It’s been quite a year for composer Missy Mazzoli.
July brought news of her new job as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s composer-in-residence, a two-year appointment that includes writing and curating the orchestra’s MusicNOW series. In September, Mazzoli and Jeanine Tesori became the first female composers in the Metropolitan Opera’s 135-year history commissioned for new works. Nine years after the New York Times predicted that “Ms. Mazzoli is going places fast,” these achievements provided ever more fuel for her rising career.
Originally from the Philadelphia suburb of Lansdale, Mazzoli, 38, trained at the Yale School of Music, the Royal Conservatory of the Hague and Boston University. The Brooklyn-based composer is notably eclectic, writing for opera, orchestra and string quartets while helming her own electroacoustic ensemble called Victoire (which collaborated with Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche on 2015’s acclaimed recording “Vespers for a New Dark Age”). Her work has been commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Washington National Opera, Carnegie Hall and piano superstar Emanuel Ax. She even wrote music for the Amazon series “Mozart in the Jungle.”
In a male-dominated industry, Mazzoli is also an enthusiastic breaker of glass ceilings and an articulate advocate for women in classical music. We reached her by phone ahead of next weekend’s St. Paul Chamber Orchestra program, featuring two of her works. The conversation covered music, gender politics and sexist comments. The transcript has been lightly edited.
Q: Your music has a reputation for mixing genres and blurring distinctions. Is that accurate?
A: Yes and no. I’m not precious about where things fall stylistically or what labels are put on them. But I think if you look closely, my harmonic language is very consistent. And my rhythmic language is very consistent. The music I write for TV or my ensemble, Victoire, is just as complicated as the music in my operas.
Q: So how would you categorize your music?
A: I’ve never had a label on my music that I felt fully represented it. With every piece, I’m trying to do something new. I’m trying to bring different artistic worlds together, so there often is no word for it. I’m very comfortable with the word “composer” and coming out of a classical tradition. But that’s not a label for the music, it just tells you something about the way that I work.
Q: Do you get irritated by the label “female composer”?
A: Sure! It’s very important to increase representation of female musicians — in fact, women in every field. But there are certain things that people do that I feel do not help. For example, on International Women’s Day, there’ll be a list of “25 female composers” with nothing about the work itself. And my heart sinks a little bit whenever very well-meaning people create lists that have no context. You have to curate things, and tell us why this person’s work is special beyond her gender.
Q: Was your co-founding of New York City’s Luna Composition Lab an attempt to address that issue?
A: Luna Lab came out of my experience teaching [music composition] all over the country, and noticing there was never a freshman class that had anywhere near gender parity. It was always like 97 percent male. So Luna Composition Lab supports young self-identified female, nonbinary and gender nonconforming composers aged 13 to 19. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of in my whole life.
Q: Have orchestras made progress wehn it comes to programming music by female composers?
A: Well, there was nowhere to go but up! But there have been some really fantastic initiatives in the last few years: The Metropolitan Opera commissioned two women to write an opera; the Chicago Symphony hired me as a composer-in-residence. This is the way it needs to go, and what we’re fighting for. But there are still so many orchestras that will program entire seasons with no women.
Q: Do you feel artists and composers are under increasing pressure to make political statements in the current U.S. climate?
A: I don’t see it as pressure, I see it as an opportunity. Composers are citizens of the world, just like anybody else. I’m 38, and I think that what’s going on in our world right now is the most extreme thing that I’ve seen in my lifetime. I see a connection between the tumultuous political climate and people coming back to expansive forms like opera and theater. I think people want to be told stories about what’s going on, to process it all. I think that’s what art can do.
Q: Have you seen this process happening in your own work?
A: I saw it in my last opera, “Proving Up” [which premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in January]. On the surface it’s about homesteaders in Nebraska in the 19th century, but it’s very much influenced by all this talk and rhetoric about the American dream. I wrote it right after the last election, and that inevitably affected the severity of the themes we chose to bring out.
Q: Is there a danger in composers trying to be too political in their music?
A: I personally am not attracted to the language of politics. I think that music’s superpower is to present these ideas in a new way, not just repeat the language that we hear on the news. There’s also a danger of preaching to the choir — a fear that if we are just making work for more or less upper-class audiences who are paying a ton of money to see it, then are we really making an impact?
Q: The SPCO and violinist Pekka Kuusisto are performing two of your pieces this week. Tell us about them.
A: “Vespers for Violin” came out of a longer work, “Vespers for a New Dark Age,” my secular take on the vespers prayer service. I sampled keyboards, vintage organs, voices and strings from that composition, drenched them in delay and distortion, and reworked them into a piece that can be performed by a soloist.
Q: The other work is “You Know Me From Here,” originally a string quartet, although the SPCO will premiere a full strings version.
A: In an abstract way it’s a portrait of a life, the evolution of a relationship which starts off with this blustery, youthful energy, and ends with a raucous love song in the third movement.
Q: Finally, what are the silliest things people say about women in classical music?
A: I’ve heard teachers saying to male colleagues, “You need to find a woman who can cook and clean for you so it’s easier to compose.” Or people who come to one of my operas and afterward ask me if I’m still composing. Typical gross gender stuff.
On a more sinister note, a teacher once said to me, “You know, I think the pressure on you is really to get married, but the pressure on your male colleagues is to have a career.” I was 21 at the time, and I was horrified. But here we are 17 years later, and I have a great career and I’m not married. And I feel wonderful.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.