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For Missy Mazzoli, composing is the hard work of making life easier

Missy Mazzoli's next opera, <em>Lincoln in the Bardo</em>, was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and is slated for a 2025 production.
Caroline Tompkins
Courtesy of the artist
Missy Mazzoli's next opera, Lincoln in the Bardo, was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and is slated for a 2025 production.

As a youngster in rural Pennsylvania, Missy Mazzoli knew she didn't want to become an astronaut or a nurse. Instead, she announced at age 10 that she was a composer — even though she hadn't yet written a note. The adults in her life figured she'd get over it.

Mazzoli, now 42, persisted. From piano lessons and punk gigs to composition classes and Carnegie Hall debuts, her career has risen steadily. In 2016, her opera Breaking the Waves found a breakthrough level of critical attention, introducing her to new audiences. Two years later, she and fellow composer Jeanine Tesori became the first two women to ever have a new work commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera. (Mazzoli's, based on the George Saunders novel Lincoln in the Bardo, is slated for production in 2025.) Her instrumental works are routinely performed by the world's top orchestras and chamber ensembles.

But the way Mazzoli views herself, even after so much success, remains crucial to her creativity. She's part of a longstanding tradition, but also views herself as an agent of change, striving to push tradition to its limits through what she calls a "skillful blend of the familiar and the unexpected." It's a formula that applies as much to her richly layered harmonies as it does to the bold operatic characters she creates for the stage — like those in her latest opera, The Listeners, which tells the story of a group of outsiders in a community trying to find their place and purpose.

From her home studio in Brooklyn, Mazzoli joined a video chat to talk about her early fascination with composing as a job, the importance of relatable role models, her long friendship with mentor Meredith Monk and the risks of celebrating too early when classical music institutions do something right.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tom Huizenga: I was watching your new opera, The Listeners, and it reminded me of something you once said about the early years of your career: "I always just felt like an impostor, which is not an uncommon way to feel in classical music." Why did you feel that way?

Missy Mazzoli: There's the whole idea of impostor syndrome, which I think is especially common if you're not a typical person's idea of what a composer looks like. Being a young woman, growing up in a rural part of Pennsylvania, growing up in a working-class household, these are not the things that [you'd think] would lead to a career writing opera at the Met. I always felt like I was sneaking in, or someone had made a mistake and I was there by accident, because it felt so alien to my childhood.

I take it you don't feel that way now. What changed?

I'm 42 now and have been in this career every day for over 20 years. I have been lucky enough to have a lot of performances and a lot of opportunities, and to look back and see the way the system works. And I can see why I felt that way. It was not something that had anything to do with my ability or my commitment. These were ideas that were in my head because of the way that the field is and the way that society is — and when you can identify these fears and look them in the eye, it's very easy to let them go.

Back in 2015 you told NPR, "I feel like I have more opportunities than I would have had, say, 20 years ago." Aside from the blows dealt by the pandemic, are you still upbeat about the state of things for classical musicians and presenters these days?

It's a complicated question. I'm writing a piece for the Met right now — they seem to have a renewed commitment to new work, and they're putting their money where their mouth is. They're commissioning not just me and Jeanine Tesori, but composers like Valerie Coleman and Jessie Montgomery in the Met and Lincoln Center's New Works Program. They just put on a work by Kevin Puts. They are really supporting new work and new voices. I hope that other organizations, orchestras, institutions follow suit, because it could go one of two ways: They can either really embrace the new, or retreat into what is old and familiar, in a sort of misguided attempt to cling to an audience that they feel will come back at pre-pandemic levels. I feel like this is an opportunity to really reinvent ourselves.

As you mentioned, you and Jeanine Tesori recently became the first two women to receive commissions from the 140-year-old Metropolitan Opera. Does it feel like a groundbreaking moment? Or is it more of a "Well, what took them so long?"

