Victoire’s darkly lovely Cathedral City starts with hushed electric piano, then burst open darkly with snaking, intertwined violin and clarinet lines. That description reveals very little of how much this recording makes me think of Radiohead’s Kid A, in all the best ways (for a companion discussion of this, and the usual context, see my ClassicalTV piece “On The Myth of ‘Difficult’ Music“). Victoire is composer Missy Mazzoli’s band, and considering what that word means in a classical context tells us a great deal about what alt-classical actually is. Call them a band, a chamber ensemble, it’s all the same in the end, a small ensemble of mixed acoustic and electric instruments, playing music written by the composer. Call that music pieces, or tracks or songs, again it’s all the same, even though there is no singing and the music doesn’t follow the form of any kind of popular song. The same is true for much of Kid A.
The music does a lot of singing, though, some of it coming from Mazzoli’s opera Songs From The Uproar, material she rearranged for the band, and that long, singing quality is there in the clarinet and violin on “A Door Into The Dark” and “I Am Coming For My Things,” the latter enhanced with electronics that create a social time and place in the mind’s ear. The reedy, rasping sounds of the lead instruments could almost be Thom Yorke in moments when the mind loses its place in the current of time and finds a singularity in personal history and imagination. Mazzoli is one of the most interesting composers of her generation; she uses the repetitive processes of post-Minimalism in the sensible cause of rhythm, not overall form and structure, she is intuitive and natural in the way she uses elements of rock and electronic music and sound, and she has rediscovered the eternal importance and pleasure of harmony, especially in the stimulation of pressing a dissonant leading tone against a set of moving chords for an extended duration as the note waits for the rest of the music to catch up. Like the groined vault, it’s an ancient idea that remains with us because it works.
So, this material and these devices, which are completely classical in nature, still sound like instrumental pop music when played by this band, with the familiar colors and sonic quality of pop and rock music. If anything decodes the nature and style of alt-classical, it is this recording. Half of it appeared last year as the fine Door Into The Dark EP, available only through eMusic. The additional material is as good; “The Diver” and “A Song For Mick Kelley” are especially gorgeous and engrossing. “A Song For Arthur Russell,” on both recordings, has held up less well, circling around its introduction and too reluctant to explore the possibilities of its own material, but the concluding “India Whisky” adds an exuberance to Mazzoli’s already considerable music. Along with her technical skills, she has the particular and personal qualities of allusiveness and elusiveness; the emotional expression is provocative without being strictly defined and thus limit its staying power, and the structures flow like chilled quicksilver through clear but seemingly unbounded sections, beguiling us onward.
If you hit the ClassicalTV link above, you also read about Sarah Kirkland Snider’s upcoming (October 26) debut release, Penelope . This is confirmed contemporary classical musical, with the features of a musical and personal appeal to a more popular (alt) and specifically an “alt” or indie audience. The work is a song cycle with text by playwright Ellen McLaughlin, a variation on the Odyssey in which Penelope, her husband returned and psychologically damaged from twenty years of war, reads to him from Homer’s work, to restore his mind. The overwhelmingly moving concept is balanced by clear, concentrated and undemonstrative writing of both the words and the music.
Snider’s writing emphasizes that clarity, both of sound and thought. She already has made the crucial and admirable decision to set such text, and she reveals it with sympathy and trust that we will hear and respond, deeply, in our own way. It’s almost dogmatically non-Romantic, but still full of warmth and feeling. It tells the story of a story-telling, with the two most fundamental acts of human civilization it makes an attempt at redeeming the savagery of human society. That we listen and do not solve this problem, but listen still, is a mark of its success.
Penelope in this work is Shara Worden, of My Brightest Diamond, and her presence will likely draw her fans. They will hear her sing with an appealing, natural delicacy, her voice in her throat and chest, the places where one reads aloud. She handles the non-pop song phrasing with ease, breathing where the words and music land, not after every two or four bars. Snider sets the words in a flowing, horizontal manner; the harmonic transparency and rhythmic phrases keep point and purpose at the forefront while the piece moves deliberately and determinedly through time. It’s a musical sound that will appeal across classical and popular audiences alike (easily commanding playing from Signal and conductor Brad Lubman). The results are powerfully elegiac but not hopeless. Penelope does not settle on a complete, clichéd resolution, but offers the evidence that proves the possibilities of humanity.