A conversation at her home in Brooklyn, New York
February 17, 2016—2:00 p.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Missy Mazzoli first appeared in NewMusicBox ten years ago when she kept a daily blog for us about her experiences as a participant in the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute. That week-long orchestra boot camp offers emerging composers intensive workshops with musicians and a performance of their music on a subscription series concert entitled Future Classics which is also broadcast live. The piece of Mazzoli’s that was featured was These Worlds In Us, which was also her very first piece for orchestra. In the opening salvo for that NewMusicBox blog series, she expressed concern about how her music, which is “based in communication, intimacy, and a touch of vulnerability,” would “translate to an orchestra.”
As it turned out, These Worlds In Us was a huge success and has continued to be performed by orchestras across the United States as well as in Europe. (It will be performed this month in Akron, Ohio.) And, over the past decade, she has also written additional orchestra pieces that have been performed by the Detroit Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Albany Symphony. When we spoke with her in her Greenpoint apartment, she had just returned from a Music Alive: New Partnerships residency with the Boulder Philharmonic which culminated in a performance of her Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres).
“I still feel like I’m asking the same questions,” she said, “and, with each piece, finding different answers to the question of how to bring an intimate, vulnerable, human experience to a situation like working with an orchestra, which is a little bit disconcerting and I feel kind of disconnected as a composer for a couple different reasons.”
But writing for orchestra forms only a small part of her compositional output. There’s a brand new solo piano piece of hers on Michael Mizrahi’s forthcoming CD (which will be released on March 26) and an older solo piano piece on Lisa Moore’s new disc. A few weeks before heading to Colorado, she was in Brazil for a whole concert devoted to her chamber music. She fronts Victoire, something of a cross between an indie rock band and a chamber ensemble, which is about to record its sophomore album. Plus her latest opera, Breaking the Waves, based on the Lars von Trier film, will be staged by Opera Philadelphia next season.
“I’m still in the beginning phases of my career where I am taking commissions and jumping at opportunities to work with whomever,” Mazzoli acknowledged during our talk. “So it’s really about taking whatever is brought to me and making it something that I’m excited about.” And though she is clearly excited about a very wide range of musical activities, they share a common core. “The thing that I can say consistently inspires me is human beings. It’s not nature as much as it is just me being inspired by human beings trying to live their lives. And, in the case of my operas, human beings trying to live their lives under insane, impossible circumstances.”
The thing that we have been most excited about, however, is that a piece of her choral music, Vesper Sparrow has been chosen to be performed during the 2016 ISCM World Music Days in Tongyeong, South Korea. Mazzoli’s piece will be presented alongside works by composers from Australia, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom, on a March 28 program featuring the Ansan City Choir conducted Shin-Hwa Park. Vesper Sparrow originally appeared on Roomful of Teeth’s 2015 disc Render, a recording that received a New Music USA project grant, which led to the composition’s submission in the ISCM’s call for scores for the 2016 WMD.
“When I wrote it I never imagined anyone else singing it, because it had to be written so quickly and it was so particular for this group,” Mazzoli claimed. “But I’m open to different interpretations. I like the Sardinian aspect of it and I like that there’s a recording that these singers will hopefully listen to, even just to get an idea of what the piece is about and the character. But do they need to have that precise sort of like nasally intonation that the Sardinian music has? Not necessarily. I think that the piece is the notes and the rhythms and the texts. And all that translates on the page.”
Frank J. Oteri: The main impetus for our talk right now is that your choral piece Vesper Sparrow will be performed during the 2016 ISCM World Music Days in Tongyeong, South Korea, at the end of March. But you have a lot of other stuff going on as well. You just came back from a weeklong Music Alive: New Partnerships residency with the Boulder Philharmonic, which culminated in a performance of your Sinfonia, and only a few weeks before that you were in Brazil performing a concert of your chamber music. I read in The New York Times this week that Opera Philadelphia will be staging your new opera Breaking the Waves next season, and Michael Mizrahi’s latest solo piano CD, which is being released in a couple of weeks, includes a piece of yours.
Missy Mazzoli: Lisa Moore also has a piece of my mine on her new album.
FJO: Really? Another piano piece?
FJO: Wow, so there’s some considerable activity with your solo piano music as well as your choral music, your chamber music, your orchestral music, plus opera. You’re writing many kinds of things and you’re getting pulled in many different directions. Is there any kind of music you would not want to write?
MM: I really can’t think of it. But, you know, so many of my opportunities are not necessarily my choice. I’m still in the beginning phases of my career where I am taking commissions and jumping at opportunities to work with whomever, so it’s really about taking whatever is brought to me and making it something that I’m excited about. But it’s hard to imagine something that would come my way that I wouldn’t be excited about.
FJO: You haven’t written a band piece yet, as far as I know.
MM: No. And I’m not terribly excited about it, but that’s not to say that I wouldn’t do it. I think, under the right circumstances, it could be really fun.
FJO: Or a solo organ piece?
