Last week Sydney Morning Herald commissioned a very short feature on Missy Mazzoli and her new work for Max Bibeau, the principal bass player of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, which is on tour now. I interviewed Missy and Max, and they were very generous with their time, giving me far more interesting material than could be squeezed into a 600 word article. So here are some of the things we talked about, in Missy Mazzoli’s own words.
Where do you start when making up music?
I do alot of brainstorming and I get ideas from some really strange places. This piece is one of them!
Max came over to my apartment in New York and he didn’t bring the really old bass but we were just fooling around with different techniques and ideas and he mentioned off hand, ‘Oh, I have an instrument that’s from 1580’. I said “Tell me more about that!” And that became the whole genesis of this piece.
I imagined it as a historian. Imagine what it would be like, what it would sound like if it were possible for the instrument to accumulate all the melodies and sounds and events that it had lived through for 450 eyars and then to spin it into its own piece.
It’s heavily influenced by the baroque era techniques and idioms, because it was built at the beginning of the baroque era. And then I imagined it accumulating little bits from different centuries as it goes on, so that it extends all the way up to the present day. There are a lot of contemporary techniques that the orchestra is doing as well so that my idea for the whole piece is that it would sound like a baroque piece that had been twisted and turned on its head.
Most recently you’ve been writing for the full catastrophe – orchestra, opera. Was writing for double bass limiting?
No. I approached it in a similar way to writing for my operas. The solo bass becomes a character. The melodies and harmonies and texture become very… I conceive of them in very human terms. They become forces which are either working with each other or against each other. Or there’s a sort of struggle inherent in the work itself. Between the soloist and the orchestra, or between members of the orchestra, between Max and the instrument. So it didn’t feel like that much of a leap to write a concerto coming off an opera.
How important to you is it that you are a performer as well as a composer?
I’ll always be a performer. Performing is very important to me. It keeps me in touch with music in a different way than being a composer, just sitting and watching other people perform. And it also connects me more to the audience. I mean, if you tell people you are a composer, people’s eyes glaze over and they don’t really know you’re talking about in 2018. Long before me, people like Philip Glass, John Adams, Meredith Monk, people at Bang on a Can, composers, recognised this as a problem and made attempts to connect with people on a different ways.
If I say to people, “I’m going to stand in front of you and play something that I wrote,” people say, “OK”. The walls come down and people are much more open to strange sounds and techniques and whatever I’m doing with electronics and samples.
It really affects how I write for instruments. I put myself in the place of the performer, and try as best I can to imagine the feeling of being on stage and how it feels to move from phrase to phrase. It’s people playing with music. That’s what’s interesting to me. I could write this for a computer and have it spit it back perfectly but I’m interested in the little variations and imperfections or, again, this idea of being able to hear the struggle if you are playing in a very extreme range of the instrument. That to me is beautiful and nostalgic and touching and that’s what I want underneath all the work.
Is it a surprise to you that you’ve ended up writing opera?
Yes and no. I grew up loving collaboration. I fell in love with music videos as a kid. I grew up in an isolated community in Pennsylvania and was not going to see operas and orchestras at all, but I was obsessed with MTV. Those videos in the late 80s, early 90s, were operatic in their scope and their budget! I’ve always wanted to tell stories and I’ve always been interested in longform work and creating an immersive experience for the audience, so knowing all that, opera is a natural fit. But the logistics of it are so impractical and crazy that I never thought I’d have even the chance to write one, and I just premiered my third!
I think that has to do with what is going on in opera in the US, and I think all over the world, but in New York in particular the golden age for opera. There are so many people creating operas that are on a smaller scale, that are telling true, contemporary stories.
Are you overwhelmed with commissions?
Everyone always says, “people must be knocking your door down!”. It’s not actually true. I have a lot to do but opera is a big, expensive, very political genre. There are a lot of other things besides having a success that either get you gigs or keep you from getting gigs. But I’m very happy to be writing a new piece for Opera Philadelphia and I’m writing a new piece for about Cindy Sherman.
On gender and women in music…
Is it a conscious choice that your ensemble Victoire is all female?
Yeah. I mean. Y’know. Yes and no. I hired them because they’re amazing musicians. And I knew that I could spend a lot of time with them. They’re some of my best friends. But it was part of a decision.
Most of my music making is with men and I’m usually the only woman in the room, or on the creative team in the case of operas. I just wanted 15% of my experience to be with just women. To see how that felt. The vibe was very different and I’m really glad I did it. It started off with this feeling, just let me try this. But it became a more political thing the more interviews we did because we kept getting this question, and we said, “why is this a big deal? Obviously we are not as far along as we thought gender in America in terms of the music scene”. And then we thought, “yes, we’re proudly women”, and started talking about it more in the press.
With opera I see this trend where very young men are given opportunities based on their potential to create something great. With women, you have to write seven operas before someone gives you the chance to write a twenty-minute children’s opera.
When it comes to spending big money and giving massive opportunities, you’re always taking a risk. It’s always based on potential. But I don’t see people giving young women the same chances that they give young men. These young men are very deserving, but so are these young women.
Tell me about your own initiatives to change this imbalance.
Last year, 2016, with the composer Ellen Reid, I started Luna Lab, which is a mentorship and support program for young female composers in their teens. They’re so young because we recognised two problems: that there weren’t enough female composers in positions of power at the very top, in university jobs or as artistic directors, and there was not enough attention paid to composers in their teens.
Teenage girls can be so insecure and so vulnerable that we thought we would focus our attention on them. So we solved both problems at once by connecting each young woman in our program with a member who was a prominent female composer and they skyped together once every two weeks and they work on a piece that is then premiered in New York City every June, and that piece is professionally recorded, so they have this tool with which they can apply to colleges, and generally boost their self esteem. It also provides them with a community of other young composers so they’re not, like I was, the only woman in the room most of the time.
Are you in favour of what has been referred to as ‘positive discrimination’ or ‘affirmative action’?
I want to be really clear. I often come out in these statements against affirmative action for women who are professionals. For someone like me it doesn’t make any sense. My heart sinks when I get a call from an artistic director saying, ‘We really want to commission you,’ — “yes!” — “’cos we really want a woman on the program.” It happens all the time. And part of me dies.
It is a tricky thing. I’m trying to come out against these initiatives that are putting a band aid over the issue, such as when an ensemble has ‘this is our female concert of the year!’ or you become a token.
But I do think there is a place for positive discrimination in very early education. I was travelling around the whole US teaching and doing masterclasses and I noticed that not one Freshman Class was 50/50. Most Freshman classes of composers were 80-90% male. There’d be one lone 17 year old girl at the back, scared to death. And that was me at that age. This is something that is happening to girls in their teens, to make them feel that they are not a part of this community. And that breaks my heart. So I do feel there’s a place for singling out women when they are so young.
The Australian Chamber Orchestra is on tour from 1-16 February 2018. The program includes Dark with Excessive Bright, Missy Mazzoli’s new concerto written for double bass principal Maxim Bibeau, and the Australian premiere of Anna Clyne’s double violin concerto, Prince of Clouds, with soloists Glenn Christensen and Ike See.
It also includes some music by male composers. The title of the tour is Tognetti Tchaikovsky Brahms.