Who is Missy Mazzoli?

You might know the name, but who is Missy Mazzoli? What kind of music does she write? Here's everything you need to know about the genre-defying American composer, who, since the pandemic, has been training to be a death doula

Published: June 14, 2022 at 1:12 pm
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Who is Missy Mazzoli?

Missy Mazzoli is a boundary-defying American composer and pianist, who writes music for pretty much every medium under the sun: opera, orchestra, chamber ensemble, film, television, and her own band, Victoire. You name it, she's probably written for it, and done it with style, given that her CV includes a composer residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and that she was recently named 2022 Composer of the Year by Musical America.

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How would you describe her music?

A propulsive, classical-electronic hybrid, with elements of jazz and minimalism, and as much of a debt to Beethoven as to Mazzoli's contemporary composer heroes Meredith Monk, John Luther Adams and David Lang. If this doesn't sound very definitive, that's because Mazzoli is impossible to categorise, and has said that that her ideal listener wouldn't know anything about her music so that they wouldn't have a preconceived idea about what it should be based on labels. But if there was one word to sum up her music, it would be 'dramatic'. So compellingly dramatic, in fact, that in 2018, Mazzoli, along with the composer Jeanine Tesori, became the first woman ever to have been commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera.

How did she get into composition?

Growing up in a non-musical family in a quiet borough of Pennsylvania, Mazzoli - who is of Italian-Polish descent - discovered classical music through public television and the local library. She started writing her own music aged ten, initially inspired by her love of popular classics such as Beethoven's 9th symphony and Barber's Adagio for Strings, and later by her explorations in the world of contemporary classical music. She went on to receive a Master's Degree at the Yale School of Music, where she studied under composers including David Lang, Louis Andriessen and Aaron Jay Kernis, amongst others.

What work is she best known for?

Probably her three operas: Song from the Uproar, based on the life of Swiss explorer and writer Isabelle Eberhardt who travelled widely through North Africa dressed as a man; Breaking the Waves, about a woman in the Scottish highlands caught between the demands of her husband, her family and the towering presence of the Calvinist church; and Proving Up, based on Karen Russell's ghost story set on the 19th-century prairie. Mazzoli has described writing opera as her musical destiny, and admits that even in her instrumental music, she likes to think of instruments as characters.

Where am I likely to have heard her music, outside the opera house or concert hall?

You might have heard her work in the hit series Mozart in the Jungle, for which she wrote and performed several songs.

What kind of themes is she interested in?

Mazzoli often centres her work on strong female characters. A co-founder of Luna Composition Lab, a mentorship programme that focuses on developing the next generation of women, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming composers, she is outspoken about the position of women in contemporary classical composition.

Anything else I should know?

She is currently training to be a certified death doula – someone who provides support to dying people and their families.

Where can I next hear her work?

At the BBC Proms, on Sunday 14 August, when the Philharmonia Orchestra performs her new Violin Concerto, 'Procession' under its new Music Director Santtu-Matias Rouvali.

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Photo: Getty

Authors

Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.

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