MM: Again, you kind of need someone; it’s hard to just write a solo organ piece and just throw it out into the universe. I really would want someone to come to me and say, “I’m going to perform this 20 times, and I’m really excited.” So we’ll see.
FJO: Or a sound installation?
MM: I would love to do a sound installation. I could do one in my living room; it would be awesome, but it would be only for me. So I’m definitely open to that, too. It’s hard, though, writing all these operas lately. I’m working on one for Opera Philadelphia; it’s co-commissioned by Opera Philadelphia and Beth Morrison Projects. And I’m working on another one that will be announced really soon. I’m also dealing with performances of my first opera, Song from the Uproar. Opera can take over your life. So I feel like while all this other stuff is happening, really when I sit down to write, the operas are my focus. That’s been an interesting shift. Usually I’m working on ten different things at the same time, but for the last couple of years, it’s been like this one massive piece.
FJO: The first piece of yours I ever heard was an orchestra piece, These Worlds In Us, soon after we first met, which was ten years ago. Then the piece was chosen for the Minnesota Orchestra Composers Institute, which is a really extraordinary program. You wrote a series of blog posts for NewMusicBox about your experiences at the Institute that year. I decided to reread them all last week, and I came across a fascinating couple of sentences from your very first post.
MM: I’m afraid.
FJO: You shouldn’t be; they’re great. They were about your concerns about the experience right before the Institute got under way, and they are extremely heartfelt. The sentences are: “My music is based in communication, intimacy, and a touch of vulnerability. How does this translate to an orchestra?” Now, ten years later, your music has been performed by lots of orchestras, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Detroit Symphony and, most recently, in Boulder. So I wonder what you think about those sentences. Vulnerability is discouraged because of how the rehearsal process works. And, at this point, how do you deal with an orchestra’s inherent lack of intimacy?
MM: Well, I still feel like I’m asking the same questions and, with each piece, finding different answers to the question of how to bring an intimate, vulnerable, human experience to a situation like working with an orchestra, which is a little bit disconcerting. I feel kind of disconnected as a composer for a couple different reasons. You’re dealing with this mass of people—you very rarely get to have individual interactions with the players. You’re flown somewhere and you have two or three rehearsals and then it’s the performances. It’s not set up to have one-on-one pow-wows with your performers, which is what I’m used to.
So this experience I just had last weekend in Boulder was really interesting. They premiered the new version of this piece that I originally wrote for the LA Philharmonic called Sinfonia for Orbiting Spheres. I put harmonicas in the orchestra and also melodicas, the piano that you blow into—I have some around here—and there’s a lot of strange percussion. I really wanted it to feel like this intimate, enveloping experience. The harmonica sounds so vulnerable and so human because these players are not professional harmonica players. They’re professional horn players and clarinetists and they’re just using the length of their breath to play these really simple, almost toy-like instruments. It was so great, but it was a risk for me. I didn’t know how that was going to work in an orchestral context. And I was so happy because I think that it made the experience more intimate for everybody.
FJO: Fascinating. Some orchestras might not be willing to do it. Some players feel very firmly that they should only be required to play the instrument that they’ve spent their lives studying and perfecting making the best possible sound with.
MM: Right, and I respect that. That’s valid. My goal is not to make people look bad. I was really grateful that the Boulder Phil musicians were open to the idea. They might not have liked it—I’m not sure—but they were really great and they wanted to make the piece work. So much thought went into me even writing for harmonica in an orchestra setting. It was not just a whim; it was very considered. There’s this very serious emotional intent that I have. So my strategy with working with the orchestra was to try to get them to understand what I was going for. It’s sort of a music of the spheres feeling, and it was this idea of enveloping the audience in this ether, while all these loops of little melodic fragments were swirling around them. Harmonicas are really like the ether in which everything exists. So once they understood that, I think that they were at least willing to give it a shot.
FJO: An important component of the performance in Boulder was that you were in residence there for a week, so instead of just showing up for a couple of rehearsals and the concert, you had a greater opportunity to connect with the players, so that must have helped that process. I was curious how that experience was different from other experiences you’ve had with orchestras over the years.
MM: In Boulder I did a lot to connect to the audience, but unfortunately I didn’t have so much time to connect with the players, even in a residency situation. I think it’s hard to create that time and space, but I think it’s something worth working towards for all orchestras—to try to create a deeper connection between the composers and the performers. I’ve talked to a lot of my composer friends about this very thing. But it did make a big difference for me, just being in Boulder for a week. I taught for a day at Colorado University. And I performed a concert of my own works at this art space called The Dairy in downtown Boulder. I met with their board. I went to luncheons. I did a stargazing hike where they played my music as people were looking at the stars, because the piece is about the planets in orbit. That was amazing, and it allowed me to have conversations with people about a bunch of different things, and allowed them to have a bunch of different ways to access my music and the work.
FJO: To talk a little bit more about your first orchestra piece, These Worlds In Us, one of the things that struck me about it at the time and every time I’ve listened to it or have thought about it since then, is how ravishingly beautiful it is. Certainly not everything you’ve written is so decidedly and so intentionally pretty, but beauty has definitely been part of your compositional arsenal. It seems to be a conscious aesthetic decision for you, so I thought it would be interesting to talk about that as well as what your view of beauty is.
