece is followed by Troy Herion’s pseudo-Baroque solo piano work, cheekily titled “Harpsichords.” Heavily peppered with trills and musical ornaments, the piece evokes the pristine, transparent textures of the Baroque era while venturing into 21st century melodies and musical forms (or, you know, lack thereof). Mizrahi blends both eras seamlessly.

The slow-moving and sincere “Bright Motion Ascending” is nothing short of sparkling. The work was composed for Mizrahi by his NOW Ensemble bandmate, guitarist Mark Dancigers, as the third installment in his “Bright Motion” trilogy. Mizrahi’s fast fingers transform the piano into a harp, his fingertips gliding effortlessly across cascading arpeggios, from the glistening upper registers of the piano all the way down to its earthiest tones.

Asha Srinivasan’s introspective “Mercurial Reveries” draws upon her Indian-American heritage, weaving in elements from Indian classical scales and modes, along with the occasional (and ever so subtle) jazz piano lick. Over the course of five short movements, she explores a vast terrain of distinctive musical textures, at one point even instructing the pianist to physically reach inside the piano and stop the strings’ vibrations with one hand while playing on the keys with the other. Mizrahi, as it turns out, plays the inside of the piano with the same precision and grace as the outside.

The work is followed by Missy Mazzoli’s “Heartbreaker,” an intimate piece which showcases Mizrahi’s virtuosity without bleeding over into the showy (and at times superficial) pitfall of many virtuosic solo piano pieces. The piece starts out deceptively simple, but quickly spirals into freewheeling abandon, dancing just within the limits of the pianist’s control.

The album comes to a close with Patrick Burke’s poignant and pensive “Missing Piece.” Mizrahi’s fingers pace across slow-moving triadic harmonies and yearning dissonances, uncovering the work’s clear Romantic underpinnings.

Ultimately, each piece on the album reminds us that there is no clear line between the music of the past and the music of the present. We don’t always have to separate the music into arbitrary categories—sometimes we just need to sit back, relax, and get swept up in the “Currents.”

ALBUM REVIEW: “Render” by Roomful of Teeth

by Maggie Molloy

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Classical vocal music is always nice—but if you’re looking for a contemporary vocal ensemble with a little more bite, look no further than Roomful of Teeth.

The Grammy Award-winning a cappella ensemble is dedicated to exploring the vast and limitless musical possibilities of the human voice. In fact, Roomful of Teeth’s eight vocalists have studied singing traditions from around the world, including vocal techniques as diverse as yodeling, belting, Tuvan throat singing, Inuit throat singing, Korean P’ansori, Georgian singing, Sardinian cantu a tenore, Hindustani music, Persian classical singing, and more.

And now, you can hear the fruit of the group’s musical travels on their sophomore album, “Render.” The record is an eclectic collection of original compositions and commissioned works which push beyond the boundaries of traditional vocal music.

Founded in 2009, Roomful of Teeth is comprised of sopranos Estelí Gomez and Martha Cluver, altos Caroline Shaw and Virginia Warnken, tenor Eric Dudley, baritone Avery Griffin, bass baritone Dashon Burton, and bass Cameron Beauchamp. Together, the eight singers create a mesmerizing vocal panorama spanning over four octaves.

Their new album begins with a performance of Missy Mazzoli’s “Vesper Sparrow,” an enchanting and otherworldly piece which features the text of Farnoosh Fathi’s poem “Home State.” The sopranos soar sweetly above a percussive a cappella backdrop, creating a fascinating range of vocal timbres and musical characters.

“The piece is an eclectic amalgamation of imaginary birdsong and my own interpretation of Sardinian overtone singing,” Mazzoli said. “I tried to capture the exuberance and energy of these individual singers as well as a bit of the magic that is created when this group comes together.”

The piece is followed by Wally Gunn’s “The Ascendant,” a dramatic three-part composition which illuminates the haunting, poignant poetry of Maria Zajkowski. Glorious vocal harmonies glide above a hypnotic hocket backdrop, creating a slow but steady groove and an unbelievably rich chordal texture—Roomful of Teeth’s voices will echo in your head long after the piece is over.

William Brittelle’s “High Done No Why” is next on the album, showcasing the vocal virtuosity of each member of the ensemble by experimenting with a colorful palette of extended vocal techniques that reach far beyond the borders of the Western classical music tradition.

