Missy Mazzoli: From Lansdale to music's cutting edge

Missy Mazzoli has found success with "Song From the Uproar." STEPHEN TAYLOR
Missy Mazzoli has found success with "Song From the Uproar." STEPHEN TAYLOR (Missy Mazzoli)
Posted: March 25, 2012

NEW YORK - The antique and the exotic find each other, like long-lost friends, as audience members take their seats for Song From the Uproar. A haunting, prerecorded vocalise - the soprano voice gently rising and falling - repeats itself hypnotically against the sepia ambience of a 78 r.p.m. record, a prelude to the story of a Swiss adventuress who broke with Victorian conventions to heed the siren call of North Africa.

If there's such a thing as typical Missy Mazzoli, it's placing the familiar and the unusual cheek-by-jowl.

The opera's recent sold-out run at the Manhattan new-music venue the Kitchen is yet another event in a breakout year for Mazzoli, who heeded a similarly unlikely call, in her native Lansdale, to become a composer.

"Music is the best way that I've found for processing the world," she said the other day in Brooklyn. "I never stopped believing in myself. I always knew that this is what I was going to do even if I wasn't successful at it. I just want to keep doing this for the rest of my life. I don't want to go back to working in a grocery store . . . ."

Unlike her muse - the Song from the Uproar adventuress Isabelle Eberhardt, who seemed destined for her early death at age 27 in 1904 - Mazzoli is 31 and well on her way. The opera is in the recording studio, and the multimedia production is being shopped around for possible touring, buoyed by excellent reviews and years of goodwill built up both from her pieces and from Mazzoli's ensemble, Victoire.

Currently, the Kronos Quartet is touring with her Harp and Altar, the Albany Symphony Orchestra (where she is composer in residence) is premiering her newest orchestral work this spring, and she has two Carnegie Hall commissions.

Song From the Uproar is only the first in what Mazzoli hopes will be a trilogy of operatic portraits of remarkable women. Though her first opera is a series of set pieces - almost like scenes from a life rather than a connected narrative - she wants future stage works to be simultaneously unorthodox and more conventional. In her world, the two things don't cancel each other out - what seems paradoxical to some artists is not for her.

"She is truly a musical omnivore, and her sense of how music goes is stronger than any inherited stylistic boundaries," says fellow composer Steve Mackey, who helped pioneer the use of electric guitar in classical music. "As a result, there's little that separates her band [Victoire] from concert music. In all contexts . . . she has forged a highly individual style."

Practically speaking, she creates layers of music not normally found together, but in ways that somehow create vertical harmonies. Minimalist-style repetition is there - not for the usual trance-inducing reasons, but for dramatic effect. "It's like what John Cage said: If something is boring when you repeat it four times, repeat it 41 times and it won't be boring anymore," says Mazzoli.

If she represents a genre, it doesn't yet have a name, aside, perhaps, from "new Brooklyn composers." She lives in the Bedford/Stuyvesant neighborhood that's now so thick with artists "you can't go to the supermarket without bumping into a composer," and where the fashionable Galapagos Arts Center is a mainstay venue for her band.

It's the life she quietly dreamed about in Lansdale, where she knew she was going to be a composer by age 10, starting with her exposure to Beethoven. "When I played piano as a kid, I felt moved by classical music in a way that I didn't feel toward anything else," she said. "For a long time I didn't feel like I had any role models, which is a huge obstacle for young women. It's a solitary profession, but it's even more solitary when you feel like you're blazi ng a trail by yourself."

Her parents, Sheila and Larry Mazzoli, both special-education teachers, were supportive even though the household wasn't particularly musical. By age 17, she was studying at Tanglewood, moving on to Yale, Boston University, and the Royal Conservatory of the Hague.

Dutch minimalist Louis Andreissen was a huge influence, though the important lessons were philosophical: Music isn't a profession, but a life. Certainly, Mazzoli could identify with that idea. "This is what I know I'm supposed to be doing in life . . . and I didn't feel that I chose it."

Her musical language isn't yet codified. Though her music has its dissonances, that's not what one often remembers from her. More obvious is her solid sense of foundation, which makes you trust where the composer is taking you.

How might such music go over back home? Mazzoli might have found out had the Lansdale Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2009, not ceased operation. Family aside, she believes the awareness of her work in Lansdale is minimal. "I really don't think they know," she said.

But what she does is so entrancing, you can't imagine any alert denizen of the 21st century not being drawn in. She loves big washes of sound - often electric guitar-generated - as well as collaborations with the kind of video artists that made Song From the Uproar seem so luminous and dreamlike.

She wants to draw her listeners in close. "With every piece, I want to create a world that people can exist in rather than just watching from afar," she says.

"My goal with all my music is to draw listeners in with something familiar and then have it be like, 'Oh, I never heard it put that way.' "


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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