Ahead of the premiere of her double bass concerto with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Editor at Large Clive Paget interviewed American composer Missy Mazzoli about her career so far. Born in 1980 in Pennsylvania, Mazzoli has composed chamber, orchestral and operatic works, with her opera Breaking the Waves, an adaption of Lars von Trier’s film of the same name, a highlight in her varied output.

You grew up in rural Pennsylvania. How were you introduced to music and composition in particular?

I had a great piano teacher when I was very, and I just loved it. Looking back, it was very weird and obsessive but I thought whatever these people are doing who made this music, that’s what I need to do. And I became obsessed at a really young age and I found it really worked for me because I had so many other interests. Even when I was very young I was interested in poetry and visual art and theatre and I wanted to do everything. All creative fields – I wanted to do all of them – and composing allows you to do all of them.

Missy MazzoliMissy Mazzoli at home in Brooklyn. Photo © Marylene Mey

Who were the composers that excited you as a kid? 

I had only really had access to the hits when I was super young. It was whatever I was playing on piano, so Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Schumann. All the great geniuses, even though I hate that word, that’s what I was playing, that’s the only music that I knew.

When did you start getting interested in contemporary music and composers?

 It happened in stages. I went to school in Boston and studied composition from the beginning so had access to that community. Right after I left Boston I moved to Amsterdam to study with Louis Andriessen and that was very eye-opening, not just to work with him but he attracts a community of creative, strange people from all over the world. I was 21 when I lived there and had never been exposed to other kinds of music. Through that I learned a lot and then coming back to New York I connected with the Bang on a Can composers – David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon – and through them had access to the contemporary music community here.

Did you seek Andriessen out because you’d heard his music, or did the opportunity just come up?

I was very lucky because my teacher said, really offhand one day, “oh, he has a lot of American students, maybe you could go study with him.” And then I went home and did all this research and found out that there was this pipeline of people, of Americans who were going over to work with him for a year, two years or three years. And then I looked into his music and thought “this is amazing, this really resonates with me, I don’t understand all of it but there’s something in there I need to investigate.” And then the community was a kind of happy accident – I had no idea that he was drawing students from all over the world like that.

Are you still in touch with the people you met through him?

Yeah, I felt like I was there the perfect time. People like Kate Moore, an Australian composer, Andrew Hamilton who’s Irish, Matt Wright who’s from England, Pete Harden who’s English but still lives in the Netherlands… all these people that I don’t think that I would have had such a strong connection to their music without having lived there.

So what did you learn from working with Andriessen?

It really pushed me to develop my own voice. It sounds like a cliché, but that’s really what came out of it – having a much deeper understanding of the kind of music that was being made at the time in the world, not just in New York. And I stopped seeing America as the centre of the universe. You grow up in America and you haven’t travelled at all, that’s your whole world. So I became aware of what was going on in Paris versus what’s going on in Berlin, which is very different from what’s going on in Amsterdam. I had a more global perspective and a broader knowledge, but really it was about finding the things that made me super excited about writing music and just going really deep into investigating them. And Holland was a place, especially at that time, where you could indulge your weirdest ideas and you could find an audience and funding and support to do that.

You say ‘develop my own voice’. Are you able to describe what you think your voice is?

I’m probably the worst person in the world to describe what I’m actually doing because I’m trying to do something new with each piece and I’m so far inside of it that it’s like describing what you look like. It’s weird, it’s very hard to do.

There’s a lyricism in your writing that comes across very strongly and is immediately appealing. Is that something that has been a conscious choice? I don’t want to use the word ‘accessible’ but it does invite you in, in a way.

Yeah, thank you. That’s a huge compliment because that’s exactly what I’m trying to do. I’ve always been attracted to music that draws you in with something familiar and turns things around and surprises you. A lot of my work actually starts with harmony, and maybe that comes from being a pianist. I also love really dense textures, so a work that happens in a lot of layers. And I use very simple harmony but I combine chords in a way that’s hopefully new and interesting, so all my dissonance is created through consonance and through strange juxtapositions of different chords.

You talk about density, but the piece you wrote for Eighth Blackbird [Still Life with Avalanche], that’s incredibly delicate as well. I find that in all your work, there’s space between the layers in which you can sit. Is that something you’ve sought? Has your music changed over 15 years?

There are certain things that have been consistent, like this obsession with harmony and harmonic progression. An obsession with older music, which is something that I’m being a little more obvious with these days.

And the Vespers music is connected to that?

Exactly. In a lot of my music there’s some sort of connection to baroque music. I don’t know why that’s happening more and more lately, maybe because I’m studying more baroque music and I feel like I’m understanding it and finding a connection between baroque and contemporary music which is another thing that the Netherlands is great for because they have such a strong early music community. And so that has been a constant thread through my work.

I was talking to someone else the other day about what the main themes of my work are, and because I just listened to an interview with Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, who I love, and she’s very inspired by nature and physical landscapes and she talks a lot about the Icelandic landscape and my friends are like “are you inspired by nature?” and I say “no, not at all, I’m inspired by people”. It’s human stories that drive all of my work, even the purely instrumental work. And I see melodies and harmonies and different instrumentations as human forces that are working with each other or in opposition to each other, so I think that also adds to the layered quality, certain layers are working in opposition, certain layers are joining together to form a massive layer and I see that in very dramatic, narrative terms.

You speak confidently about your music. Have you always been confident in what you’re doing?