Caleb Burhans’ slow and somber “Beneath” is a similarly virtuosic feat: it is a 12-minute exploration into the ensemble’s unbelievably wide vocal range. Throughout the piece, the spellbinding blend of wordless vocals creates an utterly ethereal, borderline eerie soundscape.

The ensemble switches to the other end of the musical spectrum for “Otherwise,” composed by the group’s artistic director Brad Wells. The piece is vibrant, visceral, and full of color—it features singing, belting, yodeling, and even a few elements of Sardinian polyphonic folk singing. Baritone soloist Dashon Burton cuts through the rest of ensemble’s rhythmic chanting with a beaming bel canto voice, his classical singing contrasting beautifully against a striking harmonic backdrop.

Eric Dudley’s “Suonare / To Sound” explores a different element of vocal music: words. The piece is a meditation on timbre and language, featuring the same poem sung in both English and Italian—at the same time. The eight voices overlap and intersect as they echo across a constantly shifting soundscape, with the lower voices tracing the English text through slowly changing harmonies as the sopranos echo far above them.

The last piece on the album is the title track, also composed by Brad Wells, which was inspired by David Eagleman’s short story “Search.” The ensemble’s voices ebb and flow in soft waves, gracefully gliding in and out of near-silence to create a serene and mystical sound world.

“The story describes a vision of the afterlife as the periodic unraveling of our material, molecular selves into other forms in nature, occasional re-gatherings of our disparate molecules over millennia, and the complete continuity and maintenance—in spite of the unraveling—of our consciousness and feeling,” Wells said.

Of course, Roomful of Teeth says all of this without using any lyrics—proving that the possibilities of the human voice are far beyond words.

 

ALBUM REVIEW: Missy Mazzoli’s Vespers for a New Dark Age

by Jill Kimball
mazzolivespersThese days, there’s not much room for mystery. Thanks to technology, we can learn someone’s whole life story on the internet before a first date. We can walk the streets of far-flung cities without leaving the couch. There’s even a machine that connects with our brains and sketches out visual scenes from our dreams.

Composer Missy Mazzoli wonders whether there’s still room for the supernatural in our increasingly technological world, which she calls a “new dark age.” She explores that question in her latest album, Vespers for a New Dark Age.

In the last Dark Ages, we marveled in the mystery of a higher power and prayed in music-centered vesper services at church. Mazzoli’s album places the traditional vesper service in a 21st-century context, using contemporary poetry instead of liturgical readings, and mixing electronic music with human-powered sounds, including vocals by Roomful of Teeth, instrumentals by her orchestra Victoire, and percussion by Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche.

The resulting sound is wonderfully otherworldly, borrowing the best aspects of liturgical choral music, avant-garde electronica, and new age, and tying them all together. One of Missy Mazzoli’s greatest strengths as a composer is her ability to paint a unique, vivid musical picture, and she has certainly done that here.

Another of her strengths is finding original, incredibly thought-provoking text to set to music. Here, she has set excerpts of pointedly secular poems by Matthew Zapruder, which juxtapose oddly but beautifully with the rigid structure of a musical church service.

Zapruder clearly believes our gradual departure from the rituals and mysteries of religion is directly related to advancements in technology. He dismisses as archaic the idea that his thoughts and actions have cosmic consequences. Yet he still acknowledges that there’s some comfort in believing in the supernatural, especially in difficult times. (“Come on all you ghosts, / we need you, winter is not / through with us.” And, “I know you can hear me / I know you are here / I have heard you cough / and sigh.”)

Over the course of eight movements, the sounds of three ethereal vocalists combine with a few instrumental musicians and a bit of electronically-produced mixing to ask a question: what happens when spirituality meets technology? The answer is fuzzy, but some things are certain: In this age, we’re less inclined to accept mystery. But when life gets hard, or when we’re so mired in technology that we forget about human relationships (“I need things / no one can buy / and don’t even know / what they are”), we’d still like to believe there’s something out there that’s bigger than us.

That something doesn’t necessarily have to be a deity. It could just be a great piece of music…like this one.

NEW VIDEOS: NOW Ensemble

NOW Ensemble visited Seattle earlier this month for the TownMusic at Town Hall series and Second Inversion spent some quality time with them here in our studios!

For more in-studio sessions, including videos of Joshua Roman & Friends and ETHEL, visit our Video page.

To hear the archive of NOW Ensemble’s performance at Town Hall, visit our Live Concert Recordings page.