Interlude: Life After Life | Missy Mazzoli’s Millennium Canticles

Published on December 9, 2023 by Maureen Buja       |      Share this post!

“…an interesting piece that seems to leave more questions than answers…”

American composer Missy Mazzoli (b. 1980) has been given the title of ‘Brooklyn’s post-millennial Mozart’ and in 2018, was one of the first two women commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera (the other composer commissioned was Jeanine Tesori). She attended the Yale School of Music, the Royal Conservatory in the Hague, and Boston University and is now on the faculty of Bard College.

Her 2022 work, Millennium Canticles, was commissioned by Chicago’s Third Coast Percussion to create a work ‘where a group of people strives to recreate the rituals and stories of human life after an apocalypse.’

The five parts seem to create their own ceremony, with titles that include words such as Psalm and Litany.

She opens with Famous Disaster Psalm, for wooden percussion and breathy voices. They count, they breathe, and have some dramatic moments of utter silence after a big in-draw of breath. We know something has happened but can only wait for it to be revealed.

More counting, more breathing, in The Doubter’s Litany, but now the numbers increase – up to 10! Metal percussion is added to the wooden sounds. Wood closes the movement.

The center of the work, Bloodied Bells, carries the sound of the guiro that ended Part II into Part III with the addition of clear, resonant bells. The bells transform into gongs, and then comes the lion’s roar – or is it an incoming storm? Mazzoli’s use of unusual percussion at telling moments of her work propels the story forward.

Part IV, Choir of the Holy Locusts, tells us something about this post-apocalyptical society. Insects, played by gongs and chimes, are the sounds around our lost people, and they use their percussion instruments to imitate the bugs’ sounds. At the same time, the momentum slows, and the voices return, now on textless syllables and then whistling and counting.

The final part, Survival Psalm, has the voices imitating the percussion (dig-ity-dum). The wood instruments return, but in a much more dramatic way than in the opening psalm.

We’re left, in the end, with a puzzle. What kind of new world have these percussionists found? What do they make of it? Do they repeat the mistakes of the past by developing disagreements and wars, or do the Holy Insects of Part IV have their place? It’s an interesting piece that seems to leave more questions than answers, but we’re always happy to see that music has a place in the future.

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