Brooklyn-based composer Missy Mazzoli founded the quintet Victoire to perform her compositions, and their full-length debut demonstrates what happens when talented musicians take the time to develop their craft. Last year’s debut EP Door Into the Dark was good, but the time since has paid off in the fantastic Cathedral City. The release has an overall sense of coherence and relevance, is dynamic and sophisticated, yet resists simple classification. In short, it is very New York.
The group is in some ways reminiscent of New York’s downtown “new-music” scene, for what little that means. That is to say, elements of electronics, both in sounds and sampling, are effortlessly blended with more traditional classical instruments and techniques while employing pulses and rhythms associated with (post?) minimalism. Though the music is composed—that is, scored and notated—it also retains a refreshing sense of energy and spontaneity. The quintet blends keyboards, clarinet, double bass, and strings with electronics and, at times, glitchy vocals, often oscillating between blurring and using the distinctions in sonorities to create tension. Victoire makes use of ambience and tone in a way that is reminiscent of post-rock in the vein of Rachel’s as much as it is reminiscent of modern classical artists like Nico Muhly or Redhooker. Such comparisons, however, don’t do justice to the originality of the outfit.
Each of the four tracks from last year’s EP appears on this record, in new and improved form. Their order has changed somewhat, and they are remarkably well integrated with the new material, giving Cathedral City a sense of overall unity. The vocal tracks employ the voice as just another instrument, but to great effect, expertly working with the distinct tones of the quintet. The keyboards, which make use of warm, analogue-sounding tones, generally provide the ground on which the compositions are constructed, often playing deceptively simple patterns that actually drive the songs rhythmically. If I’m not mistaken, the upright bass is mostly bowed, contributing to the percussion while creating a low sustain that bridges the other tones, and contributing to the cozy haze. The eponymous track is perhaps the finest example of incorporating voice, and is also noteworthy for its explicit use of electronic rhythms. The glitchy vocal-like synths of “Like a Miracle” and other similar effects keep “Cathedral City” from seeming out of place. One of the greatest examples of the successful interplay between the elements is “i am coming for my things.” The bowed staccato notes of the double bass play against the flurry of high-note violin flying overhead, while the clarinet’s long, soothing tones play against the keyboards and occasional sampled phrases of text; the composition expertly builds emotional tension and then deconstructs it, only to do it again. In fact, most any song on the album can demonstrate this achievement, with no obvious weak spots. This is the strength of the ensemble and Mazzoli’s compositional power, operating on the level of affect and emotion while also benefiting from contemplative listening.
The invocation of indie rock has gladly been overstated, but one can hope that such press will help to attract the attention this group rightly deserves. A large audience can certainly come to appreciate music this beautiful. The involvement of Bryce Dessner should also hint at the high quality of the act. Dessner is primarily known as the guitarist of The National and the co-founder of Brassland Records, but he has also made a name for himself as a rock musician who can play contemporary classical music. He’s a co-founder of the crossover group Clogs and a collaborator with greats from Steve Reich to the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Dessner’s guitar figures prominently in “A Song for Mick”—which, I presume, is about the young girl who dreams of buying a piano in Carson McCuller’s novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, not the British footballer—where it produces a wave of lovely chords that still resists being categorized as “indie” despite the instrument’s strong association. In addition to Dessner, the album also features contributions from double-bass player Florent Ghys and soprano Melissa Hughes.
Like much of New Amsterdam’s catalogue, Victoire’s debut deserves to be heard by as diverse an audience as the influences they bring to bear.