Oh my God, I started speaking confidently six months ago. I’m always a disaster when I have to start a new piece because there’s this pressure from the outside for composers that we have to reinvent the world with every new piece, and I don’t think that same pressure exists for visual artists. I see them working in series a lot, or you have a period of seven years where you’re doing similar stuff. And we have to create a whole new world with each work, so that’s very stressful. And also in America – maybe it’s all over the world, I don’t even know, I don’t want to pretend like I’m unique in this at all – but there’s just so much pressure and there’s no time and there’s no money. So you often feel like what you’re being asked to do is barely possible, so it can be a very stressful thing and I have only started speaking confidently in the last year since I made my opera Breaking the Waves, which was just so massive that when I was making it I said, if this ever happens this is going to be a miracle. And it happened and something in me switched where I was like, “wow, now everything else I do is not so stressful.” It’s kind of like the metaphor I always use, flying to Australia. Once you fly from New York to Australia, every other flight is so easy, it doesn’t take like 43 hours or however long it takes. And really I feel a shift in myself in the last year.

Breaking the Waves was obviously a breakthrough piece both creatively and in terms of international reception. Are there other pieces which you feel have been markers?

Sure. My first opera, Song from the Uproar, was a different kind of victory because that piece took me five years to write. Even though it was 70 minutes it took me five years, and I had all these other day jobs – I was working in a grocery store, working as an assistant for other composers. I was doing 10 different jobs and coming home at night and on the weekends and trying to write. So again the fact that that opera exists is also a miracle. And that really launched me into the opera world, so I feel very strongly about that work and I got to work with the amazing singer Abigail Fischer for that piece who has become a really good friend and the librettist Royce Vavrek. That piece was really the beginning of a lot of things.

A bunch of my orchestral pieces, like Sinfonia for Orbiting Spheres, which was originally a commission from LA Philharmonic, it was just done by the BBC Symphony. It has been a really important work for me and I tried a bunch of new things that paid off. And certainly working with people like Eighth Blackbird, Jennifer Koh, I wrote a solo piece for her a long time ago in 2009 that really worked out and has played all over the world. So you don’t quite know it when you’re writing it but it’s really these personal relationships with performers that make a piece feel big to me and these pieces that will launch me into a new phase of my career like Song from the Uproar.

Missy MazzoliMissy Mazzoli. Photo © Marylene Mey

In Australia, we have a system where what seems like an even number of girls and boys studying music composition reduces itself and you end up with more male composers. Is that something you recognised and one of the reasons you started Luna Lab?

Exactly. That’s the reason I started Luna Lab. Everyone always asks female composers why there aren’t more female composers. It’s a question that should be asked of men probably more than women but that’s another story. But for the last 10 years I’ve been going around the country giving masterclasses and teaching and I’ve never seen a 50/50 split, except for once at Curtis. But that’s the only time I’ve ever seen it be even close to 50/50 male and female. So I was asking the people who run these composition departments why there aren’t more women in the programme, and they said “well they just don’t apply”, so this told me, and this played out in my own experience as well, that something happens to girls when they’re 13, 14, 15, that discourages them from becoming composers. It’s like playing an instrument, you decide to go into this field super young in order to have a shot, to have a chance at being a professional, so I really felt like there needed to be some sort of support for very young composers. And I felt that the other half of the problem was that there weren’t enough prominent female role models on the other side. So it was a problem where we needed to address very young composers and also needed to provide older role models.

Luna Lab is a programme that does both. We are open to self-identifying female composers ages 13 to 19, and we connect all of them to a prominent female mentor in the field who gives bi-weekly Skype lessons, and the whole season culminates in June with a concert of the fellows’ works. They leave the programme armed with a great recording, and a person that they can talk to when it comes to all these things – applying to college, “someone said something mean to me and I don’t know how to process it” – so there’s someone to talk to, you don’t have to suffer and think “this field just isn’t for me”.

As a woman composer yourself, have you ever found it difficult to get on?

Yes. Absolutely. All the time. I think this happens to women in any field all the time. And sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on it because I’m not often behind the scenes when decisions are being made, but I do know that for myself, it happens most when you’re young, which is a shame because you don’t build up the defences. If somebody were to say something inappropriate to me now, that would not pan out well for them. But when I was 21, 22, I didn’t have anything to tell me that I was a good composer and it was really devastating, and it can just be a very toxic environment for women.

I’ve never had a female composition professor, most of the departments that I was a part of were all men. It’s a lonely profession still and I see the way decisions do get made and I think there’s this emphasis from men on potential and the emphasis for women on past experiences, which will never actually be enough. And I’ve run up against that and people have said, “well, you’re just not experienced enough in writing operas” and I say “well I’ve written three”. How many does one need to write before being given a shot? And I see young men given opportunities when they’ve written no operas. And they deserve them, but so do a lot of young women.

How did you come into contact with the Australian Chamber Orchestra?

I think they just contacted my publisher! Not a very exotic story. The ACO asked me if I would write a concerto to celebrate double bass player Maxime Bibeau’s 20th year, and I said yes, and then I was like “oh no, what have I done?” But I ended up really loving the instrumentation. Bass concertos are notoriously hard to write. It’s not usually a solo instrument and when you put an orchestra behind it, even a string orchestra, it’s so easily covered up.

All the inspiration came from Maxime himself. He came over and played through a bunch of stuff and then he told me about his bass. I love the human stories behind these things and became obsessed with this instrument made in 1580. It has wood from a Croatian pear tree but ended up in a monastery in Italy until the 1970s when it was rediscovered and refurbished. They patched the whole thing together with pages of literature about Good Friday! I knew I wanted to pursue the baroque style I’ve been investigating in other pieces, so the work goes in that direction but with a very strange 2017 slant.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra plays Missy Mazzoli’s Concerto for Double Bass, Dark with Excessive Bright, across Australia from February 1 to 16 as part of Tognetti Tchaikovsky Brahms.