Cleveland Museum of Art
|Smart, challenging music from a fearless quintet.|
Experimental music is always a tough sell, as evinced by the small crowd that turned out for the Cleveland debut of Victoire. Beatles nostalgia? Three days of capacity crowds. Israeli fusion? A sellout. Cutting-edge classical from New York hipsters? Plenty of empty seats, and not even enough applause to merit an encore.
Which is too bad. Victoire is one of the most interesting contemporary ensembles in America, a self-described group of “musical misfits” who are breaking genuinely new ground. Founded by Missy Mazzoli, a 32-year old keyboard player and composer who studied with David Lang and Louis Andriessen, among others, the quintet employs elements from traditional chamber music, opera and indie rock, mixed with a wide variety of electronics and sound effects to create hypnotic soundscapes that defy categorization. For this performance they were joined by vocalist Mellissa Hughes, whose dreamy soprano lent an ethereal quality to the sound.
Experimental does not mean unstructured. While many of Victoire’s pieces sound chaotic, they are typically characterized by an introductory riff – a repeating electronic phrase or beat, a pulsing rhythm from the keyboards or strings, occasionally an abstract bass or vocal line – that provides the foundation for methodical layers of other sounds. The violin and clarinet drift in and out with melodies, or snatches of melodies; the bass pumps out a dissonant throb or long, low drones; keyboards burst into a sudden minimalist frenzy, or linger over soaring, celestial chords; random noises come and go – electronic clicks and pops, static, disembodied voices.
Making all that work together calls for talented players, and in that respect Victoire has impeccable credentials. Violinist Olivia De Prato is a classically trained chamber musician who has appeared at many modern music festivals and toured with Esperanza Spalding. Mellissa Hughes sings regularly with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and this season made her debut with the New York City Opera. Keyboard player Lorna Krier, bass player Eleonore Oppenheim and clarinetist Eileen Mack are all regulars on the New York modern music circuit. And along with composing the music and playing keyboard, Mazzoli will pick up a mini-accordion or melodica, or jump over to the laptop, to add colorful embellishments to the sound.
Much of the group’s 70-minute set at the Art Museum was drawn from their debut CD Cathedral City, and included a version of the title track grounded by the three classical instruments (violin, bass and clarinet) while the keyboards, electronics and voices skipped along to a techno beat. A Song for Arthur Russell also featured fine detail work by the violin and clarinet against an electronic background. Mazzoli’s Orizzonte for solo piano and electronics was the least interesting piece of the evening, an insubstantial work that never developed any momentum. A Thousand Tongues started with reverb effects from the keyboards and blossomed into a showcase piece for the entire ensemble, with smart dual lines from the violin and clarinet and impressive vocals by Hughes.
The audience seemed a bit shell-shocked by it all, applauding politely and then bolting for the exit doors. That’s not an unusual reaction by general listeners to specialized music, though it doesn’t say much for Cleveland, which likes to think of itself as a friendly Midwestern city with sophisticated East Coast tastes. Not this time.
CMA programmers Massoud Saidpour and Tom Welsh deserve a ton of credit for testing those boundaries – indeed, for a steady stream of exotic, first-rate performers in this year’s VIVA! & Gala series. And Mazzoli and company seemed to enjoy themselves, hopefully enough to come back. In an avant-garde venue with more volume and an appreciative audience, they would strike a very different note.
For more on Victoire and a sampling of their music: www.victoiremusic.com