YSO Interview Series: Composer, Missy Mazzoli

What are you listening to right now?
I’m deep into writing this new opera, which is intense, so when I’m listening to music I need to listen to something completely different. I’ve been listening to a lot of Angel Olsen, Senegalese music, Kate Bush always. 
What’s the opera you’re working on right now?
It’s based on an original story about a woman who gets sucked into a cult. And sort of the interworking of a cult, how someone can get sucked into that, and the role of charismatic leaders in our society. It’s a collaboration with my librettist Royce Vavrek, and a Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill. 
And you’ve worked with Royce Vavrek on your previous operas, right?
We’ve worked on three operas together now: Song of the Uproar, Breaking the Waves, and Proving Up.
How did you and Royce start working together?
He was working as a librettist with my friend David T. Little, and I went to go see a workshop of their production, Dog Days, at Carnegie Hall. We just met there and I was looking for a librettist for my first opera, and without knowing him too well, just asked him if he wanted to write it. It was an amazing collaboration from the beginning. It’s a very intense experience. It’s a mutual support experience. It’s an amazing partnership.
It’s very lucky to have connected with someone and that I’ve been able to make multiple works with them. There are so many variables with operas: we work with a bunch of different directors, the stories are different, the company are different. So to have one constant, to have one person who has been through all of that with me, is a huge gift.
How do you go about producing something on such a large scale as opera?
I had this big realization early on with opera: most operas can be chopped up into very small sections that last anywhere from two to five minutes. You have this massive work, and it’s hard to conceive of making something that’s two and a half hours. But it’s really easy to conceive of making something that’s two to five minutes, something that makes sense and that has an arc and a dramatic logic to it in that short span of time. The key with opera is to create those little moments and to make sure they make sense on a short timespan. Then once you make a scene by connecting four or five of those moments, that also has to have a logic and then when all the scenes connect, that has to have an overarching logic too. So you’re always kind of zooming in and zooming out. 
You always have to make something that’s musically compelling in the moment, just like writing a good song that has a beginning, middle, and end. But then you always have keep zooming out to make sure that that little moment makes sense in the context of the scene, and then that scene has to make sense in the context of the opera. So I just get up try to write those moments everyday, while constantly finding ways to keep my eyes on the bigger picture. 
And I see this as a tool, not a weight. I’m about an hour into this new opera that I’m writing, and I have about an hour to go. I have an hour’s worth of material to draw on to write the rest of it, have written all these motives that have a meaning to them and a context, so I can play with that and use that. You know, you build up a little language within each piece. 
Can you talk about the Luna Lab program a little bit? 
It’s a program for young women, and gender non-conforming people around ages 13-18. We’re trying to set them up to give them a better time. I don’t think people understand just how isolating it can feel to be in such an extreme minority. I mean female composers, still in most situations, make up an extreme minority within the composing community, and when you’re in school it’s a very isolating situation if you have no female mentors. But even if you just have one person in your life who is a mentor who looks like you, it is so powerful. 
My colleague Ellen Reid and I recognized that and started this program. We select five applicants to be in the program, and five as honorable mentions. But we consider everyone applies to be a part of the community, so we call everyone who’s applied to ask them where they are and see if there are resources we could offer them. While we can only financially support five people with lessons a year, we’re constantly growing and expanding. We just started a partnership with the LA Chamber Orchestra, so we can add three more young women to our community who are from Southern California.
The whole thing is really taking off. It’s a very simple equation; we’re connecting young women to established women in the field and allow 20% of their music making to just be with other women. Young men get that all the time—there’s tons of situations where it’s just guys making music. But women never get that with just other women. We wanted to provide that safe space for them for a portion of their musical life.
What was the occasion for Orbiting Spheres?
That piece began as a commission for the Los Angeles Philharmonic for their Green Umbrella series. It was premiered in 2014 with John Adams conducting. A couple of years later I expanded it for full orchestra, and it was premiered by the Boulder Philharmonic in Colorado. My goal was for the piece was that I wanted to see if I could write something in the shape of a solar system, use a solar system as the basis for the form of the piece, meaning a bunch of smaller orbits within a larger one. It began really as a visual idea. Also, I was really obsessed with hurdy gurdies at the time, and wanted to see if I could replicate that sound in the orchestra. So that’s where you get the harmonicas, melodicas, and organ to make the whole orchestra sound like a hurdy gurdy. 
Are you an obsessive listener?
Yeah, definitely. It could be even a single song that I get obsessed with and listen to over and over. Lately I’ve been obsessed with the sound of fog horns, it’s just such a haunting, weird sound. It can be something as simple as just a noise. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with drones. You know growing up in a rural suburbs there’s always a lawnmower, always a plane. 
How do you think cross-genre music is being covered, is it productive?
I think it’s often talked about in a very artificial, forced way. I consider myself one of those people who are in the middle of it—though I really strongly identify with the term composer and consider myself as a part of a classical tradition. That’s where my training is, but I see it as just learning a language that gives you the ability to work with anyone. I work with bands and plenty of people who don’t even read music. I do arrangements, I do work with T.V. and film, and I don’t actually see any difference, it’s not like I’m dumbing stuff down for people who don’t read music. It’s always just about the music. 
My language—my harmonic language, my rhythmic language—is flexible enough to work in many situations. That flexibility feels normal, so when we talk about it - when it’s described in the press [as cross-genre] - it always feels like they’re talking about something else. I don’t sit down and consciously say “Well, today, I’m going to combine elements of rock music, electronica and classical music.” That would be so artificial. Cross-genre also implies a hierarchy—a sort of elitism—when really having a deep understanding of music theory and classical music just gives you a language to work with all types of musicians.
Missy Mazzoli was interviewed in December 2019 by Jacob Miller ’22