Vesper Sparrow (2012)
For chamber choir
At the first moment I heard Missy Mazzoly’s Vesper Sparrow, I was immediately attracted by the way the voices evoked the sounds of nature. As its title suggests, the purpose of this piece is to represent the vesper sparrow´s song. The bird sings from the top of a bush, or another high place to demarcate its territory. Its song begins with two pairs of repeated notes and ends with a series of guttural trills. This pattern can be heard throughout most of the piece.
The texture is polyphonic most of the time, but there are homophonic moments in the beginning, middle, and closing sections. This variety of textures, plus the timbres and colors created by the combination of syllables and vowel shapes in different voices, envelops the listener in a relaxing and satisfying sonic environment. Each section of the choir has a role. The melody is primarily carried by the sopranos, who introduce a rhythmic motive that is later echoed by the other sections. The bass section acts as an accompaniment, forming chords in imitation of the bird’s guttural sounds during climactic moments of the piece. The alto section acts as harmonic and melodic support for the soprano and bass. The tenors have the same role as the altos, in addition to taking over the melody from the sopranos in certain sections of the piece.
It is difficult to establish the style of this piece because its structure isn’t obvious. When I heard the music for the first time, it gave me the impression that there was no tonal center, or that these were changes between tonal centers. However, as it developed further, it was easy to identify a tonal center and harmonic functions.
Talking about the elaborate choral voicing is essential. Having listened to the work several times I only find two possibilities: SSAATTBB or SSAATBBB. I arrived at these formations by taking into account the colors and timbres present in the work. I am inclined to hear it as an SSAATBBB arrangement, due to the predominance of the bass in the male voice, which serves as accompaniment to the melody carried by the sopranos and tenors. Although this formation (SSAATBBB) is not typical in traditional choral arrangements (since it can cause balance and blend issues between choir sections), in this piece there is a perfect balance between sections. Several points help to identify a choir with perfect balance. The shape of the vowels, the onset of the notes, and the number of members in the choir are in my opinion the essential points for a good balance and blend. Other important points are the coordination of breaths and the use of consonants, among others.
I do not find this piece strongly connected with western music traditions. However, there are specific characteristics, such as the pursuit of a tonal center and functional harmonies which are related to the practices of western music. The use of the tenor and alto voices as support and as harmonic connectors, the bass as an accompaniment, and the soprano as the main melody are directly related to the traditional practices of western music. These characteristics reminds me some on Johannes Brahms´ works. The use of baroque era practices but adding new compositional techniques gives Missy Mazzoli’s work the best of both sides, old and new.
Alejandro Carrillo Pastrana