Missy Mazzoli is sitting in one of Ingmar Bergman’s bedrooms when she joins our Zoom meeting earlier this summer. At the time, the 40-year-old composer was finishing a monthlong artist’s residency at the Bergman Estate at Fårö—an island in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Sweden where the director lived and filmed parts of Through a Glass Darkly and Scenes from a Marriage.

Bergman wasn’t the first to seek solace on Fårö. The island was a haven for people looking to avoid the plague in the 1400s. Those marks of history are still apparent on the island, making Mazzoli’s residency there a bit cosmic: She spent the time working on a violin concerto for Jennifer Koh, inspired by Medieval chants and prayers used to ward off the plague. From an island linked to both plague and Persona, Mazzoli and I spoke about her upcoming operatic adaptation of George Saunders’s novel Lincoln in the Bardo, the legacy of her teacher Louis Andriessen, and her current studies to become a death doula. 

But first, she caught me up on the pieces she’s been working on given the extra time afforded by the pandemic. 

VAN: I’ve heard a lot of composers speak in one of two ways about the last 18 months: Either it was a wasteland for getting work done and they had very little compulsion to do things, or it’s been a very productive time. Would you say you’re in the latter camp? 

Missy Mazzoli: In terms of minutes of music written, sure. But I keep having this feeling that I get when I’m surfing: You’re paddling in the water, and you’re trying to move parallel to the shore, and you feel like you’re not getting anywhere because you have no frame of reference. Your frame of reference is the ocean, and the ocean is not a frame of reference. It’s too big. So you feel like you’re not getting anywhere. And then you finally turn towards the shore, and you realize that you’ve traveled quite a far way. Right now, I’m still paddling. I’m still waiting to turn towards the shore, which will be when live performance returns and I can hear some of the stuff I’ve written. 

Even when times are good in the world, I have a hard time understanding who I am if I’m not writing. And so when things got real, I was afraid to stop writing, because I thought this void that we’re all sort of staring into would consume me. It was a productive time, but I feel like just calling it that conjures up this idea of: Oh, I’m so happy, I have all this time! And that it was more like, Oh my God… My life needs to take some sort of form, so I better keep writing ’cause that’s the only thing giving it form right now. My sadness, my heartbreak, my depression, my anxiety about the world—I understand all of it through the writing of music. 

You mentioned something similar last month after your teacher, Louis Andriessen died; that he used music to understand the world. Given all that we’ve had to make sense of in the last few years, has your way of making music changed? 

I’m still using music to understand the world and—more importantly, I think—to communicate with the world and to connect with other people. So that hasn’t changed. But not having an audience for a while has led to some interesting changes in the way that I think about music. Having more time to sit with things and to change things over the course of a year… Not having an audience really made me go inward and write some pieces that are pretty new for me. 

Such as…?

This series of pieces that I’ve written over the last calendar year. I think of them as a trilogy, even though they’re for wildly different instrumentation. In my mind, I’m calling it “The Apocalyptic Triptych,” because it often feels like the world is ending. It’s not, but this feeling of being on the brink of catastrophe—writing pulls me back from that edge. And so these three pieces are about rituals that surround a sort of end-of-the-world scenario, and there’s a lot of joy and lightness and community and communion in that. 

There’s a piece for choir and cello called “Year of Our Burning,” which was supposed to premiere at the Bergen International Festival last June, but because of pandemic-related delays will happen this coming June. And there’s a piece I’m writing for Third Coast Percussion called “Millennium Canticles,” which imagines a group of survivors after the end of the world [who are] recreating human rituals; inventing some of their own and misremembering others. For me, percussion is very ritualistic and choreographic, and so thinking of it in that sense was really fun. And then this most recent violin concerto for Jennifer Koh is sort of in that same vein where I’m taking a lot of inspiration from Medieval chants, things written around the time of the Plague. 