MM: What does it mean to be beautiful? How much time do we have? I think that what you’re saying is that there’s a lyricism, or that there are elements of that piece and pieces that I’ve written in the last ten years that are sort of conventionally beautiful in a way that most people would say, “Oh, that’s pretty” or “That’s a melody I can hum.” I think that a lot of noise music is beautiful and that it’s pleasing, but I know what you’re saying. There’s a lyricism, and there are these melodies that float around the listener in a way that I think could be described as beautiful. That’s something that has been a part of my language from the very beginning. My goal is to try to draw the listener in with something that is familiar, even just a tiny bit, whether it’s a little repeated melodic fragment or the sound of the harmonica, which is a sound that everybody knows. Most people have picked up a harmonica and have blown into it. We know that sound. So I try to draw people in with something that they can latch onto, but then twist it and present it in a different way, present the melody with a strange chord underneath. Or have the harmonicas be this insistent repeating drone that becomes unsettling. The piece I just wrote for the Boulder Phil becomes very dark at the end. All of a sudden, the harmonica feels like this lone person lost in space instead of this warm familiar sound. So I don’t know. These Worlds In Us was the first orchestra piece that I’d ever written, and it was really daunting. I remember really losing my mind trying to write that piece. And I remember having this thought: I can write a melody. When all else fails, I know I can do that. So I’m just going to do that and not worry about what comes next. And that’s where the theme for the piece came from.
FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that you want to give the audience something to latch onto, because another constant through line in your music is that there’s always a narrative arc behind it, whether it’s inspired by literature or by personal experience. In the case of These Worlds In Us, it was both: a wonderful poem, which is where the title came from, but also you thinking about your father and his experience being a Vietnam War vet. But these kinds of backstories are hard to decipher in a piece of abstract instrumental music with no vocal line; they hinge on people reading the program notes. How important is it for you that people know those stories?
MM: Sometimes it’s important that they know, sometimes it’s not. Certainly it is with the dramatic work that I’m doing, even in an abstract opera like Song from the Uproar, which does not have a conventional narrative. It’s more like a fever dream. But it’s important to me that people generally understand what’s going on, even in the simplest terms. Other times those stories are just for me. That’s just the way that I conceive of music. I conceive it as a human struggle. I conceive these melodies and rhythms as being characters that are sometimes working together and sometimes in opposition to each other.
In my piece for eighth blackbird [Still Life with Avalanche], the percussionist devours all the other instruments and absorbs all the material. It’s a weird, abstract play that’s being enacted by these performers. Whether or not you know that that’s what I was thinking of in that particular piece doesn’t matter because it just leads to a musical result. The same thing is true with These Worlds In Us and Tooth and Nail¸ the piece that I wrote for violist Nadia Sirota, which is about jaw harp music in Uzbekistan. I don’t really care if people understand all the things going on in this piece because, at the end, it’s just leading me to create a musical structure.
My two composer obsessions this month are Anna Thorvaldsdottir and John Luther Adams. They’re both really inspired by nature. A couple of months ago, I was driving around Death Valley thinking: I wonder if there’s something in there for me. I should get inspired by nature. But the thing that I can say consistently inspires me is human beings. It’s not nature as much as it is just me being inspired by human beings trying to live their lives. And, in the case of my operas, human beings trying to live their lives under insane, impossible circumstances. What do they do? How do they get out of it? How do they relate to each other? That stuff to me is so fascinating and juicy, even as a way to think of non-narrative instrumental music.
FJO: One of my favorite pieces of yours is Magic With Everyday Objects, which you describe in your program notes for it as music having a nervous breakdown. But part of the reason I love it so much is I don’t think you even need that program note. That message gets immediately across in the music. Obviously some narratives are harder to convey than others, some details are just too subtle. I wouldn’t have known the backstory of These Worlds In Us just from hearing the music.
MM: But that doesn’t matter to me.
FJO: There’s another backstory with These Worlds In Us which is a purely musical one. You used the same melodic material in another piece of yours, a piece you wrote for Newspeak called In Spite of All This. And yet, though this material sounds so pretty in These Worlds In Us, it’s decidedly not pretty anymore in the other piece. It’s something else entirely.
MM: I think that’s totally a function of the orchestration. I actually wrote the piece for Newspeak first and then orchestrated it out and changed it to fit into an orchestral context. I think when you move into an orchestral context, I don’t want to say it’s inevitably prettier because a lot of composers don’t think that way, but there’s a certain lushness and a lyricism that happens when you have a full string section, versus just a solo violin. So I think maybe that’s what you’re experiencing. And also, because I had more instruments in the orchestra, I was able to flesh out a lot of the harmonies, and so I think it comes across as this richer, more immersive experience.
FJO: Even though they share the same material, that material is presented so differently to the point that I don’t think they’re the same piece at all. They’re very different pieces.
