A Young Composer's Evening Prayers For Troubled Times

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Missy Mazzoli (Courtesy of the artist)
Missy Mazzoli (Courtesy of the artist)

Vespers, the name for the sunset evening music and prayer services in Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran churches, are traditionally solemn occasions for reflection and praise. But Brooklyn-based composer Missy Mazzoli would like to shake the tradition up a little.

She refers to her new album, Vespers for a New Dark Age, as a "distorted, wild" take on the traditional vespers. Blasphemous, even.

"Blasphemous in the sense that my initial concept for the work was to create a new vespers for our modern times," Mazzoli told NPR's Arun Rath. "To replace all the sacred text with poems that were more or less secular."

At first Mazzoli couldn't find a suitable text combining the sacred and the profane. But then, through a friend, she found the contemporary poet Matthew Zapruder.

"His poems are really that perfect combination of the spiritual and the worldly," Mazzoli says. "The speaker in a lot of his poems seems to be this person who is grappling with all these invisible forces, someone who is struggling with his or her relationship to God and their relationship to technology and the places where they intersect. So that was very interesting to me."

In a Zapruder poem called "Korea," Mazzoli found the kernel of her ideas about her music: "The final lines of this poem are 'I know I belong in this new dark age,' And that really summed up my entire feeling about the piece itself and my feelings about the world itself right now, and also became the title."

Even before she wrote a note of her new Vespers, which is built in five vocal sections interspersed with interludes, Mazzoli knew who would be singing the texts.

"I had these particular singers in mind from the very beginning before I even wrote a note. They are Martha Cluver, Melissa Hughes and Virginia Warnken Kelsey, and they all have a lot of experience with contemporary music but also a lot of experience with early music and Baroque music. And their voices are absolutely angelic. I know that's kind of a cliché but there's no other word for it."

Not so angelic, perhaps, is the driving beat and percussion that fuels Mazzoli's Vespers. It comes with help from Glenn Kotche, best known as the drummer for the rock band Wilco.

"As I was writing the piece we would Facetime together," Mazzoli recalls. "We would pick out different crazy instruments from his endless arsenal. We premiered this work at Carnegie Hall and it looked like this spaceship had descended onto the stage there because he had so many instruments."

Judging from the title of Mazzoli's album, you might think she has a dim view of the world.

"It's a dark time," she says. "I don't think anyone out there would disagree with me. It's a fascinatingly rich, very complicated time, and I'm actually extremely optimistic. And I think this piece reflects that optimism; it has a great deal of lightness. And in a sense maybe the title is a misnomer, because I think there's more optimism in there than darkness. But the thing I try to do with all of my work is to say more than one thing at the same time."

(You can hear Missy Mazzoli's Vespers for a New Dark Age in its entirety here.)

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

And I couldn't be happier to take you from my favorite old composer to maybe my favorite young composer, right here in America. Missy Mazzoli's brilliant new record is called "Vespers For A New Dark Age." If vespers makes you think of settings of the evening prayer by composers like Monteverdi or Mozart, get ready for a new definition. Missy Mazzoli describes her composition as a distorted, wild, blasphemous take on the traditional vespers prayer service.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISSY MAZZOLI ALBUM, "VESPERS FOR A NEW DARK AGE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing).

RATH: I definitely heard wild. But just as the music hit my ears, it didn't feel blasphemous.

MISSY MAZZOLI: (Laughter) Well, blasphemous in the sense that, you know, I'm - my initial concept for the work was to create a new vespers sort of for our modern times and to replace all of the sacred text with poems that were more or less secular.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISSY MAZZOLI ALBUM, "VESPERS FOR A NEW DARK AGE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing).

RATH: The poet who provided the text, Matthew Zapruder - what attracted you to his work?

MAZZOLI: Well, it was really funny. So I had the concept for the work. I had the forces for the work and all the musicians lined up. And I couldn't find a text that really was this perfect combination of the sacred and the mundane that I was looking for. And then I discovered Matthew's poems through a friend of mine, and I thought this is perfect. You know, his poems are really that perfect combination of the spiritual and the worldly. And he's able to address all these sort very interesting, juicy ideas in his poems, some of which are very short.

RATH: Was there a particular line that kind of jumped out at you that expresses what you were after?