With the percussion quartet, you mentioned the idea of people recreating human rituals. Are there certain rituals that you think we’re pre-programmed to gravitate towards, or to recreate?

I think that there are certain commonalities among rituals throughout the world. They involve coming together at specific times, marking big occasions. And a lot of them involve music and singing together; there’s a lot of vocalizations in this piece for the percussionists. One of the movements is called “The Choir of the Holy Locusts.” We have this very understandable desire to look for a leader in a time of crisis. Everyone has been doing that in their own weird way—with great results and disastrous results—so the idea is that this group of survivors declares that the locusts are their new gods. 

© Caroline Tompkins

You recently concluded your residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It was extended by a year due to the pandemic, and its beginning in 2018 coincided with the CSO strike. Not exactly the residency most composers expect to have. Do you feel differently now that you’re on the other side of it? 

Out of the 11 big concerts I was supposed to be a part of, I think six were cancelled either because of the strike or the pandemic. But despite all of that, I was able to curate and bring onto that stage all of the works that I was really passionate about. We commissioned works by Nicole Mitchell and Courtney Bryan, and did a premiere by Wadada Leo Smith where he basically invented this notation. Through Zoom, I would interview him about the notation, I’d communicate that to the players onstage, and then take their questions back to him. It was this insane process, but it was so wonderful. I programmed Jessie Montgomery and had her do this amazing arrangement of this Julius Eastman piece, and now she’s the new composer-in-residence. Not that I can take sole responsibility for that, but I do feel like I was a part of introducing her work to the orchestra and the administration. That was my goal: to bring in people who had never worked with the CSO before. I think Wadada had done one other piece with them, as did George Lewis. But they were the two exceptions in three years of programming. 

George Lewis is a good reason to break the rules.

His was one of the casualties [of the pandemic]. I’d wanted to program his piece, “Tales of the Traveler” with Tomeka Reid as the soloist. It was just too big to recreate in a socially-distanced way. But that’s why I had that mandate of only people who have not been programmed before. Sometimes there’s this weird idea that people are only going to be attracted to names they know. Which, I think, there’s a degree of truth to that; but I didn’t want to have to consider that at all. Steve Reich does not need one more performance of his String Quartet. But for a younger composer, that could be life-changing.

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Going back to Andriessen, you mentioned a dichotomy within him: the “burn it all down” mentality, but also a soft core with a love for the canon. That resonated with me, because I think we’re all swinging between those two extremes right now as an industry. The approach you took with your CSO residency seems like a viable middle road. 

I understand the impulse to burn it all down. I really get it, but I don’t think that’s ever gonna happen. I’m very pragmatic. I will criticize the system ‘til the end of time, but I’m gonna be working within it for 90% of what I do. Because my vision for things is that I want to do things that are too massive for me to pull off by myself. I just don’t have the resources or the connections in my family to do that.

We can talk about how all the opera houses should be burned down, but that’s never gonna happen. They’re gonna outlive us all. The question is: What kind of impact do we want to have on them? How do we want to hold their feet to the fire and push them to make better decisions? That’s how I think. 

And so for some people, they’re not interested in that and they do just want to completely work outside of the system. I respect that and I totally get it. It’s just not the circumstances of my life. And I think Louis Andriessen was the same way. He had these aspects of his life that were very disruptive; creating his own ensembles, orchestras without hierarchy. But then he also had a great relationship with conductor Reinbert de Leeuw. That’s a hierarchy. It was really a model for me about how to have part of your life working within the system, but working to change the system for the better and holding people to a very high standard—even if you’re working for them. 

After Andriessen’s death, several women came forward with allegations of sexual harassment against him. Did that at all change how you viewed your time or relationship with him? 

Any relationship you have with a teacher where you’re working with them one-on-one every week for years at a time is going to be really multifaceted. Louis was over 40 years older than me, and I was very young when I started to study with him. I was 21. My overall experience was that Andriessen was the first teacher I had who talked to me like an equal. I really felt that I was stepping into my own as a person and as an artist because of my conversations with him. He believed in my ability to do things even before I saw it in myself. 

