Interview with Missy Mazzoli

Seventh round with the project Listen to America. We interviewed Missy Mazzoli at a fortunate time: recently the Carnegie Hall commissioned her to write a new work for the band Victoire. This new work, based on poems by Matthew Zapruder, will premiere at Carnegie Hall on February 22, 2014, as part of the Ecstatic Music Festival. 

1. In your artistic career seems to have had a certain importance the Victoire project. Can you tell me how was born this ensemble and what projects are you currently working on?


photo © Stephen S. Taylor

Victoire is a band I started in 2008 to perform and tour my music.  It’s comprised of my closest friends and collaborators in the Brooklyn music community.  There is a core group of five women in the band, including myself, that play violin, clarinet, keyboards and double bass, and we also work with a  rotating cast of amazing singers.  I started this band with the idea that I could take the best parts of the indie rock world and the best parts of the new classical music scene and combine them.  I wanted to tour, I wanted to perform, I wanted to work with my friends, but I also wanted to have at my disposal the full range of colors, textures and complexity of contemporary classical music.  I wanted to present my work in a format that was not mysterious or intimidating for the audience.  If you tell people you’re a composer it’s hard for them to imagine what you actually do every day, but if you tell them you’re in a band they approach the music in a much more open and relaxed way.  The music is really just as complex and strange and colorful as my concert work, but through Victoire I’m able to present it in a way that reaches thousands more people.

We played our first gigs at John Zorn‘s venue The Stone here in New York, a tiny and wonderful space on the Lower East Side, and we have gone on to play all over the world, in Sweden, Berlin, Canada, Los Angeles, and all over Europe.  Our next big New York concert will be at Carnegie Hall this February; I’ve been commissioned to create a new work for us to perform with percussionist Glenn Kotche, from the band Wilco.  We’re also working on our second album, the follow up to our debut album Cathedral City, which we released on New Amsterdam Records.  (I should mention that Victoire includes Olivia De Prato-violin, Eileen Mack-clarinet, Lorna Krier and Missy Mazzoli-keyboards and electronics, Eleonore Oppeheim-double bass, and Mellissa Hughes-voice).

2. I started to listen to your music from orchestral compositions as Violent Sea (2011) or These Worlds In Us (2006). Listening is natural to ask what you willing to recognize stylistic influences, in Europe and America. The interesting thing, I think, is that I do not perceive recent influences but, rather, by composers such as Debussy…

Debussy and Ravel have certainly had an influence on the way that I write for orchestra, though I don’t count them as major influences on the rest of my work.  When I write for orchestra I think the early twentieth-century influences feel more prominent, since the orchestra itself does not have a distinctly modern sound.  To be honest this is something that I’m (happily) struggling with right now – how can I make the orchestra sound modern, sound like ME, when the audience inevitably associates it with romantic and impressionistic music?  How can I create a work that sounds like it was written in the 21st century, while using forces that were codified in the 19th century?  This challenge is very attractive to me, and I feel that with my most recent orchestral work, River Rouge Transfiguration, I’ve come a little closer to figuring it out. My influences are constantly changing and evolving;  right now I’m listening to a lot of John Luther Adams, as well as Congolese sacred music recorded by missionaries in the 1960s.

3. The catalog of your works is rich compositions chamber, orchestral, solo, etc. I want you to dwell on some chamber pieces that considers important for you. I seem to sense a great versatility in terms of instrumental selections: Volume (2006), for example, is a piece for two percussionists. Elsewhere we find work closer to the post-tonal music (You Know Me From Here). This is only different occasions or attracts you also work on the sound?

At this point in my career I often write music on commission, and, unless I’m writing for my band,  I’m not often able to choose the instrumentation.  That said, I do try to adapt every instrumentation into my sound world, which usually means that I introduce some strange, otherworldly element.  Volume, a percussion duo from 2006, includes a set of wine bottles, filled to various depths, that the players have to bang on.  You Know Me From Here, a recent piece  for the Kronos String Quartet, includes a lot of distortion, octave pedal, and various techniques that add another color palette to the ensemble.

4. In the interview that you released to the magazine The Rumpus you said: “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”. For several decades, however, contemporary music is considered as an art difficult to understand, as if it was not possible to access to appreciation without a certain cultural background. In recent years the debate has gone so far to include classical music. What do you think about this cultural conditioning?

I didn’t grow up in a musical household, and I didn’t grow up with easy access to  a cultural center.  Growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania, anytime I encountered a piece of classical music, whether I stumbled through it at the piano or heard it on the radio, I felt like it had been created for me alone.  Listening to Beethoven and Schubert and Philip Glass I felt like I was hearing the world explained to me at last, that I had finally found a language that made sense.  Granted, I was a strange and isolated little kid, but my point is that this music resonated with me before I even really knew what a composer was, before I had even taken a piano lesson.  You’re right to call it cultural conditioning; this resistance to classical music and contemporary music is something that is learned, and something that composers themselves often reinforce out of fear.  It’s easier to decide that someone just doesn’t understand your music rather than learn that they just don’t like it.  I’m not suggesting composers pander to the listener in order to feel good about themselves – quite the opposite.  I think the important task at hand is to create work that challenges people, that makes them confront things they’d rather ignore, but to do it in a way that draws them in and makes them feel connected to the composer and to other listeners.  Composers across genres and decades have managed to do this;  I think that Luciano Berio, Louis Andriessen, John Luther Adams and Nina Simone do this, to name just a few.  I don’t feel that the current marginalization of classical and contemporary music is the listener’s fault.  I think we’re living in an era that is saturated with commercial and pop culture, to an almost unbearable degree.  As an artist it’s very hard to figure out how to make one’s work jump out of the morass of entertainment and stimulation.  But as a composer I prefer to engage with this new world as best I can, to jump into the fray  instead of withdrawing further into myself.

Opera Philadelphia, Gotham Chamber Opera, Music-Theatre Group.

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