With three successful operas to her credit and many other works that have been performed by artists ranging from the JACK Quartet to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York-based composer Missy Mazzoli has established herself as one of contemporary music’s most original voices. “She is among the more consistently inventive, surprising composers now working in New York,” wrote New York Times critic Steve Smith in 2009, and the assertion seems even truer nearly 10 years later.
Her latest milestone came in July when Riccardo Muti named her as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s new Mead Composer-in-Residence, an appointment that continues through 2020. “They called me really out of the blue,” Mazzoli, 37, said, “and I was delighted. The Chicago Symphony has such an amazing history, and it’s so prestigious, and it sounds so good — one of the best orchestras I’ve ever heard in my entire life. So there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to say yes.”
The composer is excited that her duties include curating the repertoire for MusicNOW, the CSO’s annual four-concert, contemporary-music series presented at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. The series features chamber works performed by orchestra musicians and guest artists. “I’ve always wanted to curate,” she said. “I’ve always had so many ideas in my back pocket about who I would champion given the chance. So this opportunity is a perfect fit for that.”
In addition, Mazzoli will collaborate with the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, its training ensemble for pre-professional musicians, and provide artistic guidance for the orchestra’s contemporary music programming and other collaborations and special events.
The appointment also includes commissions for a work that the CSO will premiere in 2019-20 as well as a second piece for MusicNOW. “Because I’ve been so immersed in opera,” she said, “I really welcome the chance to get back into orchestral writing and create something new for the orchestra.”
A native of Lansdale, Pa., a town 28 miles northwest of Philadelphia, Mazzoli grew up in a non-musical family and had little exposure to classical music. But she was very taken with what she did hear. A key early influence was her childhood piano teacher Kirsten Olson. “She was just super-excited about music,” the composer said, “and that was what I needed at that time.”
Around the age of 10, she began writing music as an outgrowth of playing the piano and soon envisioned composition as a possible career. But it was not always an easy path. “Growing up in a rural environment, being in love with classical music, playing piano and writing music was very much an outsider activity,” she said. It also didn’t help she lacked female role models, because virtually all the celebrated composers were men. “I feel rebellious in expressing my love for the classical tradition,” she said. “I’m not someone who was born into that. It was sort like a fight for me to be accepted as a classical musician and as a serious composer.”
As a child, her compositional hero was Beethoven. “That’s what I had access to,” she said. “If you are growing up in the middle of Pennsylvania without people around you who are classical musicians, that’s the classical music that you hear.” Later, she fell in love with Stravinsky. When she moved to Massachusetts to attend Boston University, she discovered the minimalists and Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe, the groundbreaking composers who founded the New York musical collective Bang on a Can. “They all had a huge impact on me,” she said.
Another important influence has been Meredith Monk, a multi-disciplinary artist who explores a range of unorthodox vocal techniques. When Mazzoli was a teenager, someone gave her an album of Monk’s music. “That just changed my life,” Mazzoli said. “She has been a big influence my whole life.”
In addition to her studies at Boston University and the Yale School of Music, Mazzoli ventured to the Netherlands when she was 21, spending two years at the Royal Conservatory of the Hague with composer Louis Andriessen. “That was life-changing, because he attracted a whole group of students from around the world,” she said. Now 79, the Dutch composer exerted much the same kind of influence on her life as famed French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger did on earlier generations of American composers, including Aaron Copland and Philip Glass.
Along with creating works for other artists and ensembles, Mazzoli followed in the footsteps of such contemporary composers as Glass, Monk and Steve Reich, and formed her own touring ensemble, Victoire, in 2008. The group, in which she serves as keyboardist, has given her more control over her how her music is heard and perceived. “I wanted to be planning shows,” she said. “I wanted to be going on tour. I wanted to be making albums. I wanted to take the best of pop music, the indie-band touring life, and the best of classical music and combine them.”
Victoire has performed around the world, including a 2010 concert in Millennium Park, and released three albums, including one with Glenn Kotche, a percussionist with the Chicago-based band Wilco. The second, titled “Cathedral City,” was named one of the best classical albums of 2010 by National Public Radio and publications such as New York magazine and the New York Times.
Like many composers, Mazzoli struggles to define her musical language. “It’s new classical music,” she said. “I’m very comfortable with the word ‘classical,’ and I’m very comfortable with the word ‘composer,’” she said. She describes her compositional style as classical music influenced by indie rock, electronica and ambient music. “So I just try to throw all the words out there,” she said with a chuckle, “and hope that one of them grabs somebody and inspires them to listen.”
For the past six years, Mazzoli has been primarily immersed in the world of opera. Her third opera, Proving Up, premiered earlier this year at the Washington National Opera, and its third presentation will occur on Sept. 26 and 28 at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. “It’s incredible and rare to have three performances of an opera in its debut year,” she said. The opera addresses “the harsh realities of the American Dream, about the role of fate in our destinies and also about people who are erased from history.” It’s a timely theme, given the fraught political landscape of the last two years. She is already at work on her fourth and fifth operas — neither of which she was able to discuss because the details of each have not yet been announced.
Some composers do not venture into opera until later in their careers, because of the many challenges that come with the form, such as contending with its theatricality and adjusting to its sometimes grand scale. But Mazzoli didn’t hesitate. Her two inaugural operas resulted from opportunities that she simply couldn’t turn down. The first, a multimedia work titled Song from the Uproar, was supported by Beth Morrison Projects and produced in 2012 at the Kitchen, an alternative arts venue in New York. The Los Angeles Opera subsequently staged it in 2015, and the Cincinnati Opera presented in 2016-17.
Based on the success of that first effort in the form, she was named composer-in-residence at the Opera Company of Philadelphia in 2012-15, a position that she called a “crash course in opera and an immersion in that world.” Emerging from the appointment was Mazzoli’s second opera, Breaking the Waves, an adaptation of the Lars von Trier movie of the same title. Royce Vavrek, who has worked with her on all three of her operas, served as the librettist. After its 2016 premiere in Philadelphia, the work was named that year’s best new opera by the Music Critics Association of North America. In Opera News magazine, music critic David Shengold wrote that Breaking the Waves “stands among the best 21st-century American operas yet produced.”
“I never set out to become an opera composer, but I felt like I should go for these opportunities,” Mazzoli said. “When I was working in Philadelphia, I just kept having these epiphanies that this was where I was supposed to be.” She loves the collaborative and immersive aspects of the form, and she enjoys using musical devices to delve into the psychology of each character. “So looking back, opera was a natural fit for everything I’m interested in, but it was really these two opportunities that resulted in my first and second operas, and solidified my love for the genre.”