Composer of the Year:
Missy Mazzoli

By Heidi Waleson

Both popular and profound, Missy Mazzoli’s music has found a ready audience from concert halls to opera houses. The fact that she never had a female professor “sucks,”  she says, so now amidst the myriad commissions she’s finding time to do something about it.

2022 Muscial America Composer of the Year:<br>Missy Mazzoli
Photo © Caroline Tompkins

Missy Mazzoli spent the pandemic contemplating death—she took an online course to become a death doula, a person who helps the dying and their loved ones through that journey—and writing a trio of pieces about the end of the world. Yet she doesn’t view these preoccupations as dark topics. “I see them as windows into the unknown,” says the Brooklyn-based composer. Music has always been her avenue for tackling the big subjects and emotions, like grief, violence, and ecstasy, that matter to human beings and are hard to express in words. “I’ve always felt that to write music is a way of touching into the divine,” she says. “For touching a world that is bigger than all of us.”

Mazzoli is currently working on a Metropolitan Opera commission based on George Saunders’s novel Lincoln in the Bardo, in which souls in limbo accompany the President as he mourns his dead son in a graveyard. Her acclaimed 2016 opera Breaking the Waves, written with her regular collaborator and close friend, librettist Royce Vavrek, looks deeply into female sexual transgression with its turbulent, kaleidoscopic score and triumphant humanity. The three pandemic pieces—a choral work, a violin concerto, and a percussion quartet—explore the role of ritual in society; the one for Third Coast Percussion imagines a group of survivors after the end of the world recreating the rituals of human beings. “All my work is about human beings,” Mazzoli explains. “Even the non-vocal pieces with no words are about human drama, about the things we do to each other, for each other, with each other, against each other. These things are infinitely interesting to me and fuel for many lifetimes of work.”

Mazzoli, now 41, grew up in what was then a semirural town an hour from Philadelphia. Her family was not musical, but when her parents bought a piano at a flea market, she became “obsessed” with making up songs, and started lessons at age seven. By age ten, she was composing. Her quest for her personal compositional voice included an adolescent fixation on Beethoven and playing guitar and bass in punk bands; during her undergraduate years at Boston University, she also studied gamelan at MIT and took classes in non-classical genres at Berklee College of Music. At 21, a Fulbright to study with Louis Andriessen in the Netherlands further expanded her consciousness. “It was as much the community that he attracted as his teaching. People flocked to him. He created this world of not only composers, but directors, thinkers, writers—this really vibrant place.”

One of her most profound influences was Meredith Monk. At 23, between graduate programs, she moved to New York “to be with a guy” and sent Monk a fan letter, asking if she needed help for the summer. “I ended up working there for years, being her assistant, taking care of her turtle, transcribing a lot of works that had not yet been notated.” Monk’s sui generis composition and performance style, which melds music, text, and choreography, had a profound influence on Mazzoli. So did her gender: in eight years of music higher education, Mazzoli says, she never had a female professor. “That sucks,” she says flatly. “You want to have at least one teacher who looks like you, who can relate to you on a personal level, on a societal level, as well as musically. Meredith was that person for me. Working with her was a revelation. Women need to see something in order to imagine themselves doing it, and it wasn’t until I started working with [Monk] that I felt I could see the steps to having a career as a composer.”

It infuriates Mazzoli that today, 20 years after she first contemplated a career in composition, gatekeeping practices that exclude women, along with blatant, old-fashioned sexism, remain profoundly entrenched in classical music, both in the academy—where female professors are still few and far between—and performing arts institutions. She is doing her part to combat that. With composer Ellen Reid, she founded the Luna Composition Lab to mentor female and non-binary composers ages 12-18. Now in its sixth year, the Lab’s total reach includes about 300 people, many of whom are now in prestigious composition programs and even receiving commissions. “Our evil plan is working,” she notes, not entirely joking.

As composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony, a three-year term that concluded in 2021, Mazzoli made sure that more than 50% of the composers featured on the new music series she curated were female and/ or non-white; one of her invitees, Jessie Montgomery, has succeeded her in the post. “Any position of power that I get, I want to use it to promote people I feel are deserving of a bigger audience. I do feel I was able to push the needle in Chicago.” It’s still a process, however; in some quarters, any new music is still viewed with suspicion. “Some institutions are moving in a good direction, but there’s still this sense that it’s a risk instead of a salvation. I have been told that programming my opera is ‘a risk.’”

Mazzoli is not afraid to occupy space, and lately, her own work is getting bigger. Her newest opera, The Listeners, based on an original story about a soccer mom swept up in a cult, set to premiere at the Norwegian National Opera in September 2022, will be her first for full orchestra and chorus. “I love the idea of an opera chorus as a cult; we have a fantastic choreographer who will be in charge of creating rituals for it.”

Looking into the future, she is intrigued by how opera and performance function as part of visual art installations like Sun and Sea, presented at the 2019 Venice Biennale, and would love to try her hand at that; more collaborations with filmmakers are also an ambition. Her students at Mannes School of Music and Luna Lab participants inspire her. “The amount of talent, innovation, and excitement I see from these young people makes me really hopeful for the future. They are coming at the art form in so many ways, with this interest in drama, multimedia, and combining different styles. They are far ahead of where I was at that age. I think that’s proof that what my generation has done has started to filter down, and it’s opening doors.” And while the pandemic may have deepened her exploration of death, she is certain that music is eternal. “I know that even if there is a true apocalypse, and it’s just me playing my piano, I will still make music.” •

Heidi Waleson is opera critic of the Wall Street Journal and the author of Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America (Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2018).