Breaking Waves with Grammy-Nominated Composer Missy Mazzoli
As if achieving the title “Grammy-nominated” wasn’t enough of an accomplishment, American composer Missy Mazzoli has had absolutely no break in momentous projects.
From making history as one of the only two first women to be commissioned by New York’s Metropolitan Opera, debuting multiple critically acclaimed operas, acting as Composer-in-Residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and writing and performing music for Amazon TV show Mozart in the Jungle, Mazzoli has rightfully earned her pioneering place within her industry.
Now, she’s even devoting part of her limited hours fighting for gender balance and empowering the early generations of female and non-binary composers with her non-profit, Luna Composition Lab. With such achievements, it’s hard not to wonder what’s brought her here, and what’s next.
We took a moment with Missy Mazzoli to hear about her earliest inklings of musical inspiration, the sheer insanity of creating an opera, and her desire to democratise an industry not typically lauded for inclusivity.
How’s 2022 treating you so far?
This spring has been one of the busiest of my professional life, and I’m very grateful for consistent work in these crazy times! I had new compositions premiere with the National Symphony, Chicago Symphony, and the Cincinnati Symphony this spring, I made a record with the Arctic Philharmonic in northern Norway, was composer-in-residence at the Arctic Chamber Music Festival in Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost town, and my organization Luna Composition Lab (a mentorship program Ellen Reid and I started for female, non-binary and gender-nonconforming composers in their teens) hosted a massive festival in New York City this April. I’m exhausted but inspired.
Tell us what it was like growing up. Was music a big part of your childhood?
Yes and no – my parents are not musical at all, but when I was seven, they bought a piano at a flea market. This instrument soon became the centerpiece of my life, and I started writing music on it almost immediately. Music was a way to organize my chaotic thoughts, a way to center myself, and to be part of a community. When I was 14, I started playing guitar and bass in bands, mostly punk and hardcore, and joined the riot grrrl scene in Philly. These concerts had a huge impact on my politics and my friend group, and inspired me to double down on my commitment to a life in music.
You’ve often mentioned your obsession with Beethoven since you were young. How does his work or life affect what you do today?
When you don’t grow up in a musical household, every piece of music you discover feels like it belongs to you alone. I remember feeling this way about Beethoven’s piano sonatas and, later on, works like the Seventh Symphony and the Fourth Piano Concerto. I felt like these pieces existed for my ears only, and I would listen to them on constant repeat. I feel like the dynamic extremes, and certain harmonic progressions continue to be part of my music today.
Credit: Marylene Mey
Do you still remember the first thing you ever wrote?
Yes (laughs). When I was ten, I wrote a bunch of short piano pieces for myself to play. They were adorable.
How has the pandemic affected the way you view or create music?
Like everyone else, I was forced to slow down a lot during the pandemic and for almost two years was making music that only I heard. There was something very liberating about feeling like I was all alone with my work, and that time inspired me to take risks and try a lot of new things. In 2021, I wrote what I half-jokingly refer to as The Apocalyptic Triptych, a series of works about the end of the world, including my new Violin Concerto, a percussion quartet called “Millennium Canticles”, and a choir piece that’s loosely about the pandemic called “Year of Our Burning”.
Is there anything you can tell us about your latest upcoming opera, The Listeners? Where did you find your inspiration for the project?
The Listeners is a collaboration with playwright Jordan Tannahill, director Lileana Blain-Cruz, and my longtime collaborator librettist Royce Vavrek. It’s based on an original story by Jordan about a suburban cult that forms when some members of the community start to hear a mysterious humming noise that violently disrupts their lives. I love this story because it taps into so many of my obsessions – cults, strange noises, the draw of charismatic leaders, and the dark underbelly of seemingly normal suburban American towns. It will premiere at the Norwegian National Opera in Oslo this September.
What’s the best and most challenging aspect of composing an opera?
The most challenging part is the long, solitary timeline; often, I’m working alone on an opera for years before we enter the first rehearsal. The best part is watching my crazy visions come to life on stage and the collaborative nature of the genre. It’s like creating the largest, most elaborate music video ever and playing that out live in front of an audience!