I feel like that's not really the question to ask. We'll see a change in a couple of years if the Met continues to commission women at the rate that they have been. And yes, it's very promising that it didn't just start and end with myself and Jeanine Tesori — they're starting to talk to other female composers, and composers who are not white. This is, of course, a great direction. But I'm cautious about saying something that would lead people to think that I'm communicating that everything's great now. Statistically, if we look at the entire history of the Met — and I'm just using them as shorthand here, as this applies to almost every classical music institution in this country — the numbers of women performed are still alarmingly low.

There are some presenters who genuinely seem to have a vision for what they're doing in terms of women composers and composers of color; the Philadelphia Orchestra has really turned itself around in that way. But in other institutions, there appears to be a certain amount of tokenism involved, just to be blunt about it. They're checking a box here and there, but they're not making sweeping, meaningful changes.

And how do we really determine the difference? How do we say, this orchestra is just promoting women and people of color as tokenism, and that orchestra is really making a sweeping change to the DNA of their organization? We need more time to see who really makes a commitment to letting their season reflect the population of this country. I do think there is value in the statistics, and I am loath to dismiss programming women and people of color as tokenism ever, because it implies that that's taking resources from more deserving people. This is a correction. This is the way that things should look. And again, it will cease to become tokenism when that pattern goes on for more than three or five seasons, and there's a sustained commitment to these people as artists.

I know that you've been helping to change the paradigm a bit with the Luna Composition Lab, which you founded with composer Ellen Reid in 2016. I'm curious to know how that is evolving — are you seeing more and more interest in it over time?

Luna Lab is one of the things I'm most proud of that I've ever done. It's a program that focuses on female and nonbinary and gender-nonconforming composers age 13 to 18, really at the very beginning of their careers. They're coming to us from all over the country, at varying levels of experience in writing music down and having their music heard, but all of them are just exceptional. And even in just seven years we are seeing a real impact, in that 95% of our graduates go on to study music at really prestigious conservatories and universities. They're at Curtis, we have a couple of students at Harvard, many students at Yale, USC, University of Indiana — and they can point to the program as something that helped them get in. It's just the kind of thing I wish I had had as a young person. It would have changed my life for the better and would have saved me a lot of mental pain, so I'm really glad that we can provide this for other people.

How would it have changed your life? What were some of the obstacles that got in your way early on?

I didn't meet another female composer until I was in my 20s, and I didn't meet a professional female composer until I was in college. I didn't really have colleagues in my early career who were other women. That sort of support network is essential as an artist — having people around you who can share that aspect of your experience is really key. Anytime you're the only "something" in a group, that is usually not the ideal circumstance in which to thrive and be creative.

So we're providing a sort of instant community, and then an instant mentor — someone who is different from your high school music teacher or someone you meet at a concert or a music festival. We're interested in sustaining mentorship. When students come into Luna Lab, they meet a professional who is also female, nonbinary or gender-nonconforming and work with them, potentially for life. I'm still talking to students who were in our program the first year and they're asking me for advice, letters of recommendation, they're sending me scores. I wish I had someone when I was 20 who was 42, who had that perspective and could help.

"I write most of my music on the piano," Mazzoli says, "and there's a lushness and a layering that comes from the fact that I'm drawn to weird harmony."
Victor Naine / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
"I write most of my music on the piano," Mazzoli says, "and there's a lushness and a layering that comes from the fact that I'm drawn to weird harmony."

Speaking of mentors, I know Meredith Monk has been an important figure in your life. I understand that when you were about 23, you wrote her a fan letter?

Yeah, sort of. I moved to New York between years of grad school, so I was just here for the summer, and I wrote her and asked if I could work for her, if she needed help in anything. It was such a naive sort of thing, with all the bluster of someone in their early 20s, like, "I want to try everything. I'm not afraid of anyone!" But she wrote back. She's like, "Actually, I need an assistant for the summer." And it was so eye-opening. I cataloged her video collection, I answered her email, I fed her turtle, I watered her plants, I met all these people. Just being near her was really the educational part. And when she found out that I was a composer and could transcribe things by ear, I transcribed a bunch of her pieces for publication just based on recordings, which was an amazing educational experience for me. We've kept up a friendship, and I consider her my mentor. I've been in love with her music since I was 13, and of all the composers I've met, I feel like she is the one that I'm closest to.

