Like most of us, Missy Mazzoli has spent the better part of a year holed up at home, maintaining social distance and staying safe during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. Unlike many others, though, she’s cultivated a sanguine attitude toward the predicament. Perhaps that comes with the territory when you’re one of the most highly regarded composers of your generation: when the world collectively hits the pause button, it allows you to focus your energy on creativity and innovation.

Missy Mazzoli
© Marylene May

“I’ve felt very lucky to be a composer over the last year, because I can work anywhere, and I can write anywhere,” Mazzoli tells me over the phone. “I’ve been super productive and just thrown myself into my writing, which has been really cathartic and an amazing escape from what’s going on in the world. The daily horror is there for me as well – not only losing people, but the stress on my parents and friends – and I really feel for the community of performers who have been without work. But personally, I feel like I’m one of the lucky ones in this whole thing.”

If Mazzoli’s productivity spiked during the pandemic, one can only imagine how many new pieces we’ll encounter in the coming months and years, since the 40-year-old artist’s output was already remarkably robust. In the last decade alone, she’s delivered two full-length operas – including the highly acclaimed Breaking the Waves, which received the inaugural Music Critics Association of North America Award for Best New Opera in 2017 – and three micro-operas, as well as a ballet score and myriad works for orchestra, chamber ensemble and solo instrument.

When I spoke with Mazzoli, she was also preparing to serve as composer-in-residence for the Bergen International Festival in Norway. Festivals encompass the best classical music has to offer, by bringing together great artists and discerning connoisseurs for challenging, satisfying programs that build a community, however fleeting. That shared sense of reverence and witnessing is something that’s been sorely missing during the pandemic, but there’s reason to be optimistic about what’s on the horizon.

Mazzoli was hopeful that she would be able to travel to Norway from the US to attend the festival. “It’s been an amazing experience,” she tells me. “It’s a very important festival that has had really significant composers in residence – I mean, Kaija Saariaho, Unsuk Chin – these are some of my idols. To be a part of that is such an honor. Of course, everything has been kind of stunted due to Covid, but they’ve been extremely committed to making something happen. I went in with big dreams that have been slightly watered down, simply because of the situation we’re all in. But I think what I’m going to be able to present is still really effective.”

A significant amount of Mazzoli’s time is also devoted to teaching, both as a professor at Mannes College of Music and as a co-founder of Luna Composition Lab, a mentorship program that focuses on developing the next generation of women, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming composers. Rather than complaining about the disadvantages of Zoom teaching, Mazzoli brings a positive mindset to this task as well. “I’ve actually been able to reach students and audiences in really unexpected ways,” she says. “I’ve been giving lectures two or three times a week via Zoom to students all around the world. Pre-pandemic, you had to go there, and I obviously wasn’t able to travel all the time. I feel like I’ve weirdly been able to reach more young people in this time. That’s been one blessing.”

Mazzoli’s passion for music education is rooted in her own educational experiences. She attended Boston University and Yale School of Music, and her teaching career began shortly after she earned her master’s degree. “I never in my eight years of studying composition at the university level had a female teacher, and I studied with maybe sixteen people over the course of that time,” she says.

Missy Mazzoli
© Caroline Tompkins

One of her primary missions, which led to the founding of the Luna Lab, has been to combat the underrepresentation of women and nonbinary people in the classical music space. “Later, I was traveling all around the country, teaching, giving lectures, and I never once saw a freshman class that was in any way representative of the population of America in terms of gender and race. It was still overwhelmingly young, white men. This told me something was happening to young women and composers of color in their teens that was discouraging them from entering the field – an inflated sense of what the requirements are for even considering a career in the field of composition, when all you really need is a supportive mentor and the desire to do it.”

Her path toward composition began at a surprisingly young age. Mazzoli felt herself drawn to music when she was around ten. Growing up in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, a sleepy borough an hour northwest of Philadelphia, in what she describes as “a non-musical family,” she discovered classical music through public television and the local library. For an artist accustomed to taking bold risks in her own work – she often incorporates electronics and ambient sound – her early influences were decidedly more conservative.

“The composers I had access to as a very young person – well, it was all the hits,” she says now with a hearty laugh. “It was Beethoven, and not even obscure Beethoven. It was Beethoven 9 and the popular piano sonatas, and music from movies that I would get hooked on, like Adagio for Strings. These are all amazing pieces, and they’re super popular for a reason. But I say that kind of sheepishly, because I feel like I’m supposed to say that Berio’s Sinfonia hooked me as a twelve-year-old.”

The compositional voice that Mazzoli has developed blends Beethoven and Berio, along with doses of contemporary giants like Meredith Monk, whom she describes as her main mentor. During the shutdown and pivot to digital streaming performances, a wider audience base has also been introduced to some of her chamber compositions. In December 2020, the Philadelphia Orchestra programmed her 10-minute work Ecstatic Science – originally written for the sextet yMusic – as a showcase for musicians from their string and wind sections. It shared the bill with two Beethoven chestnuts.

“All of a sudden, you have players from one of the best orchestras in the country playing your chamber music, which doesn’t always happen,” Mazzoli marvels. “And Yannick [Nézet-Séguin] was conducting it. I was like, ‘this is crazy!’ This is not what I imagined when I wrote it. I also had a piece that I wrote for solo viola played by a member of the Baltimore Symphony. It’s nice to still be able to connect to those orchestras at this time, and to provide work for those players at a time when they can’t be playing as a full orchestra. I’ve also had a dramatic increase of interest in my electronic work – which doesn’t require anybody!”

Missy Mazzoli Vespers performed in 2018

There is much to discover in Mazzoli’s back catalog, but the Bergen audience will also get the chance to sample the fruits of her pandemic labor. “There are a bunch of world premieres scheduled, including a new work for choir and solo cello that I wrote in response to the pandemic, even though it’s sort of abstracted. I’m very excited about that. There’s also the world premiere of my new concerto for violin and string orchestra, with Peter Herresthal as the soloist. We’re also working with a Norwegian ensemble on having a sort-of Luna Lab Norway, and presenting some of the works by our alums, giving them their Norway debut. Hopefully in future years, we’ll be able to do more work with young, female Norwegian composers. I’m so excited for that.”

This article was sponsored by the Bergen International Festival