How would you describe your music and sound?
I think I might be the worst person to ask, since I’m so inside of the work and actively trying to create work that resists easy categorization. That said, there have been some descriptions of my work over the years that I don’t hate, like “chamber pop”, “art pop”, “new classical”, “indie classical” …the list goes on. A friend of mine once called me a “sex and death” artist, which might be the most accurate description. My music sounds like sex and death.
There’s an impressive level of variety in what you do, working with TV/film, orchestras, and operas. Is there one you feel the most in your element in?
Hard question – I love all these different ways of working, and all for different reasons. But I think there’s something about the sheer insanity, the near impossibility, of creating a large theatrical work like an opera that I really love.
What is one project that you think best describes you and why?
My opera Breaking the Waves, based on the film by Lars von Trier, is very close to my heart. That one is sex and death to the extreme.
Credit: Marylene Mey
How does it feel to see the title “Grammy-nominated” next to your name?
It feels absolutely unreal, and I try not to get too caught up in awards and prizes. But, I will say that going to the Grammy ceremony in Los Angeles was one of the most fun nights ever. I literally bumped into Post Malone on the red carpet because we both showed up late and then ended up dancing late into the night at the afterparty, where both TLC and En Vogue were playing.
Tell us a little about Luna Composition Lab, your non-profit. What made you want to create something like this?
Luna Composition Lab is a non-profit organisation I started in 2016 with my good friend, composer Ellen Reid, to provide mentorship, performances, and community to female, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming composers ages 13 to 18. We were inspired to create this program to address what we see as some of the causes of the persistent gender imbalance in our field, like a lack of both encouragement at a young age and prominent female and non-binary role models.
It was also in response to dire statistics about women in music: as recently as 2018, prominent American orchestras had full seasons without any women on their program. We felt that we could use our connections in the industry to support and amplify the next generation of female, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming creators.
At Luna Lab, we connect five to six young composers a year with female and non-binary professionals in the field, and then we bring them all to New York each spring for a week of performances, masterclasses, and community-building events.
If power were no question, what would you most like to change about the industry?
I would like to eliminate the financial barriers to music education for children and teenagers. Classical music still leans heavy on the ‘class’ part, and many educational programs, concert tickets, summer festivals, etc., are prohibitively expensive for most kids.
Do you have a dream project or collaboration that you’d love to be a part of?
There are so many people I dream of working with. I’d love to write music for films by Céline Sciamma, Chloe Zhao, Kornél Mundruczó, and Yorgos Lanthimos. I’d love to work with the directors Romeo Castellucci and Robert Icke. I’d love to create a big immersive musical at the Park Avenue Armory and an opera for La Monnaie in Brussels.
What have you got planned for the rest of 2022?
I fly to Bergen, Norway to be Composer-in-Residence at the Bergen Festival, where I’ll premiere some new works and inaugurate Luna Lab Norway. My new opera The Listeners also premieres in Oslo this September. Between that I think I’ll try to have a life in Brooklyn.
What can you tell us about this playlist you’ve curated for Sound of Life?
I wanted to collect the works that were most inspiring to me this month. There are a lot of composers here who have influenced me since I was in my teens (Meredith Monk, Julius Eastman, Suzanne Ciani), some composers I got to know through my stint as Composer-in-Residence at the Chicago Symphony (Tomeka Reid, Wadada Leo Smith), and some friends (Qasim Naqvi, Jennifer Koh, Ellen Reid). As ‘palette cleansers’ I added three solo violin tracks from Jennifer Koh’s latest Grammy award-winning pandemic-era album Alone Together.
Listen to these specially curated tunes by Missy for Sound of Life.
Cover Credit: Caroline Tompkins
Writer | Kevin Yeoh
When he isn’t making sure Sound of Life stories are published in a timely manner, Kevin enjoys wandering aimlessly in Kuala Lumpur city, going down the YouTube rabbit hole and discovering new music.