Was there something salient that you took away from her that you're still using today? An idea or a philosophy?

Seeing how hard she worked every day was revolutionary for me. I had this idea that Meredith Monk is famous, she is successful, she's traveling all over the world, she has commissions from all these big institutions and all these honors. As a 23-year-old, I thought she must be waking up on a bed of roses and then, like, getting tea at 11 a.m. But she gets up and works so hard every day. She doesn't go in with assumptions that it's going to be easy — every new piece is an act of discovery, and it's work. Even her more recent pieces, something like Cellular Songs or On Behalf of Nature, she's just getting better and better even in her 80s. Seeing how she respects music, respects the creative act and she is humbled before that — I've tried to carry that into my life.

During your early years, did you ever have an "aha" moment, when you kind of realized you could be a composer?

The process of getting over self-doubt and impostor syndrome, for me, is a lifelong process. I have a large group of friends who are composers, and we'll often call each other and say, "I forget how music works, can you remind me?" And Meredith Monk, I love her for so many reasons, but one is because she's so honest with that part of the process, the darker part of composing. She'll say sometimes that there's so much fear at the beginning of the process that she'll literally be shaking as she's sitting at the piano. You can write something you think is great and everybody loves, but then the next day you've got to go sit down and come up with something new, and that is terrifying. It's always the question of, maybe I can't do this again.

But was there some point in your life — maybe as a kid, or in school — when you thought, "Yeah, this whole idea of writing music for a living, that's for me."

Well, I'm a little weird in that I always thought that this is what I was going to do, as soon as I found out that this was a job option. I was taking piano lessons and I had a great piano teacher — Kirsten Olson, love you! — and she would talk to me about the lives of the composers, that Mozart was a very fast composer and Beethoven struggled more. I thought, this sounds like the coolest thing ever, a job where you could have access to all these different kinds of artists and you're making something new every day. And I'm like, "That's what I want." Ever since I was about 10 I have called myself a composer, even before I'd written anything.

You've come of age in more of a DIY culture for musicians and composers, where genre borders are more fluid, where you've played in bands in clubs but also scrambled to get your compositions performed in concert halls. That must have had an influence on the way your music sounds.

It's an interesting question because I don't know any differently. I was 17 when I went to Boston University to study composition, and from day one — this is in the late '90s — we got this message that there's no institutional money, you're going to have to do this yourself. So it's hard for me to imagine what my music would have sounded like if I had been born 20 years earlier, where there was not this sort of "do it yourself or it doesn't happen" kind of mentality. I probably wouldn't be a composer, which is a sad thing!

I was drawn to people who were bringing sunshine and lightness and joy into the musical process.

I was exposed to the community around Bang on a Can very early, and it wasn't like, "Oh, these composers are doing this because they have no other outlet." It was like, "This looks fun." They're creating a community and an ecosystem that is self-sustaining. They have parties. They have ensembles. They create bands. It was just this musical community that felt very alive. I was drawn to people who were bringing sunshine and lightness and joy into the musical process, and I found that in the DIY community. I also grew up, when I was a teenager, in sort of DIY punk communities in Pennsylvania, and played in punk bands. The idea of starting a band was very familiar to me, so these ensembles reminded me of that way of making art.

Your big opera breakthrough was in 2016 with Breaking the Waves, an adaption of the 1996 film by Lars von Trier. I know you thought at first that the movie couldn't be made into an opera.

I was hesitant to adapt it just because I think the film itself is so brilliant, and so closely associated with von Trier that I didn't know what else we could bring to the story through adding music and staging. But the more I thought about it, and the more I watched the film, I realized that there was a lot of room. There's no underscoring in the movie — there are some '70s pop tunes, but there's no score that's telling you how to feel. So that gave me a lot of space in which to create a musical landscape.

