Missy Mazzoli: Raising Vacillation to High Art

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Perhaps only an artist with Missy Mazzoli's self-evident clarity of purpose could have raised vacillation to an art form. Her early mentor Meredith Monk toys with handfuls of pitches, making slight variations, but playfully as well as meditatively. It's the tension created by the relentless forward motion of Mazzoli's music, that ticking pulse, that gives the music the sense of a choked-up faltering between pitches.

Mazzoli has been invited to write for artists and ensembles as prestigious as eighth blackbird, Jennifer Koh, the Kronos Quartet, and the Minnesota Orchestra, as well as her own peers on the New York scene, like NOW Ensemble and violist Nadia Sirota. She has also composed a multimedia monodrama, Song from the Uproar, based on the journals of 19th-century explorer Isabelle Eberhardt and accompanied by NOW.

But arguably her most celebrated work is the music composed for Victoire—she calls it her "bandsemble," a tongue-in-cheek but surprisingly useful coinage. Most new-music ensembles tend to demonstrate an inverse relationship between the flexibility of their instrumentation and the breadth of their musical focus—it's more like a rock band to be both dedicated to the music of a single composer, and to exploit a small, idiosyncratic collection of instruments.  The instrumentation is also halfway between chamber group and rock group: violin, clarinet, double bass, and two electric keyboards; amplified, with electronic accompaniment.

Even their image is striking, the publicity photos of five young women done up with old-fashioned glamor a wry evocation of a time when lady musicians would have been tolerated, rather than encouraged—and a subtle rebuke of the classical world's persistent patriarchy. The name "Victoire" evokes the soaring Roman warrior-goddess, Victory personified as a woman.

But the band's original name, "Victrola" (changed for legal reasons), might have been even more appropriate. The band's use of low-fi samples and old-fashioned keyboard patches look with nostalgia at old-fashioned musical technologies, even as their electroacoustic textures mark them as unmistakably contemporary; those electronics duel with the cafe-band sound of their live instruments; each tune's soaring melodies and hyper-expressive harmonies suggest fin-de-siècle sentimentality even as the rock-meets-minimalism pulse and glitchy beats ground the music in the present. The title of group's first album, Cathedral City, suggests a medieval European city's gothic architecture, but in fact describes a resort town located next door to Palm Springs and founded in 1981. Between past and future, pop and classical, Mazzoli hesitates—hovers—yet remains constantly in motion.