MM: They share a theme and a structure, but that’s about it. I do this all the time. I steal from myself all the time. I think a lot of composers do, and I think it’s a fallacy that we’re supposed to reinvent ourselves completely with every piece. My boyfriend is a painter and he’s been working on the same series of work for the last year and a half; it’s so fascinating and satisfying to watch that happen. I think of music in the same way. I’ll often use the same material to generate a few different works before it’s completely out of my system.
FJO: You wrote the Newspeak piece back in 2005; I don’t know anything you wrote before that.
MM: Before 2005, when I was 24! Well, it’s funny. The piece that Lisa Moore recorded for an album that just came out two days ago is the earliest piece of mine that is published and available for people. It’s a piece for piano and electronics called Orizzonte. I wrote it when I was 24 for a band that I was in when I lived in Amsterdam; eleven years later, it’s finally been recorded by someone else.
FJO: I have a demo recording of you playing it that you gave me the first time we had lunch together ten years ago.
MM: Oh really? Oh my God… Wow. Well, it went through a bunch of different versions. It started off as an improv experiment and then solidified into something I could play on a concert program.
FJO: I didn’t realize back then that you had been in a band in Amsterdam. So even that early on, you were involved in several different approaches to making music. People still package things into “classical music” or “indie rock,” and you’ve certainly done work that could fit in either category, and many things that have aspects of both over the past ten years, but it seems like you’ve been doing that from what you consider the very beginning of your musical output.
MM: I don’t think about it that way at all. This band in Amsterdam was a great example. Was that a band or was it an ensemble? I don’t know. I got a residency in a squat, and was like: Let’s start a band; we’ll work all week in this squat and then we’ll give a concert at the end. Great. So it’s just people together making music. It was a welcome change for me from just working alone in my room and then delivering pieces to people. So it just sounded like fun. That’s where that came from.
FJO: In some ways Victoire is a band, but it’s also an ensemble. It’s a little bit of both.
MM: I don’t lean towards one or the other. My goal in creating the ensemble was to take the best of what was going on with bands. I wanted to make records. I wanted to tour. I wanted to create a show that was a consistent instrumentation for which I was creating new music, because people were asking me to put on concerts. Our first show was at The Stone, John Zorn’s venue on the Lower East Side. I didn’t want to just bring in a string quartet and then a solo clarinet; it just didn’t make sense programmatically. I wanted to have a consistent ensemble and I wanted to tour the world. I wanted to perform all over the place. That was from the indie rock world. But then I wanted a really virtuosic level of performer. I needed people who were classically trained. I wanted us to be performing music that was written down and that I wrote. So that was coming from the ensemble side of things. So it’s equal parts both.
FJO: Of course there were several models from the previous generation of composers forming their own groups to exclusively perform their own music, like The Philip Glass Ensemble or Steve Reich and Musicians. But you didn’t call it The Missy Mazzoli Ensemble.
MM: Because that seemed pretentious at the time. I don’t think it was pretentious of Philip Glass or Steve Reich, but I think that in the current climate, it just felt wrong. I don’t know. We were taking so much from the band world that I wanted to give it a name that wasn’t my own name.
FJO: But do you think of that music differently than you think of the other music you write?
MM: No, I don’t. Often a piece will start as a commission for someone else, and then I will arrange it to be performed by my ensemble. I took Magic With Everyday Objects, which I originally wrote for NOW Ensemble, and arranged that for Victoire. Then I re-arranged it and it became The Door into the Dark, which was the opening track on our first album. I did that with bits of my opera, Song from the Uproar, too. The opera ends with an ecstatic coda, and I really wanted to play that myself. So I arranged it for Victoire. The music is exactly the same. But even if it’s not the exact same notes, it’s the same level of complexity as all my other music. The biggest difference is really just in the way that it’s rehearsed, because I can try things out with the group, experiment with different synthesizer timbres. I’m obviously not really able to do that when writing for someone else.
FJO: Curiously, the biggest project that has involved Victoire is Vespers for a New Dark Age. The first Victoire album, Cathedral City, was credited to Victoire. Only someone reading the fine print could see that all the compositions were by Missy Mazzoli. But Vespers was clearly identified as a Missy Mazzoli album. So even if you don’t think of there being distinctions, distinctions are being drawn somehow.
MM: Sure. Inevitably. But the Vespers album also included three tracks that are electronic pieces I created myself, with the help of the producer Lorna Dune; it didn’t involve the band. And then there were all these other people involved, like the percussionist Glenn Kotche. Lorna also created a remix of this other piece, A Thousand Tongues. Jody Redhage performed the original version of A Thousand Tongues, and we sampled her voice. So there were a lot of people involved. For me, a Victoire album is the five of us getting in a room and making music together. This felt like so much more, and the unifying thread was me as a composer. So I think it felt right to release that album under my name. It felt more in the lineage of Song from the Uproar, which is the album of my opera that was released two years before.
FJO: It was fascinating to hear you say that there was music you wrote for someone else that you wanted to perform yourself, and so you reworked it and made it into something else. This ties back to an earlier thread in this discussion about communication being the core of your music. Certainly performing is a form of communicating, so being directly involved in a performance is an important way to engage with an audience.
