Issue #40: Cathedral City by Victoire

October 31, 2016

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Cathedral City by Victoire
Released On September 28, 2010
Released By New Amsterdam Records

This Week’s Selection Chosen By Guest Contributor Nandi Rose Plunkett (of Half Waif)

When I first heard Victoire, I had yet to become friends with two of its members, Olivia de Prato and Lorna Krier. It was my first year in New York, my first year out of school, and I wanted to dig deep into everything around me. Having just graduated college with a degree in music (focusing on classical singing and contemporary classical composition) while simultaneously playing in an indie rock band, I cast my net wide and tuned into the various music scenes thrumming around the city. For me, Victoire’s Cathedral City nailed that sweet spot of classical composition and post-rock, electronic inventiveness. It’s music that is at once tangible and ephemeral. It infiltrates your blood stream while remaining hard to pin down — a unique universe that perfectly echoed that dark smudge of my first winter in Brooklyn.

It is the 7-minute track “The Diver” that most violently brings me back to stare in the face of my younger self. Listening to this song again, five years later, I am transported back to that icy evening and what was the beginning of so many things. I see myself stumbling off the subway, raw from an emotional encounter, with this song in my earbuds. My body collapses on the stoop, shaking from the cold, a cigarette wobbling in my unpracticed hands. Nicotine buzz under the harsh glare of the streetlight, the people at the pickle shop next door hauling out briny tubs onto the sidewalk. It is a cinematic moment that peaks just as the choir comes in at 4:50. With those voices intoning in a child-like way, I feel a surge of bony clarity: this is my story and I am the center of it, whether I like it or not. I feel old, small, a discarded thing amidst the secrets of the city. But I know now that I was so young and full then.

Victoire is the project of composer Missy Mazzoli and features a cast of extremely badass musicians — all of whom happen to be women. These women are my idols, and now some of them are my friends (an intoxicating perk of living in the same city as your favorite artists). They’ve collaborated with symphonies and rock stars (like Wilco’s Glenn Kotche), a testament to the flexibility of their style and the genius of their arrangements. And let’s talk about the arrangements for a second because I find that it is the choice of sounds that perhaps excites me most when listening to new music. They are incredible in their deception. At first, you hear the strings and the dissonant melodies and you think, “Okay. Here we go. Some heady classical instrumental stuff.” But while you know there’s a complex story being told, it’s not so intricate that you can’t tell what’s going on. Each instrument enters and it’s like a new beam of light cast upon a canvas. The sharp strings bisect the softly pulsing Wurlitzer, the clarinet shoots a hollow note that dissolves inside the fraying chords. The tunes are collage-like, lovingly crafted to meld spoken word samples (like on track 2, “I Am Coming For My Things“), rich woodwind burbles, Meredith Monk-style vocalizations, and skittering glitches. Noise and drone feel equally at home amongst pristine melodies, as on the closing of “A Song For Mick Kelly.”

As the first track tells you, this music is a door into the dark. Here is an offer to let some of the noise of the world mix with the quiet of yourself and see what erupts from that meeting.

Nandi Rose Plunkett (@halfwaif)
Demiurgic Post-Modern Artiste

Elegantly exploring the classical nature of gritty post-rock, expansive electronica, jarring glitch, and introspective ambience.

Well, I now have a new favorite OYR album. Cathedral City is absolutely incredible from start to finish. I actually didn’t want it to end. This one’s going to remain in my collection, and I’m actually going to do the right thing and purchase the retail version. Now, what makes this album so incredible? I don’t know. And that’s the point! I don’t know what to call this kind of music. It’s something completely foreign, but contains elements of many styles that I love. Here’s how my notes started for nearly every song: “Beautiful. Classical elements with Fender Rhodes. Definitely sampling this.” It’s kind of like jazz fusion in a way. If you’re not familiar with the genre, in the mid-to-late ’70s, many jazz artists began melding aspects of soul, R&B, blues, and disco into traditional jazz. The end result was some of the most fertile sampling material for modern hip hop producers. I feel like the dynamics at play here are similar, especially on “A Door Into The Dark” and “I Am Coming For My Things,” which are built on Rhodes chords, but come to life with stunning orchestral flourishes. “Like A Miracle” flexes some serious synth/programmed muscles, and “A Song For Mick Kelly” is so damn pretty I almost can’t comprehend what happened there. This is one album where I actually feel really shitty that I didn’t know about it before. But I guess that’s the entire point of what we’re doing here, no?

Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator

Having the privilege of covering Victoire this week is incredibly rewarding for me, personally as well as musically. They take roots in classical chamber music and weave in modern musical influences to create something so incredibly rich, full of musicality and beauty and surprise and detail. One might group them with musicians like Nico Muhly, yMusic, Olafur Arnalds, Gem Club, and Julia Holter who, in their own ways, bring western classical music into the 21st century — which, as a classical musician myself, is just about the most exciting and fulfilling listening experience I could have. Stuttering electronic vocal samples form the basis for “Like A Miracle” as a plaintive, wistful violin solo weaves in and out of the other instruments, the track bending and morphing constantly until it ends on a single note drone that leads into the longest and most complex composition, “The Diver.” It’s a grandiose, expansive production, but the highlights are the hocket sections with the clarinet and violin bouncing off each other, easily the most playful Victoire ever sounds here. “A Song For Mick Kelly” starts out as a simple drone and violin solo piece, but then the electric guitar chords enter and Victoire turns this classical trope on its head. The heavenly “A Song For Arthur Russell” features one of the most beautiful moments in the record, when all the instruments at Victoire’s disposal suddenly drop out into an angelic chorus of droning voices and synths, faint clarinet tremolos fading in and out from the side of the mix. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface here — suffice it to say that Cathedral City is a stunning record that whose brilliance can’t be contained in a single review, or fifteen reviews, for that matter. It’s a record that deserves to be heard and experienced for yourself.

David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer

I really should listen to this type of music more. Every time I put on this album, my mind fills with scenarios and plots and images. It reminds me of something that might be on the soundtrack of a movie that, despite its indie/artistic underpinnings, is essentially a spy thriller. But, like, a really smart spy thriller. I guess that sort of thing comes with the territory when you’re making instrumental music as well as Victoire do on this album. One thing I especially love is how it achieves its ultra-modern sound by combining various definition of “music from a by-gone era.” It’s this unique combination of what I only have the life experience to call “80’s video game synths” with an intense “string quartet” (actual number of string instruments may vary) sound that held my interest for the entirety of the album. I’m not generally one for predominantly instrumental albums, but this is a very notable exception. I fear that perhaps I’ve undersold this album. It’s intense, and it’s beautiful; it’s weird, and it’s exactly right.

James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts

Victoire is the second amazing band I’ve been introduced to in as many months from the label New Amsterdam. I caught Battle Trance, a saxophone quartet from Brooklyn, at Hopscotch Music Festival last month and was pleased to learn they shared a home that put out compositions by two of my favorite visionaries, Annie Clark and Shara Worden. After listening to Victoire all week, Missy Mazzoli is now on that list too. I grew up playing french horn in school symphonic band, later getting into 20th Century Classical and chamber music. It’s been awhile, but it was only a matter of time before I circled back around, and Victoire might be my ride back into this world.

PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man

Several weeks ago, we focused on Keaton Henson and his second record Birthdays and though I’m a huge fan of Henson’s work, I had actually skipped discussing his third record Romantic Works in my introduction. This is because it’s a completely instrumental album and far removed from his usual music. I listened to it once back in 2014 when it was released and decided it wasn’t for me. However, I’ve recently gone back and listened to it a couple of times and have a growing appreciation for it as a record. Lo’ and behold we have this week’s record by Victoire which treads a similar path. Now straight off the bat, I’ll admit Cathedral City is far, far superior to Romantic Works, but it was a good palate cleanser for this week’s choice. Cathedral City is brilliant. Like a beautifully crafted Swiss watch, there are so many different cogs turning at all times, so many small, nuanced layers, that I almost feel like I don’t have the ability to convey its triumph as a production. You get lost in its haunting beauty. It peaks and crashes, constantly unsettling you with violin, keyboards, and electronics. “The Diver” is my standout song, a seven-minute masterpiece of keyboard and violin that slowly builds and builds without ever really giving you the pay-off you anticipate. Victoire have this innate ability to keep you held on, to divert from the usual course, and take you in a whole different direction. I absolutely loved this record. This is the best thing I have listened to doing Off Your Radar, including my three record choices. I’m so far out of my wheelhouse when it comes to classical/instrumental music, but Victoire have produced something truly magnificent here. I can’t really explain the joy of how I feel listening to it. But then isn’t that what’s great about music? Those in-the-moment explosions of memories and feelings upon listening to something wonderful for the first time? Cathedral City has achieved all that and then some. My highest recommendation.

