The Rumpus Interview with Missy Mazzoli


Missy Mazzoli challenges the barriers that historically have kept newly composed classical music away from the ears of many music and arts lovers. Her work is part of a movement that connects not only with traditional classical musical outlets but also with the world of clubs, bars, and galleries. She is currently composer-in-residence at Opera Philadelphia and Gotham Chamber Opera, and in 2012 was composer/educator-in-residence at the Albany Symphony. Her band Victoire makes appearances regularly in venues such as Le Poisson Rouge and Roulette in New York, and will appear on July 13, 2013, at the Austin Chamber Music Festival in Austin, Texas.

We talked to Mazzoli about the sometimes invisible world of new classical music, her relation to it, and what she’s doing to help to redefine what it means to be a composer in the 21st century.


The Rumpus: Do you think there has ever been such a thing as “common practice,” and if so, is there one today in the United States?

Mazzoli: Well, I don’t think that those things ever truly existed in the way that we like to believe that they do, the way we learn about them in music history class. Those things are defined at least decades after they happen. And even then, it’s a fallacy because when you’re in the moment, when you’re in a thriving scene of musicians, inevitably everyone is going to be doing something completely different from everyone else. It’s only when it’s smoothed out by history and we try to make sense of it—this incredibly complicated period when everyone’s doing something different every day—that we look for those stylistic similarities and we say, “Well, that’s what that was about,” and sort of forget all the other nuance. I definitely feel that that’s true for this time in my community of artists, and I’m sure that it was true at other times too.

Rumpus: My second question follows from the first one: Do you think of your music as being part of a larger stream? In other words, even though there might not be a common practice, do you feel that when an artist working in another medium hears music of yours, they can connect your music to the music of your contemporaries?

Mazzoli: There are some superficial things that connect me to the stream. There’s instrumentation, there’s timbre, use of electronics, the way that samples are used, the way the electric guitar is used. I’m thinking of things that are particular to this era. But I don’t always feel particularly close to the music of my peers. I often feel that I have more in common with writers and visual artists. I try to connect to people in an emotional kind of way.

Rumpus: When someone goes to a concert, it seems to be better if that person has some kind of expectation and can connect that expectation to what he or she is listening to, rather than to go in without a clue. So the question is: What are the clues? I guess what you’re saying is, don’t worry about other musical clues. Just think about what’s going on in the world of the arts in general and maybe even in the world in general. Does that make sense?

Mazzoli: Yes. I don’t think anyone listening to my music needs any special knowledge. They don’t need to have a background in contemporary music. They don’t need to go to new-music concerts all the time in order to be able to understand it. I mean, I write my music with the idea that it will appeal to all of those people, and I want them to go in with all the history that’s within all of us—all the things that they’ve listened to in the backs of their minds, whether it’s country music or minimal techno, or classical music or whatever. I want them to bring that excitement, that love, or that hate, or whatever it might be, to my music. I feel that my music draws on so many different things. The goal is that people will find something of themselves in it. But you don’t need to know what a hexachord is! You don’t need to know what serialism is. You don’t need to know anything technical. It’s more about the state of mind of being open and listening to what’s really going on. And I think that the more open you can be, the better. So maybe it’s not good to have expectations. I have this ideal listener, as John Cage did. This listener doesn’t bring expectations that my music will fit into some part of music history, or that it will do any particular thing. This listener is just open to listening.

Rumpus: There were times when I was at the MacDowell Colony when either I or another composer presented to the whole group and I would ask, say, a writer friend after the presentation, “What did you think? What are your reactions?” The person would say, “Well, I liked it, but I don’t really know because I’m not educated. I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

Mazzoli: Yes, I hate that! That makes me feel so alienated from people, and it’s completely the opposite from what I want people to feel. I think there’s just been this “thing” that’s developed, this way that we have of talking about our music that alienates people. And I fall into that too! I learned that in graduate school. You just talk about your music in a specific way, and that separates people from you. But some composers like that. Schoenberg liked that. He wanted to feel that he was making music for an elite few. That’s fine for him, but I want to set myself free from that sort of attitude.

Rumpus: What are the things that you do in your concerts that actually prompt the audience to listen in the way that you’d like, rather than in that other way that you don’t like?

Mazzoli: We have a band called Victoire. We travel around and we play my music. I write all the music for the group. It’s the same kind of music that I would write for an orchestra or a string quartet; it’s just as complicated and just as challenging. It’s all there. But I say, “This is my band,” and as soon as I say that a lot of walls fall down. If you say, “I’m a composer,” people are like, “I thought composers were all dead.” But if you say, “I’m in a band,” then the response is, “Oh, my sister’s in a band.” Like they know what that relationship is supposed to be. They’re saying, “You’re going to stand up in front of me, and you’re going to play music you wrote.” So that has been a huge help in getting people to listen to the music, without saying, “Oh, I don’t get it,” or “That’s a string quartet. I don’t listen to string quartets.” Everyone listens to bands. So it’s like meeting the audience halfway with that sort of terminology. I feel like I’m almost fooling them by presenting challenging music to them in a “band” or “pop” context.

Rumpus: When you go to a classical music concert, it’s understood that you’re supposed to keep your mouth shut and you’re not supposed to move for a long time, but when you go and hear a band, that’s not the protocol. When you present your music in this way, do you still expect people to be quiet and sit there for as much as an hour at a time without moving?

