I’ve spent a good part of today with “Vespers for a New Dark Age,” a new work from 34-year old Brooklyn-based composer Missy Mazzoli, and have mostly enjoyed it. Rather than give it full review here, I’ll simply describe it as a continuous cycle of eight pieces for high voices, chamber ensemble and electronics, composed in, for want of a better descriptor, a very up-to-date post-minimalist style. The coolest, if not necessarily most important, feature for me so far is the scoring for rock percussion, brilliantly played by Glenn Kotche of the band Wilco — if you’ll pardon the expression.
But there’s one thing that bums me about Mazzoli’s “Vespers”: I can’t make out the words.
And apparently, as you can read on the album’s Bandcamp page (from which I downloaded it in high quality audio but sans booklet) or at NPR Music, the words, by poet Matthew Zapruder, contribute plenty to the work’s meaning. Oh, I can make out individual words or phrases, but not nearly enough to make overall sense of the text.
And I can hear why: The singers were recorded more as part of the ensemble than as soloists, so are somewhat distanced from the listener. This distance is particularly hell on consonants, which tend to get sucked into the void. And though they hardly sound like typical vibrato-laden operatic sopranos, the singers are clearly classically trained. Thus, they place more emphasis on evenness and beauty of tone than enunciation, especially when they soar to their upper registers, as they frequently do. This causes distortion in the production of vowels, further obscuring their diction.
Perhaps Mazzoli intended this disembodied effect; I can’t say for sure. And of course, someone with the full CD or a concert program would be able to read the words in print, as one often has to do even with classical works in English.
But what fun is that? I mean, where and when was it decided that classical music, even contemporary classical music, required to listener to have his head buried in the printed page while listening? What a drag, one up with which I am increasingly unwilling to put.
For the marriage between words and music often provides the key to a vocal work’s deepest meaning. Who hasn’t thrilled to a sudden melodic leap or harmonic shift that illuminated a text so perfectly as to bring tears to your eyes? That certainly happened to me during this morning’s constitutional, which I accompanied with Sufjan Stevens’s beautiful new album “Carrie & Lowell” (review to appear soon). Would I have been as moved if I couldn’t make the words out and had to read them while listening? No way.
True, this is not just a pop vs. classical thing. Indeed, as may be the case with Mazzoli’s “Vespers,” the effect of obscured lyrics could sometimes be what the some contemporary pop artists had in mind, so their work should sometimes be judged accordingly.
But not always. There are plenty of albums whose verbosity would seem to be the secret to appreciating them, if only I could make out the damned words. Why would the artist take such care with his/her poetry, only to bury it in the mix? Funny how this effect never occured to Bessie, Bing, Ella, Frank, Hank, Tony, Elvis, Dylan, Bruce, Karen C. or the other immortals of American pop and jazz. Could you imagine Sinatra handing out a lyric sheet prior to a gig at the Sands? Fuhgeddaboudit!
So, add this to the list of things that classical music needs to confront if it’s going to appeal to new audiences, and that pop music should confront if it wants to be taken seriously as music. That is, if either music really cares about either problem.
(“Vespers for a New Dark Age” isn’t on Spotify yet, but you can stream and download it on Mazzoli’s Bandcamp page. If you have better luck with the words, let me know.)