Pop goes the composer
Missy Mazzoli is the rare composer who will casually talk about “her band” in the way that Bruce Springsteen or Lucinda Williams might talk about theirs. But then, Mazzoli doesn’t really think about music in the classical sense. She’s part of a generation of composers who grew up listening to Beethoven and Aphex Twin, and she knows how to order elements from both menus. One of the rising stars of new music — if not an accomplished star already — Mazzoli puts on a concert at 4 p.m. Saturday, June 19, at the New Mexico History Museum.
“I came to music through the piano,” Mazzoli told Pasatiempo. “I played piano since I was 7, but it was really apparent that I was not going to be a famous pianist — basically because I couldn’t handle the isolation of being a solo performer. I wanted music to be a communal activity. I wanted to work with other musicians. I wanted to stage operas. I wanted to work with multimedia. Even at a young age I sensed this was true. So I started writing music very young and decided early on that this is what I wanted to pursue. Also, I’m interested in literature and visual arts and philosophy, and composition seems like a way to explore all of those things at the same time.”
Mazzoli’s work incorporates a tension that is almost narrative in nature, a pushing and pulling, melodies knotting up and being untangled. “Volume,” one of five works to be performed in Santa Fe (see sidebar), plays out like a conversation among the fragile kaleidoscope of notes produced by glasses of water and the powerful, monotone response of kick drums. “Lies You Can Believe In,” a gripping piece for string trio, sounds as if it could score an old film like Fritz Lang’s M.
Mazzoli’s background includes studies at the Yale School of Music and the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. She’s won the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composers Award four times, among other honors, and has participated in the Bang-on-a-Can Marathon of new music. She’s had music commissioned by new-music royalty Kronos Quartet and Eighth Blackbird. In 2007, she formed Victoire, an all-female quintet devoted entirely to fleshing out her compositions (and whose members wisely vetoed Mazzoli’s half-kidding efforts to call them a “bandsemble”). She made this move in part to have the flexibility to play at different venues and to enjoy a more social musical experience.
Similar to Nico Muhly’s recent work, Victoire’s music finds a seat somewhere between indie rock, electronica, and chamber music. “I Am Coming for My Things” loops an answering-machine message over Philip Glass-esque strings, sounding like a bad breakup or a desperate, darker missive from decades past. “The Diver” incorporates oceanic keyboard sounds reminiscent of Radiohead’s
Kid A album. Multiple songs use IDM (intelligent dance music) beats and vocals filtered through electronics.
“When I was a student at Yale, I had a job working in the electronic music lab,” Mazzoli explained. “I spent hours and hours and hours down there and had an endless appetite for experimenting with new sounds and creating my own sound. At the same time, I was really interested in the lo-fi end of electronics — and in experimenting with sounds that are more nostalgic and familiar to listeners — than creating completely new sounds. I want to play on sounds that people are familiar with, whether it’s a field recording or an answering-machine recording or the sound of an out-of-tune guitar. These sounds are very interesting to me.”
Mazzoli currently socializes with young musicians who grew up in conservatories and clubs. Her friends include Judd Greenstein and Anna Clyne — “composers who are my age who I’ve known since we were all 19 or 20.” She has also recently collaborated with Bryce Dessner of The National and Glenn Kotche of Wilco.
Victoire’s new album, Cathedral City, comes out in the fall. While it is distinctly new music and not quite pop, it is a record more along the lines of one Wilco might create rather than, say, a collection of sonatas. “It’s something composers don’t do enough,” Mazzoli said. “They don’t think in terms of what makes a good album. It’s kind of like one performance at a time.
“I feel very connected to popular culture. And I don’t know if that’s because I’m 29 and living in Brooklyn. I’ve always had a love for pop music in addition to classical music. I’m really interested in using techniques that all bands use in order to get people to come to my concerts, even though I’m writing music for violins and strings and classical combinations. So I’m working with this label right now, New Amsterdam Records, which in my mind is built more on a pop model than a classical label model, and that’s been really eye-opening in terms of what you can do to publicize your event.”
Mazzoli is writing an opera that incorporates film and electronics, and she plans to stage it in 2012. She also hopes to teach more. Regardless of what her future holds, we’ll certainly be hearing more from her — we just don’t know if it will be at a chamber music festival or the Coachella Music and Arts Festival. Most likely, it’ll be both.