James Peart (@choccyr)
Fascinated Binger Of Musical Zeitgeist

Click below to watch the multiplex video for title track “Cathedral City.”

Arranged With expert cinematography that weaves and plaits as meticulously and beautifully as the music itself.

With the exception of Rachel’s, I haven’t been a huge fan of “songs without words” — what normal people would call “instrumentals” or “compositions.” Perhaps as someone who enjoys reading, I just connect to words more than sounds. But lately, my music taste showcases a new Melissa. One who appreciates Julianna Barwick and other experimental musicians. One who has discovered a new love for chamber music via the work of Missy Mizzoli, the composer behind Victoire’s Cathedral City. Since I mostly listen to pop/rock, I was surprised how much time I had to put in to finding the perfect venue for listening to Cathedral City. In the background at my day job wasn’t working for me — the intricacies were being lost through my shitty speakers and constant interruptions. While in the car, I tuned it out, like it was a podcast with too many ads. I ended up choosing headphones on my home computer, where each lovely violin’s bowing and keyboard’s hum were felt from my ears to my toes. Be prepared: this is a whole body listening experience. “A Song For Arthur Russell” has elements of the late, wonderful artist’s work within it — the staccato rhythms, the looped vocals, the way the sound bounces between speakers — and it’s the song that got to me the deepest, the fastest. Previously, just the thought of the phrase “electro-acoustic chamber music” was enough to make me feel ill, but Victoire’s Cathedral City has broken down my own prejudice. I’m starting to explore Mizzoli’s other fantastic work and the output of New Amsterdam Records (this William Brittelle track features Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak). I’m thrilled our guest contributor introduced me to something new that is already leading me on a musical rabbit hole.

Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ

I’ve lived with this album a long time, having bought it after a performance by Missy Mazzoli and Victoire at the River To River festival in summer 2011. Cathedral City is the music of intersections, crossing between ambient music, contemporary chamber music, and indie pop. These threads are not tied together, however, but allowed to drift apart and then weave together, creating a song of the unresolved. There’s a placid surface to these sounds, with the delicate violin, glassy keyboards, et cetera, but also an underlying tension, which made me think of the Frank O’Hara poem Meditations In An Emergency. The title hit home but the rest of his piece didn’t quite fit so I began rifling through my poetry collection to see what words might do Catherdral City justice. Wallace Stevens saved the day with his wonderful (and seasonally appropriate) Autumn Refrain: “The skreak and skritter of evening gone / And grackles gone and sorrows of the sun, / The sorrows of sun, too, gone . . . the moon and moon, / The yellow moon of words about the nightingale / In measureless measures, not a bird for me / But the name of a bird and the name of a nameless air / I have never — shall never hear. And yet beneath / The stillness that comes to me out of this, beneath / The stillness of everything gone, and being still, / Being and sitting still, something resides, / Some skreaking and skrittering residuum, / And grates these evasions of the nightingale / Though I have never – shall never hear that bird. / And the stillness is in the key, all of it is, / The stillness is all in the key of that desolate song.” And if you want to hear more amazing streak, skritter, and desolate songs, check out Missy Mazzoli’s most recent album, Vespers For A New Dark Age – it’s a masterpiece.

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore

This is a very welcome selection given the season (alongside the Stranger Things soundtrack), but I’m confident that it would stand up within whatever context you impress upon it. It’s sweeping. It’s intimate. It’s a stunningly amalgamous album, forged from classical and modern roots — delicate, but not fussy and far from feeling antiquated. From the first few bars of Rhodes piano to the arrival of string and woodwind passages, I could sense what was ahead, and I was neither betrayed nor disappointed. The elegant collision that ensues is so similar to what I experienced when first encountering the work of Max Richter (primarily The Blue Notebooks, but also Memoryhouse). Elegant, intriguing, the lovely patina of memory and deterioration. This piece should be approached as one walks into a waterfall, no hesitation, no overthinking. Let it fall. And so this becomes a cherished piece of its kind in my collection. I have really come to appreciate sonic spaces that tend to enrichen my environment, rather than dominate it. A great introduction perhaps to the value of instrumental and score-like music. If this path finds favor with you, I leave these clues from my own journey to analogous and/or related waterfalls: Big Ears Festival, Múm, The Books, Do Make Say Think, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Nobukazu Takemura, Aniima, Arthur Russell, Efterklang, The Clogs. To explain away would lessen the surprise and delight.