MM: Well, yeah. I love to perform. I was a performer before I was a composer. It’s part of my musical DNA. Initially I was just performing to scratch that itch, just to be able to be in front of people because it’s fun and exhilarating and nerve-wracking in all these great ways. And when I’ve performed, I realized that my connection to the audience was much deeper as a composer when I was in front of them as a performer. You tell people you’re a composer and they have no idea what you’re talking about; they don’t have a sense of what you do every day or what your place is in the world. I found that people were a lot more open and understanding when I was up there as a performer saying, “I wrote this, I’m going to play it for you.”
FJO: So you were a performer before you were a composer?
MM: Well, it all happened when I was super young. I started taking piano lessons when I was seven, so in that sense, I was a performer before I was a composer. I was a kid. But really quickly I started writing music and realized that this is what I need to be doing with my life. I started writing when I was about ten, and there was no question that I was going to go to school for composition. This was going to be my life.
FJO: So you definitely came out of a lineage of classical music.
MM: Oh, yeah.
FJO: So the whole indie rock thing came later. How did that come into your life?
MM: Well, it came into my life from being a kid in a small town in Pennsylvania, which means that I spent a lot of time driving around listening to the radio because there was nothing else to do and music was just a big part of my life. My parents are not musical, but I was moved by all kinds of music in a way that I wasn’t moved by anything else. And classical music in particular—because I was able to play it myself and have that connection—had a huge impact on the way that I process the data of the world. It gave me an identity and it gave me a focus as a kid. So I think I just obsessively latched onto it in this really extreme way.
FJO: I couldn’t help snooping around the apartment when we were setting up, and I noticed that you have a bust of Beethoven on a bureau as well as another Beethoven portrait hanging on the wall. I was a little surprised by that.
MM: Really? He’s the best. I fell in love with Beethoven as a kid. You know, you’re not really exposed to John Luther Adams or Philip Glass when you’re seven and taking piano lessons. I loved playing Beethoven, and I loved learning about his life and realizing that he struggled, that he was constantly trying new things and then discarding things. When I was in school in Boston, I would go to the Harvard rare manuscript library and just dig through Beethoven sketches, most of which have these big Xs on them. It was always very reassuring to see that he was not always happy with what he wrote the first time around.
FJO: Unfortunately nowadays so many composers do everything on computers, so no one can see sketches with Xs on them.
MM: Well, I have a lot actually. I still work a lot by hand and there’s definitely some obsessive scribbling there.
FJO: So, are you going to save those things for posterity, or are you going to be like Brahms and destroy all your sketches?
MM: I save them, but I wouldn’t say I’m saving them for posterity. Who knows? That’s for future generations to decide if I’m still interesting. But I do save them for myself.
FJO: Do you ever find yourself going back to those things that you crossed out and using them?
MM: Not really using them as much as just taking stock of the passage of time. I have filing cabinets full of old manuscripts and notebooks and journals. I like to look back and see like, oh, that’s where I got the idea to start Victoire, to start this ensemble. Or my initial notes for creating Song from the Uproar or Breaking the Waves, which is a project that’s taken over my life. It’s fun to go back and just see the initial brainstorms for those projects.
FJO: So what was the initial brainstorm for Vespers?
MM: I wanted to create my own version of a Vespers prayer service. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to do that without being heavy handed and religious, because I’m not a religious person. But I love the musical form of that prayer service, the idea that it’s a series of invocations broken up by singing. The tradition varies depending on what precise religion you belong to, but it seemed like this great, flexible, inherently musical form. So, the invocation in Vespers is not “Help me, oh Lord”; it’s “Come on all you ghosts.” The lyrics were written by the poet Matthew Zapruder, so it’s all by replacing the sacred text with secular poetry; I was able to hint at the themes of the prayer service without being overtly religious.
FJO: But by subtitling it “for a New Dark Age” it has a kind of ominous undercurrent to it. “Dark Age” is a negative term, even though some wonderful things happened during the original so-called Dark Ages, the Medieval period.
MM: Were there? Was there anything good?
FJO: There was some great music.
MM: Okay. If you’re in the top one percent. Well, that line “New Dark Age” comes from a line in one of Matthew’s poems called “Korea,” where he says, “I know I belong in this new Dark Age.” So, that is a little more uplifting than the phrase “new dark age” alone and that summed up my feelings about being alive. I know that we are kind of in a dark age to some extent. Things are messed up. But I also know that I belong here. You know, this is my time, and I embrace that. So when I read that line, I was like: this really resonates with me. That was the impetus to use his poetry for the entire piece.
FJO: So this poetry existed before you set it.
MM: Yes. And Matthew Zapruder was amazing. He’s also a musician, so I think he understood that I wanted to be really free with which texts I used. He let me draw fragments of texts from a bunch of different books and remix them into lyrics that made sense for the project, each individual set of lyrics. Sometimes they come from a couple of different poems, or a couple different books. But all of it existed before, except I got him to write one new piece; the second track, “Hello Lord,” was a new poem written just for the project.
