There’s a burning question that crops up when I sit down with a composer who played clarinet in a youth symphony and heavy metal in garage bands as a teenager growing up on Staten Island in New York City, who found her “gateway drug into jazz” and the upright bass when she encountered the music of Charlie Mingus, who has played with innovators like Cory Wright, Randy McKean, Jason Levis, and Rob Ewing, written music that is rooted in jazz but restlessly prowls other musical precincts, performed in museums, underground joints and at the prestigious SFJAZZ Center, curated new music series up and down the West Coast, and is developing a serial opera podcast. I ask Lisa Mezzacappa: “Is there any music you don’t like?”

Mezzacappa laughs and tells me “actually, I’m very picky about music.” She admits she is not fond of Mozart.

Yet Mozart, a perfectionist improviser by some scholars’ accounts, might have found a kindred compositional spirit in Mezzacappa. A self-taught composer rather than the product of conservatory training, she constructs intricate scaffolding around spaces for musicians to improvise. “I wanted to play music that I wasn’t being called to play, so I realized I had to start writing it,” she says. “I do a lot of reverse engineering, I study scores, transcribe, a lot of trial and error with different musical structures that I want to develop.”

Having shipped out from New York to the San Francisco Bay area 18 years ago, she has taken up with a posse of adventurous musicians and writes with specific instrumentalists in mind: “If you play violin in a symphony, there’s a list of skills that are a given. But if you’re in this musical community that I’m in, people come to it from a lot of different places – which is what makes it rich and exciting. It also means that as a composer you’re always thinking about things like: this person comes from classical percussion so they can read really crazy notation, while that person comes from a noise background, can’t really read that well but is an incredibly intuitive improviser.”

Finding inspiration in unusual places

A kind of sonic fresco that merges notated music with improvisation, Mezzacappa’s compositions spring from a wide range of literary preoccupations. These include crime fiction, film noir, Italo Calvino’s nerdy parables of the origins of the universe and the travel journals of Victorian-era women explorers – all redolent of time and place. Equally, her fascination with scientific phenomena from the realms of cell biology, astrophysics, chemistry and genetics (Mezzacappa has a biology degree) has spurred her to express them in musical terms – notably, in a recent work titled Organelle, which premiered in Cologne, Rome and Naples in 2016, then traveled to Berkeley, San Francisco and Vancouver.

For this, she created a graphically notated score playable by any ensemble of instrumentalists who can crack its visual code. Mezzacappa says she has a weakness “for pre-digital ways of representing unfathomably huge and beautiful or microscopic things” – the resulting charts for Organelle are not just a brain-tease for the players but a thing of whimsical beauty in their own right. Planetary alignment, the life cycle of a mayfly, the passing down of mitochondrial DNA and the chemistry of carbon-dating are among the schemes captured in individual movements of this work.

Touch Bass

The richly textured aural landscapes of Mezzacappa’s music are often accentuated by a striking visual element– like the charts that underpin Organelle, or the movements of dancers in Touch Bass, a collaboration with choreographer Risa Jaroslow. Unlike most music commissions for dance, this one entailed a year and a half of bassist-composer and dancers working together in the studio, chasing musical ideas that came from movement and movement that came from musical ideas. “It was so collaboratively generative in that way,” she says. “The movement and the sound really emerged together.”

“Improvisation was a big part of the process,” she explains, “but then I also needed to be able to improvise at some moments in the performance. Because I know a lot of choreographers use improvisation, then they fix it. I was like, ‘No, for me it’s not just the How, it’s also the What.’”

Situating musicians on stage, even having them engage in repartee with dancers, is old hat, but, as the title of the piece suggests, there is an unusual amount of physical contact between musicians, dancers and the three stand-up basses. In a somewhat harrowing, yet funny and even erotic sequence, three cast members lie on the stage, seemingly crushed by the massive basses on top of them, as the other three manipulate their strings in a detached, contemplative manner.

Glorious Ravage

Visuals are equally stunning in Mezzacappa’s most ambitious work to date, the panoramic song cycle Glorious Ravage. 15 musicians and four filmmakers were deployed to reimagine the wildernesses traversed by a dozen intrepid female explorers, biologists and ethnographers who flouted social conventions of the 19th century.

