Not Always Composing To A Libretto, But Ever From The Book Of Life

Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Riccardo Muti and composer Missy Mazzoli during a rehearsal in October 2021 for her work ‘These Worlds In Us.’ (Photos by Todd Rosenberg)

CHICAGO – Some composers are perfectly happy with writing works that carry generic titles like Symphony No. 2 or Piano Quartet No. 4 and keeping their inspirations ambiguous. But as her inventive titles such as These Worlds In Us and Still Life With Avalanche make clear, Missy Mazzoli insistently wants her works to be about something.  

“I’m inspired by stories,” she said. “I’m inspired by narrative. I’m inspired by current events and what’s going on in the world. I’m more inspired by the way human beings succeed and fail and love and hate each other and everything in between. That just seems like such a really important and endless well to draw from.”

Mazzoli, who spoke in telephone interviews from New York and Norway, has displayed a fresh, audacious musical voice and unstoppable energy and ambition. At age 41, she has become one of the most successful composers of her generation. Last fall, she was named Musical America’s 2022 composer of the year, joining such luminaries in the field as John Corigliano, Kaija Saariaho, and Joan Tower. About all that is missing from her resume is a Pulitzer Prize for Music, and there is little doubt that honor is in her future.

“I’m in Norway recording a record,” she said. “I’m writing for the Met[ropolitan Opera]. I’m thrilled. These are things that I never could have even dreamed of five years ago. I’m extremely grateful and excited. It often feels like a dream.”

The next milestone in Mazzoli’s career will come March 31, when conductor Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra present the world premiere of Orpheus Undone. The 16-minute work, which the orchestra commissioned as part of the composer’s 2018-21 tenure as composer-in-residence, was supposed to debut in April 2020, but the COVID-19 shutdown forced a delay.

This new creation began with musical fragments that Mazzoli had left over after writing Orpheus Alive, a ballet that premiered in 2019 in collaboration with choreographer Robert Binet and playwright Rosamund Small. She described the work a “messed-up retelling of the Orpheus myth,” with a switch in the genders of the two main characters and the setting updated to present-day Toronto. “As I was working on the ballet,” she said, “I came to understand why it’s the most-told story in art. I think it speaks to this human tendency to make the same mistakes over and over again.”

Missy Mazzoli, former Chicago Symphony Orchestra CSO Mead Composer-in-Residence.

Although Orpheus Undone is a separate work, Mazzoli sees it as an offshoot of the ballet. It focuses on the moment when Eurydice dies and Orpheus makes the fateful decision to follow her to the underworld. When people face traumatic moments like this one in their lives, the composer said, time can feel like it compresses or stretches, so she experimented with time and tempo in this work. The two interconnected movements – “Behold the Machine, O Death” and “We of Violence, We Endure” – have titles based on lines from Sonnets to Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke. “Rilke is capturing these little moments of the Orpheus story in these sonnets and I’m sort of doing the same thing with the music,” she said.   

Mazzoli’s already extensive achievements are even more impressive considering the struggles that women have faced in the classical music realm for centuries. It is only in recent years, with the rise of the #MeToo movement and heightened societal conversations around race and gender, that female composers from the past and present are finally beginning to get the attention and performances they deserve – a fact that is hardly lost on Mazzoli.

When the composer is asked about the progress women in the field have made since #MeToo, a question she gets all the time, she makes no attempt to sugarcoat her answer. “Obviously, we’ve made big strides in the last five to 10 years,” she said, “but there was really nowhere else to go. So, what are we defining as a big stride or big step forward?” She notes that as little as five years ago some of the orchestras she has worked with had entire line-ups with not a single work by a woman or a person of color. “Now they might have three or five or even 10,” she said, “but still, statistically in the context of a whole season, that is a very low number.”     

Some of Mazzoli’s biggest and most visible successes have come in the realm of opera. New York’s Metropolitan Opera commissioned her fifth opera in 2018 with considerable fanfare. Her adaptation of the best-selling novel by George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo is still in its beginning stages, and she is already looking ahead to her sixth and seventh works in the form, though nothing has been announced. The Norwegian Opera is set to present the world premiere of her fourth opera, The Listeners, in September, and Lyric Opera of Chicago, a co-commissioner, has set the North American premiere for 2024. “Missy is an extraordinary composer, and she has very individual voice, a very communicative voice,” said Lyric general director Anthony Freud. “Her music is accessible, imaginative, and contemporary, all at the same time,”

In January, Lyric was supposed to stage Mazzoli’s Proving Up (2018), which focuses on a homesteading family in the 1860s, but a surge in COVID-19 cases forced the company to postpone the production. It is likely to be given in 2024 or ‘25. Freud praised the chamber opera’s “intimacy, intensity, and brevity,” comparing it to Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. “Both are supernatural thrillers,” he said. “Both use very small-scale performing forces, but Missy and Britten both have the skills to make those performing forces have an epic grandeur to them.”

