In Conversation – Missy Mazzoli

Missy Mazzoli is a New York composer who recently completed Song from the Uproar, an opera based on the life and writings of Isabelle Eberhardt, an eccentric 19th-century Swiss aristocrat who moved to Algeria and converted to Islam (read the Voice review of Mazzoli’s album here). Mazzoli’s compositions have been performed by the Kronos Quartet, eighth blackbird, the American Composers Orchestra, the New York City Opera, the Minnesota Orchestra, cellist Maya Beiser, the Albany Symphony, the South Carolina Philharmonic, Dublin’s Crash Ensemble, and many others.

Musical Field Trips

I grew up in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, to decidedly non-musical parents. Lansdale is a small town outside of Philadelphia, and to me it felt impossibly small. Trips to downtown Philadelphia were my musical education?we would go there on field trips in junior high and middle school to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra. I remember knowing at that moment that I had to live in this musical world and contribute to it somehow.

Random Beethoven

There wasn’t any classical music in my environment, but we happened to have a piano my parents bought at a flea market. I discovered Beethoven early on through a piano teacher, and devoured every recording of his works I could find. It felt random and chaotic, but I treasured every piece by Beethoven that I heard. Each musical discovery felt like it was mine alone.

Incredible Musical Experiences

When I finished my opera I felt like I had arrived somewhere new, that I had accomplished something I had been trying to do for years. I’ve also had many incredible experiences with my band?we performed in Paris last year to a sold-out crowd, with the band My Brightest Diamond, and it felt like we were levitating. They also gave us gourmet chocolate during sound check, which probably helped.

On Louis Andriessen

When I was studying in The Netherlands I worked with the incredible Dutch composer Louis Andriessen. He taught me a great deal about how to live a life in music, not just how to create a career that was in some way separate from myself. Andriessen really lives and breathes music. He pushed me to push myself: to continually go further than I thought I could go and to dream big.

The Life of Isabelle Eberhardt: a Mirror of the Struggles of 21st-Century Women

I was struck by the idea that we don’t know each and every thing that happened to Eberhardt. In an age when our every move is documented and recorded, there is a lot of space in her story that allows for artistic interpretation. It gave me room to imagine how she might have felt, which in turn set me free when creating the new work.

I was also struck by the extremely personal nature of her journals. Her writing is extremely strange and intimate, particularly compared to other writings by women in the early 20th century.

I feel that Isabelle Eberhardt’s struggles mirror those of many people, particularly women, in the 21st century. She finds herself caught between her need to lead an independent life and her desire to settle down with her husband. She also struggles to express herself in an often hostile environment. Ultimately her story is about discovering and remaining faithful to one’s true self in the face of extreme loneliness and adversity.

I don’t know for sure, but my sense is that Islam provided Isabelle with a great deal of comfort and acceptance. Her Sufi sect accepted her as a man, though she was obviously a woman, and didn’t judge her for her unconventional behaviour. I think she also took comfort in Islam’s view on death, which teaches that this life is a trial for the next one. This point of view seems to provide some sort of order and reason to Isabelle’s chaotic and unlucky life.

Portrait of a Dreaming Mind

Because we don’t know every single detail about Isabelle’s life, I became more interested in what happened in Isabelle’s mind and dreams, so it felt appropriate to provide a suitably abstract atmosphere in which to tell her story. I also wanted to tell the story from Isabelle’s point of view, with all the misremembered moments, all the exaggerations and dream-like logic that would arise if Isabelle was actually telling her own story.

Current Obsessions

I have my long-term obsessions?Beethoven, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Robert Wilson?and the particular artists I’m obsessing over this week, including John Luther Adams, Purcell, the artist Tim Hawkinson, and theater artist Cynthia Hopkins.

Next Steps

I’m working on a piece for the Detroit Symphony and a new work for my band in collaboration with the percussionist Glenn Kotche.

Creative Conditions

My only workable strategy has been to work each and every morning on music, before working on anything else. I learned this from Philip Glass. When I asked him what his secret was, he said, ?I get up early and I work all day.?