Glorious Ravage locates the musical language of ships bound for the Arctic, of jungles on remote Hawaiian islands, West African mangroves, the snow-covered Colorado Rockies and the wild wild west that was San Francisco in the 1850s. The explorers’ own words were fashioned into a libretto, and historical footage from their archives, spliced with contemporary imagery, was shaped into film. The song cycle is a heady, impressionistic brew that reveals as much about the interior landscapes of these remarkable women’s minds as it does of the formidable exterior landscapes they trekked. Solo voices emerge briefly and memorably, like Darren Johnston’s soaring trumpet, Myra Melford’s furious piano (with nods to Henry Cowell as she wields her forearm with verve) and vocalist Fay Victor’s playful dismantling of the scientific names of Arctic flora.

Mezzacappa does not romanticize these women’s lives. Her wry, witty invention reveals insecurities and the irony of their situations as (mostly) privileged white women of means, battling the patriarchy while (mostly) perpetuating the interests of empire. Above all, she celebrates the fearlessness and pragmatism of women who ventured onto male turf – like Louise Boyd, who hauled the latest echo-sounding equipment to Greenland to map previously uncharted coastline. The accompanying film by Janis Crystal Lipzin captures pages of Boyd’s travel journals, including an equipment list which itemizes “guns and ice pick.”

Artists supporting artists

Mezzacappa has brought her own metaphorical guns and ice pick to territory that, in the 21st century, is still largely staked out by men, with heavily guarded fences around genres. Whether fronting her own ensembles, fundraising for her compositional projects, or curating new music programs like the JazzPOP series at the UCLA Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Do-Over Music Series in Oakland, she is driven, she says, by the spirit of her “jazz-based grandfathers.” She is referring mainly to the stalwarts of Chicago’s AACM, or Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a movement of black experimentalism that sprung up in the ‘60s and form a wing of the jazz tradition. Steeped in self-determination, the movement is anchored in grassroots community support. While the subtext was racial, in defiance of a world that systemically disempowers blacks, the movement’s influence has resonated well beyond the African-American jazz community.

Thus, the Do-Over, Mezzacappa says, “is nothing to do with anyone getting paid: whatever comes in at the door we share; we pay rent; we’re writing grants to cover costs; it’s really about needing to make this work regardless of whether people come in masses.” At the Hammer, in contrast, where she’s been given free rein for nearly 14 years, she feels a stronger audience-building imperative, wanting to showcase “the really creative musical practices of West Coast bandleader-composers, those from Seattle or Portland who never get down to L.A., or L.A. artists who want to try a project they’ve never had the resources for.”

New York City remains the jazz capital. But in L.A. she strives to show that a lot of the new music makers today “are women, a lot of them are Asian-Americans, there’s a crazy intergenerational mix of people making this music, especially on the West Coast – it’s a really different demographic.”

She knows of no artists who make her kind of music – in the Bay area, at least – who are supporting themselves through their work: “there really isn’t an economic framework for supporting more experimental work.” This is not helped by the growth of Silicon Valley, which has notoriously driven up real estate prices around the Bay and hit the arts community particularly hard.

Chasing elusive grants, “we mostly support ourselves,” she says. “We have artist-run series, artist-run festivals, we are really generous with each other in terms of creative time, development time. It’s very, very grassroots. That’s how we keep the music moving forward regardless of the changing landscape, which these days is more and more hostile to the creative lifestyle.”

The Electronic Lover

Mezzacappa’s restless curiosity has propelled her toward a new medium – the podcast – and a whole new way of working. The Electronic Lover will appear as a serial opera podcast sometime later this year. It’s based on a real-life story from Ms. magazine in the early ‘80s, about tech women’s experiences in early internet chat rooms and the intrigues that developed. “Crazy operatic stuff,” says Mezzacappa of the story, “so we knew this had to be an opera.” In some ways, she says, it’s about the ‘80s, “but it’s also about how our lives are so mediated by screens today, the way we construct our identities around this interface that we interact with, and the vulnerability of women in these kinds of communication formats.”

Working on something that will not exist in live format, only in a recording studio, something that is serial and narrative, is new for Mezzacappa. The Electronic Lover is a collaboration with writer Beth Lisick, a founder of San Francisco’s popular Porchlight storytelling series, whom Mezzacappa describes as “a great writer, very human, smart, warm, funny, edgy.”

She says it’s fun to work in the sound world of the ‘80s, messing around with synthesizers, video game and TV music, and old Casio keyboards. “There’s also something fun about thinking how accessible a podcast is to a lot of different listeners,” she says. “There’s the potential for it to have an entirely different life than my other work.”