Album Review: Mazzoli’s “Dark Age

On March 31, Amazon announced its newest innovation: Amazon Dash, a button allowing consumers to purchase basic household necessities — Tide detergent, Kraft mac and cheese, etc. — with just one press. Ian Crouch from The New Yorker responded to the unveiling by predicting “the real dystopia: not that our daily lives could be reduced to a state of constant shopping, but that we might ever have to, even for a moment, stop shopping.”

Does Amazon Dash imply that the moments in which we fail to express our faith toward our most trusted commercial institutions disturb us more than the prospect of giving up our relative capitalistic freedom?

Missy Mazzoli’s new album, “Vespers for a New Dark Age,” also released on March 31 by New Amsterdam Records, examines similar issues of faith, freedom and technology, predicting — through Matthew Zapruder’s 2010 poetry — that “the new technologies cannot make us both more loyal and free.”

Mazzoli, a young composer based in Brooklyn, wrote the work for her new-music chamber group Victoire, Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, and vocalists Mellissa Hughes, Martha Culver and Virginia Warnken. Culver and Warnken were last seen on the Lawrence campus performing with the vocal octet, Roomful of Teeth.

The album also features a second work by Mazzoli for Victoire, “A Thousand Tongues,” remixed by Victoire member Lorna Dune.

“Vespers for a New Dark Age,” an eight song composition, takes up the bulk of the album. The songs evoke a traditional evening Catholic prayer service; the album’s Bandcamp notes explain that Mazzoli intends to explore the intersection between technology and the “archaic formality of religious services.”

In the first moments of the piece, Kotche’s sharp, dissonant bells interrupt directionless strings and electronics, as if calling us to service, waking us from a lulling stasis. Whether those bells awaken us to freedom from technology or to a heightened connection to consumerist machines is an ambiguity that lingers even after the work ends.

Mazzoli’s composition becomes most audibly vesper-like in moments that suggest the sounds of a church organ or centuries-old hymnal conventions — by way of drone-like patches and inexplicably familiar harmonies, respectively. The work also suggests a religious service in its formal rigidity, with pairs of songs separated by interludes remixed from previous material.

In the first interlude, repetitive, pulsing strings — sampled from the first song, “Wayward Free Radical Dreams” — swim from left to right, suggesting a meditative, even hypnotic atmosphere. Rather than the opening’s stasis, however, this hypnosis might mean to lull us into contemplation.

If Mazzoli means for us to meditate on her and Zapruder’s “sermon” in the interludes and postlude, then she also means for our thoughts to remain in check with the music throughout the work. This aspect of ritualistic rigidity may arise from her rhythmic approach, especially in Kotche’s beat-driven time-keeping.

Even in the postlude, when harmonies and sonorities — as well as the previous movement’s conclusive lyrics — suggest a sense of musical freedom and even technological rapture; bright, repetitive samples cause us to end the work in her tempo.

The one aspect of this album that remains somewhat free from rigidity is the clarity of the text as sung by Hughes, Culver and Warnken. They frequently choose lush vocal textures over intensity of text, causing the words to blur behind overwhelming harmonies and busy textures.

Although the work evokes religious structures and impending technological doom, there is something so routine about the entire experience. The title may point to that doom, that “Dark Age,” but it is a situation we’ve faced before, “a new Dark Age,” just another end-times story.

The vocalists often return to the line, “Come on all you ghosts,” a line that is both supernatural and fatiguing. The presence of that “come on” suggests that, even if we feel our march toward an age of mindless self-indulgence — as Zapruder puts it, “I need things no one can buy and I don’t even know what they are” — is propulsive in its progress, there actually remains something humanly, and pathetically, lethargic about that march.

Our wayward imaginations will dream up more and more intrusive and enticing technologies, à la Amazon Dash. Either the new lords in Mazzoli’s composition will drag us along, or we’ll pull ourselves through our own dull self-serving interests. We may not recognize whether we choose loyalty or freedom, but we may just convince ourselves, “I know I belong in this new dark age.”

 

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