by Jill Kimball
These 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.