Missy Mazzoli: “It’s so easy to create an idea of what my music is based on its labels… and they actually get in the way.”

Missy Mazzoli has been called “Brooklyn’s post-millennial Mozart” by Time Out New York.  She’s written work that’s been performed by The Detroit Symphony, New York City Opera, and Minnesota...

Missy Mazzoli has been called “Brooklyn’s post-millennial Mozart” by Time Out New York.  She’s written work that’s been performed by The Detroit Symphony, New York City Opera, and Minnesota Orchestra, among many [and many international] noteworthy others.  She’s currently working as Composer-in-Residence with Opera Philadelphia on an opera adaptation of Breaking the Waves… based on the film by my pretty-much-favorite-person-in-the-world, Lars von Trier.  For nearly a decade now she’s had her own ensemble, Victoire.  March 31st will see the release of Vespers for a New Dark Age, a project that she and Victoire took on with percussionist Glenn Kotche (best known as Wilco’s drummer), procuer Lorna Dune, and poet Matthew Zapruder, who leant his words to the project.  The project first came alive last February as a live performance at Carnegie Hall.  Missy and Victoire are currently preparing for yet another Carnegie Hall performance on March 22nd, although for a different piece of music.  I recently got a chance to chat with Ms. Mazzoli, who explained everything I – an interested onlooker who is admittedly far more well versed in the work of Johnny Thunders, John Lydon, and Kathleen Hanna than anyone who identifies as a composer – could hope to know about an artist whose work I fancy, but whose cross-sections of both genres and mediums I feel far from an authority on.

Izzy Cihak: You’ve worked on quite a few really cool and really big deal projects in recent years.  What have been the highlights for you?

Missy Mazzoli: Writing Song from the Uproar, my multi-media opera about Swiss explorer Isabelle Eberhardt, was a transformative experience.  My ideas for the project took root in 2007, and over the next five years I worked on it steadily in the cracks of time between day jobs and other commissions. When Beth Morrison Projects produced the show at The Kitchen in 2012 I felt this profound moment of arrival, a sense that my whole life had been a meandering path to the theater.  I’ve always had a thousand diverse interests that inform my music, from visual art to poetry to philosophy. Opera and theater combine all of these things, and the inherently collaborative nature of the work can lead to wild, unexpected artistic decisions.  Song from the Uproar led directly to Breaking the Waves, my current commission with Opera Philadelphia, and brought me out of my hermetic life into an artistic community of directors, set designers, artists, and librettists. Song from the Uproar will actually have productions this season at Da Camera in Houston, and next season at LA Opera, which is totally thrilling for me.

Izzy: And you’ve also received quite a bit of amazing critical acclaim.  Have you had any responses to your work that were especially meaningful for you, whether from critics or just fans? (If that’s even the kind of thing you think about…)

Missy: The most meaningful responses to my work inevitably come from fans. Just last week I received messages from a young man in Israel, a girl living in a remote part of Utah, and an aspiring young pianist from the UK.  The geography of that last sentence is very exciting for me!  I’m especially touched when young female composers single me out as an inspiration.  Women face obstacles in this field ranging from the mildly annoying to the severely limiting, and if I can serve as a role model to even a few women who have found their voice through music, I will have accomplished a major life goal.

Izzy: Your Vespers for a Dark Age album is about to be released.  How did this project come about? And is there anything that especially stood out about your Carnegie Hall performance a year ago?

Missy: Vespers for a New Dark Age started as a conversation with Glenn Kotche. Glenn is best known as the drummer in Wilco, but is also a brilliant composer and percussionist-at-large.  We met in 2009 and had talked about working together for years but were never in the same city long enough to make anything happen.  In 2013, Carnegie Hall approached me about creating a large work, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to make something with Glenn, my own ensemble, Victoire (a mix of strings, keyboards, clarinets, and electronics), and three singers with angelic voices: Mellissa Hughes, Virginia Warnken and Martha Cluver.  I knew I wanted to create a modern version of the Vespers prayer ritual, a huge, wild piece with invocations, repeated chants, and a mix of solo voices and choral singing.  Around this time I met poet Matthew Zapruder in San Francisco.  Matthew’s poems are vast and beautiful – they address the ways that we confront God, ghosts, memories, and technology, and seemed a perfect fit for a modern Vespers.  One line in particular, from his poem Korea, sealed the deal: “I know I belong / in this new dark age.”

I think when we were asked to play Carnegie Hall I expected the ghost of Judy Garland to pick me up at home and transport me there in a white helicopter piloted by David Bowie.  It felt that surreal.  And when we stepped out on stage it was almost like an out-of-body experience.  But in many ways it’s just like any other gig – we shlepped our keyboards over the Pulaski bridge, got stuck in traffic, worried about which shoes to wear – all of the usual concerns.  In addition to premiering Vespers, we played a beautiful work by Glenn called Bells and Honey, and Glenn performed the John Luther Adams piece Illimaq.  Then we dragged our instruments across Central Park and onto the subway.

Izzy: What do you consider to be your most significant influences, whether musical or otherwise?

Missy: My influences shift constantly, but this week I’m listening to Beethoven, Meredith Monk, Philip Glass, Purcell, John Luther Adams, Bach, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Beyoncé.  I’m also consistently inspired by the work of the directors Robert Wilson and Peter Sellars, the writers David Foster Wallace, Sheila Heti, Karen Russell, John Ashbery, and Farnoosh Fathi, and the visual artists Tauba Auerbach and Michael Woody.

Izzy: And is there anything that you think is especially important for people to know about you as an artist and your process of creating music?

Missy: My ideal listener would not know anything about me or my work.  It’s so easy to create an idea of what my music is based on its labels: classical, indie-classical, post-minimal, contemporary, chamber-pop, opera, orchestral, etc.  None of these words really tells you anything about how the music sounds or how you will feel about it, and they actually get in the way.  I spend half my time explaining why the work “is” or “is not” classical, why I’m a “composer” versus a “musician,” or how I feel about the term “indie”, and usually I’m just rambling.  There’s no real answer to those questions except maybe that I was an isolated kid who fell in love with classical music at an early age, and that I came to understand the world and all the art in it through the lens of that music.  Ideally listeners will just let themselves be absorbed into the work without trying to name it or contextualize it.

Izzy: You have a handful of upcoming live performances.  What can be expected of the experience?

Missy: Saturday March 22nd I return to Carnegie Hall with my ensemble, Victoire, to perform as part of a “Meredith Monk and Friends” concert, which is a real honor.  I’ve arranged two of Meredith’s pieces for the group.  We also have our CD release party on May 7th at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge, on a shared bill with guitarist/composer Noveller (aka Sarah Lipstate) and synth-pop chanteuse Glasser.  You can expect some exciting new collaborations with these amazing musicians, and the first full performance of Vespers since its premiere at Carnegie Hall. 

Izzy: And what’s next for you?  What are you currently working on?

Missy: I’m currently writing an opera called Breaking the Waves, a collaboration with librettist Royce Vavrek based on the 1996 film by Lars von Trier.  It will premiere at Opera Philadelphia in fall, 2016.  I grew up around Philadelphia, in Lansdale, and am really excited to return there to premiere my most ambitious work yet.

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During the day Izzy Cihak teaches transgression, subversion, and revolution at Temple University. At night he haunts Philthy's best venues to cover worthwhile acts for Philthy Mag. Morrissey is everything to him and, in their own heads, all of his friends see themselves as Zooey Deschanel.