MAZZOLI: Sure. There's a - he has a poem called "Korea," which I - and I use a section of it in "The Vespers." The final lines of this poem are (reading) I know I belong in this new dark age.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISSY MAZZOLI ALBUM, "VESPERS FOR A NEW DARK AGE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) I know I belong in this new dark age.

MAZZOLI: That really summed up my entire feeling about the piece itself and sort my feelings about the world itself right now.

RATH: You know, medieval times are referred to, some would say unfairly, as the Dark Ages. And you call this work, taking that line from the Zapruder poem "Vespers For A New Dark Age." So you think we're in one now?

MAZZOLI: Yes and no. So it's definitely - I think it's a dark time. I don't think anyone out there would disagree with me. But I wouldn't suggest that it's, you know, capital D, capital A Dark Age. I think it's a fascinating, rich, very complicated time, and I'm actually extremely optimistic. And I think that this piece reflects that optimism. I think it has a great deal of lightness. And in a sense maybe the title is a misnomer, because I think there's more optimism in there than darkness. And the thing that I love about composing and the thing that I try to do in all of my work is to say more than one thing at the same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISSY MAZZOLI ALBUM, "VESPERS FOR A NEW DARK AGE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing).

RATH: It's interesting because, you know, vespers are in a way - I mean, they're prayers. They're like you're talking with God. And it feels right in this way, but just the questions that you would ask God or the conversations you would have with God are different now.

MAZZOLI: Sure. Yeah, and that's something I really felt in reading Matthew's poems was that the speaker seems to be this person who is grappling with all of these invisible forces. So someone who is struggling with, you know, his or her relationship to God and their relationship to technology and the places where they intersect - that was very interesting to me.

RATH: One doesn't associate traditional vespers with much of a beat, but there is fantastic percussion on this record.

MAZZOLI: Yeah, and that's all Glenn Kotche, who is, you know, best known as the drummer from Wilco.

RATH: How many different types of percussion is he reaching for on this record?

MAZZOLI: You know, I tried to count on the subway on the way here. I was like looking at my score and trying to figure it out, but, you know, a lot. You know, his - we premiered this work at Carnegie Hall and it looked like this spaceship had descended onto the stage there because he had so many instruments.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISSY MAZZOLI ALBUM, "VESPERS FOR A NEW DARK AGE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing).

RATH: This is very modern sounding music. At the same time, though, listening to it, it reminded me of very much older music, like medieval music, like composers like Guillaume de Machaut.

MAZZOLI: Yeah, and that's intentional. You know, and I think that's something that just sort of happens - I don't want to say by accident. But anytime I'm writing for three solo voices, the way that I think of harmony is very much influenced by early music. So I think that that's something that's just inherent in a lot of my work.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISSY MAZZOLI ALBUM, "VESPERS FOR A NEW DARK AGE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing).

RATH: My friends have heard me complain about this a lot - and tell me if you think I'm wrong - but I feel like the classical music scene in America tends to be pretty conservative. Like, it's hard to see a concert with much music that's been written in the last 50 or even 100 years. If you agree that's the case, does that make it hard for a modern composer like you? You still have to compete for space with, you know, Bach, Beethoven and all the rest?

MAZZOLI: Yes and no. I mean, I agree that compared to Europe, let's say, you know, we're dealing with a much more conservative environment. And that's a complicated thing. It has everything to do with the economics of the business as well as the culture, you know? But I do think I'm sort of in a golden age, especially for opera, which is something that always surprises me - you know, that composers in these sort of strained financial times are turning to the most expensive, impractical art form in the world. But it's very, very exciting. So in a sense, you know, I feel like I have more opportunities than I would've had, let's say 20 years ago, so I'm, you know - again, I'm optimistic.

RATH: I'm really glad you're getting those opportunities. That's composer Missy Mazzoli. Her latest recorded work is called "Vespers For A New Dark Age." Missy, it's been such a joy speaking with you. Thank you.

MAZZOLI: Thank you so much.

RATH: "Vespers" comes out on Tuesday. But until then, you can check out every track on the album for free at our exclusive First Listen. That's at nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISSY MAZZOLI ALBUM, "VESPERS FOR A NEW DARK AGE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.