FJO: That’s interesting. You just described it as the second track rather than the second movement.
MM: Well, I get confused myself with that because this piece is a little complicated. There are five acoustic movements, but then there are these three electronic remixes stuck in there. It’s confusing.
FJO: But the reason I brought it up is I wonder if you think of the recording rather than a live performance of it to be the definitive way to experience the piece. It was initially written for live performance.
MM: It was, but it was also written for recording. I knew I wanted to make this into an album even before I started writing. You spend so much time with an album when you’re editing it and referring to everything as a track. I think that was emblazoned in my memory.
FJO: And clearly, in our time, many more people will have heard the recording than would have been at the original live performance at Zankel Hall.
FJO: But what’s strange about that—maybe this is part of us being in a new dark age—is that even though music gets primarily transmitted through recordings, recordings are no longer a viable economic stream for most people now that so many people are just listening to music online. This hasn’t really sorted itself out, but you clearly still make albums. In fact, one of the reasons you said that you formed Victoire was that you wanted to make albums. So making albums is still important to you.
MM: Sure, it’s important to me. I also like the idea of releasing singles on the internet. Or creating music that’s just for video and releasing that on YouTube. I’m not really precious about the album. I do think though that—as a composer and as someone who grew up listening to records—the natural length of a CD is really satisfying to me. I like the idea of making grand statements, coming out with 40 to 60 minutes of music and saying, “This is my latest statement,” rather than saying, “This is something I made this morning, and here’s three minutes of it.” So I think that there is value and weight to this idea of the album and that that length still has significance. My friend Judd Greenstein, who runs New Amsterdam Records, used to say when he was starting the record label that albums are the new symphonies. And that really made sense to me. There are pieces that can be accepted as a whole or can be broken up into movements, and there’s still a logic to that. So that’s how I think of it now.
The video by Mark DeChiazza of “Wayward Free Radical Dreams” from Missy Mazzoli’s Vespers for a New Dark Age is making its debut on NewMusicBox
FJO: Now, what’s interesting is that in your discography to date, you have pieces on different people’s albums, but the albums that are your albums—the Victoire album, Uproar, and Vespers—are all unified as albums. They’re not like most single composer new music recordings which are usually just a collection of pieces for various ensembles. I guess that’s coming from the same impetus as wanting to form an ensemble with consistent instrument to perform concerts of your music. You didn’t want to have all these scene changes on stage that are really awkward. Of course, in an album those kind of scene changes aren’t awkward, because it’s pre-recorded. But it can still be an awkward listening experience.
MM: Yeah. I don’t know. It just seems a little bit awkward. I’m not against the idea of composers releasing these sort of compilation albums of their pieces, but it just has a different feeling from someone like Philip Glass releasing Glassworks with the Glass Ensemble or Meredith Monk and her Vocal Ensemble releasing something like Dolmen Music, which has a bunch of different pieces on it, but it still makes sense because it’s a consistent instrumentation. That to me felt smoother, so it was what I wanted to do.
FJO: Since we’re talking about making grand statements, this seems like a good place to talk a bit about your operas. Once again, these pieces come out of your love of literature and, in the case of the most recent one which we’ll get to a little later, film. I tried tracking down an opera you did based on a story by Boccaccio, but I wasn’t able to find very much information about it.
MM: I knew you were going to say that! It was sort of an exercise, a workshop kind of thing I did in my first year as composer-in-residence with Opera Philadelphia. It was a collaboration with Mark Campbell, who’s a great librettist. He’s very collaborative and I really loved working with him, but we had some trouble coming up with an idea that worked for both of us. He had come to me with one story, and I sort of tentatively said yes, but I think he could tell that I wasn’t that excited. So then he came back to me and was like, “I think that with you we just need to go dark,” I took it as a major compliment. I was like, “Yes. Do you have any stories about sex or death?” Because I feel like all my interesting work is about sex and death. And he said he always wanted to do something with Boccaccio’s Decameron, to take one of those little stories and work with it. And I ate it up. It’s this story about this woman whose lover is murdered by her brother. She plants his head in a pot and then this basil plant grows up and she sings to it. It’s called the flowering basil. It’s hilarious and dark. There’s love and death and sex and intrigue, all in this little seven-minute mini-opera. I think it is being done in Cincinnati somewhere; I’ll get that recorded and let you know.
FJO: Boccaccio, though maybe not as widely read as he used to be, is part of the literary canon. On the other hand, Isabelle Eberhardt is not somebody everybody knows about—yet. But she’s a really fascinating figure, such an amazingly headstrong, independently minded person, a real role model from an era where women weren’t, by and large, allowed to be what she was. At the same time, she’s a really tragic figure; she died at the age of 27. How did you come to know about her, and what made you decide to make an opera about her?