Although the composer has demonstrated an obvious affinity for the form, opera was the furthest thing from her mind when she began composing. “I’m not a singer,” she said. “I didn’t grow up going to the opera. It wasn’t part of my creative world.” It was only when she found a story that needed an evening-length treatment and what she calls a “multimedia, immersive setting” that she realized the potential of opera. Song from the Uproar, which premiered in 2012, launched her into that world. Her award-winning adaptation of Breaking the Waves came four years later. “I realized that the process of writing opera was everything that I wanted from an artistic experience,” she said. “It was collaborative. It was visceral. It felt very alive.”

Musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform with pianist-composer Missy Mazzoli in the orchestra’s MusicNOW series in May 2019 at the Harris Theater.

But if opera has been a fertile realm for Mazzoli, she isn’t going down the path of Giuseppe Verdi, who devoted the bulk of his energies to the form. Instead, she clearly aspires to be a composer along the lines of Mozart, Britten or, more recently, John Adams, who excel in both the operatic and instrumental realms. “I can’t imagine only writing opera,” she said. “The timeline of opera is so extended that I crave the more immediate gratification even of writing something like a violin concerto.” She finished her Violin Concerto (Procession) in November, and Jennifer Koh and the National Symphony Orchestra debuted it in February, with a Washington Post critic describing it as “an unsettling work that opens like a trapdoor.”

Michael Lewanski, associate professor of instrumental ensembles at the DePaul University School of Music in Chicago and a longtime admirer of Mazzoli’s music, became friends with her during her residency at the Chicago Symphony. With a chuckle, he half-kiddingly describes her music as a mix of “cinematic, post-minimalism, and shoegaze emo,” the last descriptor being a blurring of two types of rock music. The composer comes to music, he said, believing that all styles are available to her and she can compose in whichever ones she wants. “So, on one hand, she clearly likes pop music,” Lewanski said. “On the other hand, she is very knowledgeable and loves lots of traditional kinds of classical music and likes film music, based on just listening to her.” The result is not a “post-modern pastiche” but just a natural fusing of the styles as she sees fit.

When Mazzoli, a native of Pennsylvania, was 23 and had finished her bachelor’s degree at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, she moved to New York. On a lark, she called Meredith Monk and asked if the groundbreaking composer and singer, someone she had admired since she was a teenager, needed an assistant for the summer. Monk was quickly won over and took on the student to transcribe some of her works for publication, with the two inventing notation for some of her unconventional sound innovations. “I had never had a female teacher,” Mazzoli said. “And Meredith wasn’t a composition teacher. She was more of a mentor and friend, but just to be around a woman who was so successful and brilliant was also very affirming and life-changing.”

To help other budding composers have similar transformative experiences, Mazzoli and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Ellen Reid formed the Luna Composition Lab for female, non-binary, and gender-non-conforming youths ages 13-18. They chose that age range because it is a time when young creative talents can get discouraged and abandon their musical aspirations. The six-year-old project matches them with mentors and helps them obtain performance opportunities. “It’s a very simple program that I think has the potential to change the field,” Mazzoli said.

Missy Mazzoli acknowledges applause following the Chicago Symphony’s first performance of her work ‘These Worlds In Us’ in October 2021.

As she matures as a composer, Mazzoli believes she is becoming more daring, which she called an “exciting wave to ride.” That means writing larger-scale instrumental works and incorporating more diverse influences, as she did with her new Violin Concerto, which she described as having a bevy of “crazy textures” and “extended techniques.” “I just feel freer in my compositional process, finally, after 25 years,” she said. “I feel myself able to take more risks and work through them.”

The Violin Concerto, inspired by medieval healing rituals, is the last in what turned out to be a trilogy of pandemic-related works that deal with the end of the world. Each of the works has five movements, with the last movement being a version of the first movement in reverse. “I really fell in love with that structure, and I wanted to see how much I could push it,” she said. The trilogy began with Year of Our Burning, a work for chorus and solo cello that will premiere in May at the Bergen International Festival in Norway. It deals with five different human behaviors in the face of the disease. The second work, Millennium Canticles, which was created for Third Coast Percussion, imagines a group of survivors of an apocalypse trying to remember and revive important human rituals. 

“I tend toward dark themes in my work,” she said. “A lot of my operatic and instrumental music does address issues like death and violence and trauma, these sort of extreme emotions. But I don’t want to give the impression that these are all super-dark pieces. I think there are moments of hope and even humor in all of them. They all end very optimistically.”