VAN Magazine: ‘Recordings for the End of Time’

Published on December 21, 2023 by Olivia Giovetti       |      Share this post!

“’Millennium Canticles’ is one of five new works on this high-octane recording from Third Coast…”

Are we still meant to be listening to music? This is something I’ve been struggling with over the last two-and-a-half months, even when I am, by virtue of my profession, actually meant to be listening to music. Either the political ramifications of a work start to become too foregrounded (try listening to Maria Callas in Cherubini’s “Medea” in this climate) or the chasm between what’s being played and what’s playing out in the real world feels too vast to bridge (which was, ironically, my experience of Peter Sellars’s refugee-“inspired” staging of Charpentier’s “Medée” at the Berlin Staatsoper). 

In New York for a reporting trip last week, I had the opportunity to ask about a dozen musicians living and working in the United States whether they thought that music still had a place in such a divided and divisive atmosphere. Without fail, each one said “yes.” Even if it was a qualified “yes,” I was taken aback by the stark optimism of the answer. To be honest, especially as both a Jew and an Arab-American living in Berlin these last few months, I’m not sure anymore. Though perhaps that’s the lingering aftertaste of Igor Levit’s hastily-recorded, opportunistically-timely new recording of Mendelssohn’s “Songs without Words,” released in response to the attacks of October 7 with a seemingly blithe disinterest in the layers of context such a project could entail. Perhaps this shouldn’t be our reply to violence.  

I don’t know if the following albums answer any of my questions. But here are five recordings that I didn’t get to include in VAN this year (until now), plus five highlights from this year of Stuff I’ve Been Hearing. 

“Between Breaths”

In Anne Washburn’s prophetic 2012 play, “Mr. Burns,” a group of post-nuclear-meltdown, post-pandemic survivors are gathered around a fire. Surrounded by the detritus of civilization following its recent collapse, they struggle to remember the plot to an episode of “The Simpsons.” (The episode in question is the Gilbert-and-Sullivan–tinged “Cape Feare.”) Adding insult to irony, Washburn first workshopped the piece in a rehearsal space that was actually a bank vault underneath Wall Street. This cultural touchstone becomes a new lingua franca among the survivors, who turn Sideshow Bob’s attempts to murder Bart Simpson into a work of Homeric or Greek tragic proportions that survives through generations of the post-apocalyptic landscape. Like the ancient Greeks, they have found a way of injecting meaning into their meaningless world. 

Missy Mazzoli’s “Millennium Canticles” takes its inspiration from “Mr. Burns,” refashioning the trajectory from ritualized storytelling into dramatic catharsis for the tireless quartet of Third Coast Percussion. A gasping pair of opening movements gives way to a more fluid form of storytelling that reaches full-throated redemption in the penultimate movement, “Choir of the Holy Locusts.” A final movement, “Survival Psalm,” is a more assured beginning to the cycle of storytelling. 

“Millennium Canticles” is one of five new works on this high-octane recording from Third Coast, and while it’s the most substantive work, the other works—especially Tyondai Braxton’s “Sunny X” and Gemma Peacocke’s “Death Wish” are far from slouches.

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