Matt Klimas (@nearcticfauna)
Surveyor Of All Things Fuzz

Missy Mazzoli, the creative force behind Victorie’s astonishing composite sound.

I like to go into these things blind, and usually that’s not really a big deal. It’s pretty easy to get at least a basic and usually an intermediate context for any record anyone will recommend to you in 2016 — rock, rap, and R&B are all such commonplace cultural touchstones that we’re all ready to show a more than passing familiarity with any record that falls even remotely under one or more of these umbrella categories. The thing about Victoire’s Cathedral City is that it doesn’t fall under any of those umbrellas. Instead, it’s a hypnotic head-trip of an album, one mostly based on droning, slowly evolving string arrangements that seem more like something that’s evolved out of classical music than anything else. It’s really tough for me to interface with that kind of thing, as classical of all types tends to be some shit I know nothing about. But I do hear some avant-garde reference points here that pull me in, help me derive context without engaging in extensive research. The voices lurking under the mix in “I Am Coming For My Things” — a woman repeating the title, a man responding “I’m hanging up now” — make me think of Steve Reich, and his confrontational minimalist compositions of the ’60s (most famously “Come Out“). Meanwhile, the violins and cellos (I think that’s what I’m hearing) themselves remind me of the post-hardcore (members of Rodan and Shellac!) chamber music orchestra Rachel’s — their conceptually fascinating double vinyl magnum opus The Sea And The Bells in particular. At other moments, I hear stringed instruments recreating the same sort of jazz-derived exploratory textures that saxophonist Colin Stetson knocked me out with several years ago on his album New History Warfare Vol 3: To Bring More Light. At times, programmed digital sounds take over, evoking minimalist electronic experimentation that has drifted down to me from the most experimental edges of the techno/drum & bass world (think The Orb at their weirdest, or maybe Aphex Twin in his more confounding moments). And there are even moments in which I find myself thinking of the long, foreboding buildups of Godspeed You! Black Emperor or A Silver Mt. Zion — though these bands’ post-rock crescendos are nowhere to be found. That’s probably for the best, as what Victoire are mainly creating here is an overwhelming atmosphere that would only be disturbed by intense dynamic shifts. They are generating a sonic environment through layering of classical and electronic instruments that, rather than being married to any one genre, are exploring the full dynamic range of music itself. From slowly shifting string textures to repetitive programmed patterns, Victoire use every tool in their toolbox to overwhelm you with powerful moods. Dark, disturbing, and beautiful, this is an album that will require multiple deep, immersive dives in order to truly understand. I’ll bring the scuba gear.

Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground

Earlier this year, while in Chicago for a wedding, I came across a copy of Max Richter’s Songs From Before while at record store called Dusty Groove. It was the first time I’d seen one of his albums in person, despite the fact that I always look for Richter records in stores’ classical sections. I’d started to think I was looking in the wrong genre, and Cathedral City occupies a similar middle ground — classical instrumentation and composition alongside electronic elements, the past and present colliding and coexisting. But here’s the (seriously ironic, I think) thing: The more innovators like Richter and Victoire point to a future where divisions between musical eras disappear, the more interesting time becomes. A healthy amount of reverb on the strings adds poignancy throughout Cathedral City, so harshly voiced violin notes immediately feel like they’re connected to some painful historical narrative. (World War II kept jumping to the front of my mind.) And the album’s dissonant turns often register as mournful; “I Am Coming For My Things” felt especially retrospective to me, with vocals that communicate both regret and detachment, like they’re being delivered by a ghost who was marooned by an emotion it can no longer feel. (Happy Halloween, y’all!) There are musical ghosts, too — “A Door Into The Dark” lets you fall for intense, layered melodies that vanish with about a minute left, leaving you with plenty of time to ponder their absence. That layer-stripping coda tactic isn’t new, but it’s widespread in beat-based forms like EDM and hip hop, and it reminds me of a poker player showing winning cards after everyone else folded. Here’s how I did it. I talked last week about seeing postmodernism everywhere I look, and in that sense, I see it here as well. And I see myself listening to Cathedral City many, many more times.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