I remember seeing the film when it came out, and it struck me as operatic — especially the lead character, Bess. She's very complex, like Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata. Her sacrifices are huge, like Madama Butterfly's or Tosca's or Manon's in Massenet's Manon. Bess seems tailor-made for opera in many ways.

I think so, too. And I credit Royce Vavrek, my librettist and best friend — who will kill me if I don't mention him at this precise moment! — he saw that potential in the film and pushed me to really consider it. With the character of Bess, I am a composer who sees myself as part of a tradition, but I see my role and the joy of my life as expanding and pushing that tradition to new places. I was building on these stereotypes about female characters, but wanting to take it in a new direction. I think Bess has aspects of Violetta, but I really tried to push her to a new, almost scary place where people didn't quite know what to make of her.

The Listeners debuted in Oslo in September. It's about a group of people who hear this mysterious and debilitating hum, and a charismatic charlatan who gathers the victims into a cult. The opera plays out as a kind of psychological thriller, and at the center, again, is a woman facing enormous challenges. What about this story captured your attention?

I was really drawn to this main character, Claire, who is a middle-aged soccer mom in the American Southwest and finds herself in this extraordinary situation after she starts to hear the noise. There's this thread of female pain that is ignored — it's well documented, and it's sort of a sick joke amongst women — where you go to the doctor's office and you're like, "I'm in severe pain," and [the response is,] "It's probably your nerves." The opera is sort of an extreme version of that, where she's not believed and not believed, then finally she finds someone who believes her. I'm drawn to stories about women who find themselves in unusual situations where they have to break out of character and the rules that society has put on them; this is true of all my operas, actually. And I was also attracted to the sonic element — this hum, this noise, kind of made it essential that it was theatrical and happening around you.

May I ask what a composing day is like for you now? How do you actually do what you do?

Well, it's a lot less romantic than people think [laughs]. I sit down three times a day, 90 minutes each time — I know this is so uptight, but this is what works for me — and I turn off my phone and just write for those 90 minutes. As an artist, your schedule is so crazy, and I think this is what a lot of professionals find hard to deal with. I have two teaching jobs, I run a nonprofit, I'm constantly doing interviews and stuff, so it's really hard to find sustained chunks of eight hours a day in which to write. This 90 minutes, three times a day is what works. So every day is a combination of teaching, talking to the press, checking email, working on my insane schedule, and then hopefully writing in between. I treat it like a job, because it is a job.

I spoke with Tania León recently and she told me how she gets into a kind of "composing zone," so to speak, where she becomes one with the sound. I wonder if anything like that happens with you.

I love Tania, and she'll always be able to describe things more elegantly than I will, but I think I know what she's talking about. Every composer has their version of that feeling — you could call it a flow state, you could call it Zen. There's that quote: "Inspiration will always find you, you just have to be there waiting for it." Last week I was really inspired and was writing two minutes of music a day on this new opera, which is for me quite a lot. And then this week I'm really struggling. I don't know why there's a difference, but you have to know that it comes in waves. Having this regimented schedule of writing every day, I'm there waiting for inspiration when it strikes, and there's no telling when it will.

Speaking of Zen states, I read that you took a course to be a death doula — one who helps the dying and their families. Is there a connection in your mind between your attraction to that work and your essential drive to write music?

I think within me they're related, in that I have a tolerance for mystery and the unknown. Death is the ultimate mystery, and it's not something that has to be so terrifying — [that's] really a particularly Western idea of looking at death — so a big part of the training is looking at funeral rituals from other cultures, who have a very different attitude towards death and dying. The death doula stuff is a parallel track in that I have a capacity to be around people in difficult situations. I want to help people have a bit of an easier time in this world, and my music is an attempt to connect with people and create a shared experience, specifically around emotions for which we don't have an easy language.

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Tom Huizenga
Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.
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