MM: I was 23 when I picked up a copy of her journals in a bookstore in Boston, really just completely at random. A new edition had just been published in English, and I was immediately struck by what I read when I opened it up. It just has this tone and this openness that is really strange for travel diaries of that era. You read Pierre Loti or André Gide and they’re writing about going into the desert with 45 servants and having high tea; she had nothing. She was very poor and extremely adventurous and brave, and had these really raw experiences, sometimes amazing experiences. She was one of the first women to witness this particular religious ceremony that happens in the desert where people shoot guns into the sand in this very colorful ceremony. She also experienced extreme poverty and extreme loss. She seemed to live this very extreme life. I was really struck by how she wrote about her sadness in particular. She had 25 different words for being sad.
I knew immediately that I wanted to do something with her life, that there was something in there that was resonating with me. I started actually by just writing songs about her. I would take fragments of her journal and create texts based on the fragments and just write songs. Then it became apparent that it needed to be an evening-length theatrical work. At that point, I brought on the librettist Royce Vavrek to sort of craft the true libretto. But it’s called Song from the Uproar, because it’s her song; this song emerging from the chaos of her life, that’s the song coming out of the uproar.
FJO: There are some interesting parallels between Isabelle Eberhardt and Stephen Crane, whose poem you set in your short piece for Jody Redhage, A Thousand Tongues, which you mentioned earlier. They probably never met each other, since they were based in different parts of the world, but both were tireless adventurers who scoffed at conventions and both died before they were 30, around the turn of the 20th century. It was a very different world than the world we live in now in many ways. Yet in both cases, the music you chose to convey their words is a very contemporary sound world. You didn’t feel the pull to go back into their sound world.
MM: No, because what’s interesting to me was what was going on in their minds, which I think is something that transcends time and place. So I was interested in the things, about Isabelle’s story in particular, that made her story universal, the things that I identified with as a woman living in the 21st century. There’s this constant loneliness, this feeling of being very much in love with her husband but really wanting this independent life. And there’s a conflict between Eastern culture and Western culture, in her own mind; this stuff was really juicy and interesting and is not just about her being in Algeria in 1904. So I wanted a piece that was unmoored from time and place. That’s why I felt free to use electric guitar, electronics, and samples, and that’s why for the production that we did, initially at The Kitchen and later at LA Opera, there’s film with images of things that happened long after her death—people answering telephones and riding in cars. But I think it all makes sense because the story is about this fever dream of a life that she had.
FJO: And in the case of the Stephen Crane?
MM: Well, that was a much shorter text, but I also tried to get at the universal qualities of that poem. He says, “I have a thousand tongues, and nine and ninety-nine lie, though I try to use the one, it will make no melody at my will. It is dead in my mouth.” Who hasn’t felt like that sometimes? It’s this idea that you have these many faces, but which one is your true face and what is the truth? So it seemed to tap into something more universal.
FJO: Compared with these other pieces, Breaking the Waves is much more contemporary. It’s based on a Lars von Trier film that’s set in the 1970s. But you initially didn’t want to do this.
MM: Right. So my librettist, who’s also one of my best friends, Royce Vavrek, came to me and said we should make this into an opera: Breaking the Waves, Lars von Trier’s seminal 1996 film. And I was like, “That’s a great film. It’s already this complete object; why would we mess with it?” Also, at the time, there were a lot of operatic adaptations of films being made, and I just felt like I wanted to try something different. So he left me alone and let me think about it. But I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. I watched the film again and I was like, “Wow, I can hear music for these people. But it’s not going to be what people expect; it’s going to be very, very different from the film. I really feel like I can make my own piece based on this incredible story.” Once I felt the freedom to separate myself from the film, that’s when the project became real and became very exciting to me.
FJO: Of course, that’s an even bigger challenge. When you’re reading a story or a poem, even if it’s from another era, it’s still a disembodied text that allows you to hear it in your own mind rather than a specific way. But if you’re basing something on a film, that film already comes with its own sound world: the sounds of the actors’ voices as well as the music of the soundtrack in the film. There are all these things already there that you have to strip away in order for it to become your own thing.
MM: It’s true, but less so in Breaking the Waves, since there’s no composed soundtrack for it. There is music in the film—some ‘70s rock tunes by Elton John, David Bowie, and Deep Purple—but there isn’t a score that’s telling you how to feel. I think that that left space for me to create my own music for it. That’s really significant. But still, you’re right, especially with Lars von Trier, you have all these amazing hand held shots, and these close-ups of people’s faces. That is such a part of our experience of that story, just being in the room with these people, in their face, as Emily Watson is crumbling, or in her wedding dress waiting for her fiancé to come on a helicopter. It’s really emotional. How do I keep that in the opera, when it’s a singer who’s a hundred feet away from you in a theater where your eyes can look anywhere? You don’t have to look at her face. And there’s no way that I can make you look at her face, except to have her sing something really awesome. So it’s an interesting challenge that I solved in a couple different ways throughout the opera, since that intimacy is something I wanted to maintain from the film.
FJO: There’s that word “intimacy” again, going back to that comment you made on the blog ten years ago.
MM: Right. I haven’t really changed much. I’m still trying to do the same things all the time.
FJO: Now the initial impetus for this conversation was Vesper Sparrow, the piece being done in Korea. Once again the source of it is literary inspiration, although this time from somebody who’s an exact contemporary of yours.