Halloween was on television last night, something that makes sense considering the season. After every viewing, I’m reminded why it’s considered one of the greatest horror films of all time. One of the huge selling points is the iconic score. John Carpenter was able to create voicings for each character and moment throughout the film. I bring this up, because I get similar chills while listening to Victoire’s Cathedral City. On each of the eight compositions, I immediately envision these songs feeling right at home within a dystopian science-fiction epic. As our protagonist stares over the wasteland ahead of them, they push themselves a little bit further to survive while “A Song For Mick Kelly” plays in the foreground. Perhaps in this case, our protagonist is the science-fiction version of the character from The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. The titular track could be set to a societal separation where the wealthy loom high above in the cities built to resemble cathedrals. And much like the song dedicated to Mick Kelly, “A Song For Arthur Russell” is not only an ode to avant-garde composer, it’s a fitting tribute to the legacy he left behind in the post-classical landscapes that Victoire occupy along with the realities they evoke in each composition. Cathedral City is the kind of record that you sink into and it unravels a unique imagination within every listener. Considering this was released in 2010, it’s even more impressive, especially when you consider the impacts that compositions by projects like Disasterpeace (It Follows) and S U R V I V E (Stranger Things) have had in recent years, it only makes me want to delve deeper into the catalog of Victoire to see what followed this impressive debut.

Shannon Cleary (@thatssocleary)
Musical Explorer Of All Angles

The first year I could choose my Halloween costume, I went with Vanna White; for the next nine years, though, I was some kind of witch. Never pretty, never fanciful, year after year I asked for craggy skin, giant moles, black fingernails, spiderwebs in my hair. An early conviction that I was probably telepathic or clairvoyant grew into an adolescent obsession with the occult that saw me pouring over books deep in the library and conning a Blockbuster employee into renting me stuff like The Craft and Rosemary’s Baby. One of the first ‘real’ piano pieces I learned to play was Chopin’s “Prelude In E Minor,” and I would sit in the near dark, dropping weight down onto those keys with all the sincerity and solitude a thirteen-year-old could muster in her parents’ living room. From the first track off Cathedral City, I was taken back to that time. Evocative, eerie without feeling dangerous, this is not an album so much as it is a mood, a feeling. Heavy, but not dark, gothic, but not pretentious, this album would be perfect for creating the kind of work that asks you to reach back into memories of feelings hard lived but long passed. At no point does this music feel sad, as Victoire does an astounding job of riding that line without falling into a self-aware kind of effect. Had this been written before 2010, the witchy teenage me who practiced so hard to move a spoon off the tabletop and wandered the woods with a plant guide, determined to find yarrow and sassafras and whatever else Alabama could offer up to a burgeoning pagan, I would have played this out into the trees. Sadly, back then the best I could do was to play a Spooky Sounds Halloween tape through the headphones of my Walkman.

Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite

For music, it’s about the heart and mind. There are the albums that make you experience life, and the albums that make you ponder the intricacies of it. There are those that bombard you with emotions, and those that perplex you with quandaries. Those that illuminate, and those that educate. Neither is above the other, each with their own benefits and drawback. Often, records that lean on one aspect invariably end up leading the other around. You start to see brilliant patterns in music that make your heart swell. You find the abstract beauty in a concrete statement of a song. The triumph of Cathedral City is its ability to equally satisfy and occupy both the heart and mind, in different and often contradictory manners. Use “The Diver” as an example. Tense, brooding, and ever-sprawling, it’s a composition that bewilders the listener with fleeing moments of light. Confusion sets in when familiar and whimsical melodies pop up as the background pushes harder, while at the same time, the listener is connecting the dots. You begin to predict where the strings go, or how the atmosphere will further unfold. When something unexpected happens, like introduction of choral voices, you’re left wondering why you didn’t see it coming, and begin looking for patterns and clues even more diligently than you were before. Your heart, tense and clouded. Your mind, intrigued and flummoxed. The music of Victorie allows you the opportunity to experience music in both areas, with vastly different results awaiting you each time. Even when the two briefly coalesce, like in the more jarring moments of “I Am Coming For My Things,” it’s still mind and heart existing in their own separate spaces. This makes the praise and adulation worthy from both objective and subjective standpoints, a feat harder than ever to accomplish these days. More importantly, it reveals Missy Mazzol and her dexterous bandmates as not only musical geniuses, but symphonic visionaries, truly without equal.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

Next Week’s Selection:
Unisex by Blueboy
Chosen By Matt Klimas

Off Your Radar Newsletter

Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: James Anderson, Josh Buck, Laura Burroughs, Shannon Cleary, Andrew Cothern, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Matt Green, Davy Jones, Matt Klimas, Melissa Koch, David Munro, Drew Necci, James Peart, Jeremy Shatan, & PJ Sykes

Logo By Matt Klimas


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