Last week, the Opera Company of Philadelphia, Gotham Chamber Opera and the New York-based Music-Theatre Group, jointly announced their second composer in residence, the startlingly talented Missy Mazzoli.
The Brooklyn-based Mazzoli, 31, joins fellow resident composer Lembit Beecher (appointed last year) for a three-year residency that should further Mazzoli’s pedigree as an opera composer (she's now at work on her second opera).
Given that she leads her own indie-rock band, Victoire, and has had works performed by groups as diverse as New York City Opera, Kronos Quartet, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and NOW Ensemble, it can be a bit overwhelming to know where to start in Mazzoli’s already comprehensive canon. As a primer, here are five works that serve as a gateway drug to the sumptuous sonic world of Missy Mazzoli.
These Worlds in Us (2006)
Mazzoli based this nine-minute orchestral work (you can hear it played in full by the Yale Philharmonia here) on a poem meditation by James Tate on his father’s death in World War II, and the experiences of her own father, who was a Vietnam veteran. "As we grow older, we accumulate worlds of intense memory within us, and that grief is often not far from joy,” Mazzoli has said of conversations she had with her father. Such a fine line is represented here. There’s a delicate and dizzying balance of militaristic rhythm and soaring personal lines, at once ecstatic and despondent and wholly submerged in an aching nostalgia. This work netted Mazzoli the 2007 ASCAP Young Composers Award.
Still Life with Avalanche (2008)
One of Mazzoli’s trademarks as a composer is taking grand emotions and presenting them with a level of static neutrality that puts the listener in an intimate, active position. Still Life with Avalanche, a work commissioned by the group eighth blackbird (hear it played by them here), epitomizes that coded, conversational aspect. After a pastoral introduction comes a hard dose of real life, rooted in Mazzoli’s experiences at an artist colony in upstate New York and, while there, receiving the news of her cousin’s sudden death. The moment of that collision happens in molasses-slow motion before the ensuing, eponymous avalanche.
“A Song for Arthur Russell” (2008)
It's in her five-person band Victoire that Mazzoli really lets loose with her love of indie rock without losing sight of her classical influences. On their 2010 debut Cathedral City, those influences combine fluidly in "A Song for Arthur Russell." The song is dedicated to an equally prolific and multitalented musician who moved seamlessly between genres in the downtown music scene and whose work, like Mazzoli’s, never lacked for personal resonance (Russell died in 1992 at the age of 40 of complications from AIDS). In this piece, teeming with wordless vocals, electronic ambiance and a setup of keyboards, clarinet, violin and double bass, Mazzoli continues the legacy left behind by Russell and his kind.
Harp and Altar (2009)
Aptly enough, this work—a love letter to the Brooklyn Bridge—received its premiere in Prospect Park in 2009 by the Kronos Quartet. Once again, Mazzoli taps into literature and poetry for inspiration, here a poem by Hart Crane who describes the bridge as “that harp and altar of the Fury fused.” From there, the piece is chockablock packed with a myriad of haunting, comforting colors and ideas as diverse as Brooklyn itself. This is also a great example of Mazzoli’s predilection for using prerecorded speech as an added layer to live music; in this case, fellow composer and vocalist Gabriel Kahane sings snippets of the same Crane poem.
Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt (2012)
Though this work received its official world premiere last winter, it has been in development and seen in various incarnations for several years and has grown from a monodrama into an ensemble work of disarmingly poetic proportions. Telling the story of 19th-century Swiss explorer Isabelle Eberhardt, it is an apex of Mazzoli’s musical predilections. The piece combines Proustian memory, electronic eclecticism, passionate emotional ambivalence, ethereal textures and unorthodox sonic impulses. And if this is her first venture into the world of opera, we can't wait to see what comes next.