MM: Well, the thing to know about working with the group Roomful of Teeth, who commissioned and premiered it, is that they have this residency every year at MASS MoCA, the museum in Massachusetts, and they invite composers to come stay with them for two weeks to learn about the group and to learn whatever vocal techniques they’re learning. At the time, they were learning Tuvan throat singing and Sardinian su cantu a tenòre singing. So I would try to learn it with them or try to sing along with them, and I just hung out with them for two weeks. During those two weeks, you’re supposed to write a piece or two for them, and then they perform it at the end. It’s like Project Runway without the snarky competition, where you have to create something very fast and then present it. So I did that and the week before I was going to go, I was thinking, “Wait a second, are they going to sing words? If they’re going to sing words, what are they going to sing?” Thankfully my best friend is a poet, Farnoosh Fathi, so I called her and I said, “Send me the manuscript to your book,” which was coming out that fall—it’s called Great Guns—and she did. I just printed it out and on the train ride up there, I sat and read through all these poems. She was also very open to me taking bits of poems, and cutting out what didn’t necessarily work for voices or was too long. She has this great poem that at the time was called “Vesper Sparrow,” which was later changed to “Home State,” and that’s where the text comes from that happens like three-quarters of the way through the piece.
FJO: But there are also all these other syllables that are not really comprehensible as language. That’s not part of her poem? She didn’t write those syllables?
FJO: Now I’m totally confused.
MM: Yeah, rightfully so. So, in one of the versions of the poem, again I don’t know because she was writing while I was writing the piece and a lot of it changed for the final book, but one of her poems began with the call of the vesper sparrow, which translates something like “hey, hey, now, now, all together down the hill,” or something. We put words to it to remember the call. And so the Roomful of Teeth piece is sort of an explosion of that. It’s like these bird songs initially. And then, halfway though, they just start singing words that come out of nowhere. So it’s this mish mash. Farnoush’s poetry is very lyrical and is free association. There are all these beautiful images that you don’t expect that come in out of nowhere. And that’s what inspired the piece. This text comes in out of nowhere. You don’t expect it. And the connections between the phrases are tenuous, and you’re supposed to come up with that in your own mind.
FJO: Before you told me this story, I had no idea that this came about because Roomful of Teeth was learning traditional Sardinian singing techniques. Yet still, when I first heard it, I immediately associated it with Sardinian traditional music because I have field recordings from Sardinia, and what you wrote sounds remarkably authentic at times. And so when I was trying to figure out the connections I thought, well I know that you come from an Italian background, but you were using a poem by a woman with an Iranian background. I couldn’t make the pieces fit together in my head.
MM: Well, now you know the story, which is that I had to come up with something very quickly and called in favors from friends. But I think the result is something that does capture the spirit of not only the Sardinian singing, but also of Roomful of Teeth itself. It’s like this joyful coming together of people from all these different places, of these very particular voices, and somehow the combination of all of them makes total sense. And this combination of bird song and a strange abstract poem by this Iranian-American poet somehow all comes together and makes sense in this little five-minute piece.
FJO: It was written for Roomful of Teeth, and they made a fabulous recording of it, too. But it’s printed in score and so it’s available for other groups to perform. So it can have a life beyond Roomful of Teeth. And now it’s going to be done in South Korea as part of the 2016 ISCM World Music Days. The singers who are performing it there might not necessarily have the same background as Roomful of Teeth. They might not have had the workshop in Sardinian folk music that Roomful of Teeth had that week. How can they do an idiomatic performance without all of that? How necessary are those elements in order for the piece to work?
MM: When I wrote it I never imagined anyone else singing it, because it had to be written so quickly and it was so particular for this group. But I’m open to different interpretations. I like the Sardinian aspect of it and I like that there’s a recording that these singers will hopefully listen to, even just to get an idea of what the piece is about and the character. But do they need to have that precise sort of like nasally intonation that the Sardinian music has? Not necessarily. I think that the piece is the notes and the rhythms and the texts. And all that translates on the page.
FJO: So to come full circle, we talked about you playing your music yourself with your own group, as well as writing for orchestras where you have very little face time with the musicians. Now here we have an example of a piece that’s out in the world and you may have no face time at all with the musicians. That’s actually a very typical situation with composers whose music is published and gets widely performed. At a certain point, you can’t be everywhere. Your identity has to be conveyed exclusively through those marks on a printed page; that’s how it ultimately lives if it is to become repertoire.
FJO: That’s the opposite of intimacy, but I guess it’s vulnerable, isn’t it?
MM: It is. And if my only outlet was to make these marks on a page and then deliver it to people who I would never meet, I would be really depressed. I created this band, and I perform, and I write for my friends, and I try to be intimately involved with people who are in the process of performing my music to counteract that, to maintain some sense of control and involvement on every level. In a good way, not in a control freak kind of way, but just to be involved in all aspects of the music making. It’s a little bit scary to send this piece off and have people I don’t know yet perform it. But that’s also really exciting, and I will know them in a few weeks!