Music Beyond Genres

Constella Festival's Composer-in-Residence Missy Mazzoli defies convention


he Constella Festival got it right when they named Missy Mazzoli as this year’s composer-in-residence. At 33, she’s earned the awards, commissions and acclaim you’d expect from artists twice her age. And her two Constella concerts this year feature compositions she’s created since 2005, both for small ensembles and solo performance. 

“This is definitely the biggest showcase of the widest variety of my work,” she says, speaking from the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, where she’s working on a chamber piece for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Mazzoli’s music defies boundaries. Rooted in the minimalism of Philip Glass and Meredith Monk, the textures and instrumental palette of her compositions are uniquely her own. She writes for solo instruments and small and large ensembles, but the soundscape is never conventional; it’s an intriguing weave of acoustic and electric instruments and electronic enhancement. 

Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, Mazzoli says she had no exposure to Classical music until she heard a recording of Beethoven when she was 10. “I would just hole up in my room and listen to Beethoven for hours. I felt very moved and attached to Classical music and I decided to become a composer,” she says. “I’d been writing my own music since I started piano lessons and I was always making recordings because that’s how I experienced music — on cassettes or CDs. I rarely heard live music, except for the occasional Rock concert.”

“I also knew that I didn’t want to be a solo performer,” Mazzoli continues. “I had other interests: visual arts, philosophy, literature. Composing seemed to be the way to access these artistic and non-artistic fields.”

Mazzoli found the embodiment of that vision in Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, whose music she discovered while an undergraduate at Boston University. She had the opportunity to work with him following graduation, thanks to a two-year Fulbright scholarship to the Netherlands. Andriessen taught her much more about composition than finding the right notes, she says. “He taught me the difference between making a life in music and making a career in music. The ability to make that distinction has really helped me in my darkest moments.”

Mazzoli returned to the U.S. for graduate studies at Yale, where she taught composition and created many works for the Yale Orchestra. And, though she wrote off performing as a soloist, she was eager to be part of an ensemble playing her work, which led to the founding of her own performance group, Victoire, in 2008. Victoire’s members are Mazzoli on keyboards plus a violinist, clarinetist, double bassist, an additional keyboardist and one or two vocalists, all of whom are women. 

“They’re all my best friends and we have an open musical relationship,” Mazzoli says. “There’s more room for trying out crazier ideas and they’re very frank about what does and doesn’t work.”

Victoire’s 2010 recording Cathedral City featured Bryce Dessner of The National, and was cited by NPR and The New York Times as one of the year’s best recordings. Victoire has toured the U.S. and Europe, getting as close as Dayton, Ohio. But this week, Mazzoli will actually be in town.

Cincinnati audiences will hear her works performed by local musicians and students from Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). Tuesday evening’s program, at NKU’s Digitorum, includes the haunting “Dissolve, O My Heart” (2011) for solo violin, “Set That on Fire” (2012) for mixed ensemble and selections from the 2012 opera Song From the Uproar. 

Next Wednesday’s free program moves to CCM’s Corbett Theater and features a performance of “Still Life with Avalanche” (2008), commissioned by renowned ensemble eighth blackbird and recorded on their 2012 Grammy-award-winning CD Meanwhile. (They performed it here in 2010.) In a program note, Mazzoli writes that she received the news of a cousin’s sudden death while she was working on the piece in Colorado. “You hear that phone call when the piece changes direction, when the shock of real life works its way into the music’s joyful interior,” she says. 

It’s an eerily powerful piece that resonates long after the music ends. eighth blackbird’s flutist Tim Munro says that “Still Life” reflects everything that’s unique about Mazzoli’s music: arching lyricism, aching beauty, unhinged fury, wild funkiness.

Part of that funkiness is using electronics in her pieces, and Mazzoli’s use of electronics serves a very specific purpose. “What I use tends to be low-fi and very simple,” she says. “In Song From the Uproar, I used a lot of pre-recorded voice that was chopped up and manipulated to evoke some sort of memory or to create an otherworldly feeling.”

Song From the Uproar is Mazzoli’s first opera, based on the writings of the Swiss adventurer Isabelle Eberhardt. It premiered last year at The Kitchen in New York City. 

Mazzoli has stopped trying to define her compositional style. “It’s just something you have to listen to,” she says, “because every time I sit down to write, I’m trying to create something new, something that’s completely out of my head, even while it’s influenced by a lot of different people, different eras and genres.”

Mazzoli shares that philosophy with the next generation of composers: her students at Manhattan’s Mannes College The New School for Music, where she joined the faculty this fall.

“It’s a combination of pushing them outside of their comfort zones and getting them to take risks,” she says. “The other goal is to give them strategies to articulate what’s already in their soul. I really feel that everyone, no matter what background they have, has this music that they alone can write, whether it’s Country or Alternative Rock or Classical. I’m trying to get that out of them and give them a way to express it very clearly.”

MISSY MAZZOLI performs Tuesday at NKU and Wednesday, Oct. 16, at CCM. Tickets and details:

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