At the same time, yeah, there were comments that he made. I think that almost every teacher I’ve had has made the sort of comments that I feel he would not make to one of my male peers. Comments about my appearance, comments like “Oh, you’re so sweet”—which is also something Philip Glass has said to me. And it’s always an uncomfortable moment for me; going from feeling like a peer to feeling like a little girl.

It’s horrific to go through that; to have that be your main experience with somebody. And I think that these stories need to be told, even if it is about someone who I had so much respect and affection for.

I sometimes have to remind myself that, 20 years ago, we didn’t have the same tools or vocabulary for responding to that behavior. 

Even five years ago, it was very common for a composition department to be 100% white men. At the time I was studying in the Hague, every teacher was a white man. And it was never questioned.… We didn’t have the language to say, “Why don’t you take responsibility for the fact that there’s no diversity in your department?” 

Is that something you find yourself asking a lot now? 

I’ve spent the last 15 years traveling around the country and around the world teaching, giving guest lectures, and talking to students. Sometimes I actually ask the question, but I’m always at least asking it in my mind: Where does the system break down for your institution in terms of diversity? It’s not coming from an angry or accusatory place; I want to know. In terms of a college composition program, is it that women and people of color are not applying? Okay, what can we do about that?… I want to know where the system breaks down, because I want to fix it. 

© Caroline Tompkins

You also mentioned recently that you’re studying with a death doula? 

Yes! I’m taking a course with this amazing woman named Alua Arthur, who’s based in LA and has a company called Going With Grace. It’s an end-of-life/death doula training company. And it’s been life-changing for me. I’m still very much in the process of learning, and there’s no official sort of certification that you get, but this is a course that people go through to do this kind of work.

What led you to sign up for it? 

I’ve always been interested in working with the dying. I think that it comes from a lot of different places. It comes from my fear of dying alone; I think that everyone at some point in their life has that terrifying thought cross their mind. I could never really find a way in, because I’m not a nurse, and I’m not interested in a career change. And then I found death doula work and thought, Oh my God, this is the first time in my life when I’ve come across a job that I want that is not being a composer. These topics—death, loss, heartbreak—happen to every single one of us, yet we don’t talk about it. And how fascinating that there’s an opportunity there to open the conversation in a really interesting and joyful way. That was my thinking leading up to it, and a lot of my work in terms of the music that I create—especially the theatrical productions that I create—has led me in that direction as well.

In opera, "death does not mean death. This is death as a metaphor for many different kinds of things in our life that we don't talk about." @missymazzoli in @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet

I was going to say, opera is one of the few places where you get to really focus on death in a concentrated way. 

Not to open a can of worms, but even metaphorically, death [in opera] does not mean death. This is death as a metaphor for many different kinds of things in our life that we don’t talk about, and the only way to talk about them—the best way that I found to talk about them—is by illustrating them in these highly dramatic, fictional representations onstage. A death onstage can mean heartbreak. It can mean rebirth. It can mean freedom. It can mean a separation from society.

Looking at “Song from the Uproar” or “Lincoln in the Bardo,” both of which have historical figures attached to them, do you still see death as a metaphor for those characters? 

Absolutely. With Isabelle Eberhardt’s death [in “Song from the Uproar”], her actual death in real life was tragic and happened way too soon. But my illustration of her death onstage is a way of me talking about her separation from western European society and entry into this world of Islam in North Africa, where they actually accepted her for who she truly was.

With Lincoln, it’s a little more complicated as I haven’t written the piece yet. It’s hard for me to talk about these things until I’m at the end of the process. But I will say that the appearance of Willie Lincoln in this cemetery populated by all of these people who refuse to acknowledge that they themselves are dead… He’s the catalyst who gets a lot of them to acknowledge that they are dead, and experience death and loss. In a way, he’s like the death doula. ¶