Mazzoli: I feel like there’s not this black-and-white division between concert hall music and music that bands play in a bar. I don’t know if this was ever truly the case, but I don’t feel that I need to decide between playing for a sit-down, totally silent audience and playing for a bunch of noisy, drunk people in a bar. What I do with the group is somewhere in between. For example, say we’re playing in an art gallery. Maybe people are moving around. Maybe people leave and they get up and walk around during a song and then they come back. Or in an alternative space, like Le Poisson Rouge or Galapagos here in New York, you can have a beer and there’s a cocktail waitress, but you’re sitting and you’re facing the stage. Of course I love when people are quiet, but I also love when people are comfortable. I love when people emote. The flip side of having a totally silent audience is that they’re less likely to react to you in the space, and I think that’s one of the great things about performing live: you get energy from the audience, and you give energy back to them. There’s interaction.

Rumpus: Would you say that your music is about anything, or would you say that it has its own meaning and that it’s not about anything other than itself?

Mazzoli: It’s definitely about something! For me, writing music is a way of processing the world. It’s not a concrete thing, as in, “This piece is about giraffes.” It’s much more of an emotional sort of thing. I want people to find something out about themselves through my music, something that was inaccessible before, something that they were suppressing, something that they couldn’t really confront. I want my music to be something that people use in order to access parts of themselves. So in that sense, every piece I write is about all emotions at once, about the lines in between. It’s never only about one thing or another. It’s emotionally getting at those things that we can’t really describe—things for which we don’t have labels. So yes, it’s about something, and it has a use. It’s neither about nothing nor about something concrete—it’s about what you bring to it as a listener.

Rumpus: Would you define your music in terms of “narrative vs. non-narrative”? The reason I ask is that this is a question that comes up a lot at artist colonies. When someone felt that he or she really “got” the music, then it didn’t come up. But when someone said, “You know, I don’t really understand what just happened for the last fifteen minutes. Was that a narrative or was it a non-narrative?” What do you think about this in relation to your music?

Mazzoli: Well, I think you just explained it. If the music is good, and if it makes sense as a strong structure and as a drama, and things happen as a result of what happened before, not just as a string of unrelated events, then the question doesn’t come up. I really think of my motives, my melodies, my harmonies, as being these things that are very much alive. They have these little lives of their own that are stretched and pulled, and I do conceive of my music in a very narrative way. For example, what happens if this motive is in a spiral? What does that mean? What does that look like? How does that translate musically? In my piece for eighth blackbird [a wonderful American sextet of musicians who focus on music of our time], I had this idea that the percussion would “eat” the rest of the instruments? It was just this silly visual image from a kid’s book, but that drove the whole structure of the piece. The percussion takes over, and by the end, the percussionist is playing all the parts that you previously heard played by all the other instruments. Things like that, I think, are really important for a composer. And it’s also a personal preference. I just don’t like music that goes from idea to idea to idea without any logic. I mean I know that this is something that a lot of composers my age are doing…and I don’t get it, and I don’t like it.

Rumpus: So do you believe that music really can be “non-narrative,” that things really don’t have to have consequence?

Mazzoli: Sure! I’m not going to say that that’s bad, but I’m really not moved as much by music that does that. There’s some ambient music that doesn’t do anything. I wouldn’t say that that’s narrative. It is narrative in that it creates a sort of world where nothing happens, where really nothing happens, so you become a different person after hearing eight minutes of exactly the same thing. Yes, I hear music all the time in which one idea is strung together to another idea, and I feel that such music is non-narrative.

Rumpus: Who are some writers, visual artists, theater/film artists, and multimedia artists whose work you’re following and care about?

Mazzoli: Oh, so many people! Off the top of my head: I’m really interested in Matthew Zapruder, who is a really fascinating and very musical poet from the Bay Area. His poems read like lyrics, and I feel very connected to them. I’ve always loved the work of Cynthia Hopkins who is a multimedia theater artist and who I actually met at the MacDowell Colony when I was there last year. She is doing a new piece about climate change called “This Clement World.” I’m very excited about the director Robert Woodruff, a theater director here in New York who I worked with a little bit on a piece at BAM last week called “Elsewhere.” I’m really obsessed with his dark vision! I’m reading the new Michael Chabon book, Telegraph Avenue. I’ve always loved his writing. He’s another big MacDowell guy. Visual artists: I’m less up to date on what is hip in the art world right now, but I have some constant favorites. I’m in love with Tim Hawkinson, the sculptor. Sometimes you feel some artists are doing the same thing that you’re doing but in a different field. But they have the same approach. Their method of research and gathering data is the same as yours. I really love the artist Amy Cutler. She does these beautiful drawings that are delicately colored in. They are usually of women doing extreme things. My favorite is one in which four women are pulling a house with their braids. I love magic realism and again, in a convoluted, translated way this is something I try to bring into my music.

Joel Hoffman has been a resident artist at the MacDowell Colony as well as at other artist colonies, including Yaddo, the Aaron Copland House, the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France and the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio, Italy. For thirty-six years he was a Professor of Composition at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. He is currently a guest professor at the China Conservatory in Beijing, China. He has also served as Composer-in-Residence with the Buffalo Philharmonic and the National Philharmonic in Washington D.C. and has received awards from the American Academy-Institute of Arts and Letters, the National Endowment for the Arts and ASCAP, among others. More from this author →