Explore Program Notes

Download PDF

Missy Mazzoli


by Paul Griffths

"I want people to find something out about themselves through my music, something that was inaccessible before, something that they were suppressing, something that they couldn’t really confront….

I really think of my motives, my melodies, my harmonies, as being these things that are very much alive. For example, what happens if this motive is in a spiral? What does that mean? What does that look like? How does that translate musically?" —Missy Mazzoli

            The typical Mazzoli piece is calm and edgy, slow and hyper-energetic, solemn and intense, hypnotic and wild. The typical Mazzoli piece dreams as it furiously dances. The typical Mazzoli piece is many things at once. The typical Mazzoli piece is made for audiences in concert halls and bars, opera theaters and art galleries. The typical Mazzoli piece uses electronic means—samples, especially—along with the voices of centuries-old instruments. The typical Mazzoli piece is designed for friends—she plays keyboards in the group Victoire and has close connections with other musicians, including those performing tonight—but there are also many typical Mazzoli pieces that are not.

            Born in a small town in Pennsylvania in 1980, Missy Mazzoli studied at Yale, at Boston University, and, on a Fulbright, in The Hague, with Louis Andriessen and Martijn Padding. She then settled in New York, where she was executive director of the MATA Festival (2007-10) and now teaches at Mannes.

            Her career as a composer began in 2004-5 with pieces she wrote mostly for herself or for small groups. A first orchestral piece, These Worlds Within Us (2006), won an ASCAP Young Composers Award and was taken up by the Minnesota Orchestra after its Yale première. Her growing reputation led to commissions from eighth blackbird (Still Life with Avalanche, 2008), Carnegie Hall (The Sound of the Light, for five instruments, 2008) and the Kronos Quartet (Harp and Altar, 2009). She was also busy from this time writing scores for Victoire, whose debut album, Cathedral City, was released in 2010. Violent, Violent Sea, composed for the League of Composers Chamber Orchestra, was first performed here at Miller Theatre in June 2011, and was followed by works for the Albany Symphony (Holy Roller, 2012) and the Detroit Symphony (River Rouge Transfiguration, 2013). Through most of this time she was also at work on an opera, Song from the Uproar, which came out of her fascination with the life and writings of the Swiss explorer Isabelle Eberhardt and was presented at the Kitchen three years ago. Next month sees the release of her second album with Victoire, Vespers.


Program Notes

by Missy Mazzoli

Quartet for Queen Mab (2015)

           Queen Mab is an elusive creature from folklore and literature, a tiny fairy who drives her chariot into the nose of sleeping people.  She enters their brains, eliciting dreams of their heart’s desire.  This quartet embraces the wildness of Queen Mab’s journey and the dreams that result; Baroque ornaments twist around long legato lines and melodies ricochet between players.  The music follows a sort of intuitive dream logic but returns again and again to the opening material, resulting in a sort of insistent, insane ritornello. The work was commissioned by ETHEL, with support from ETHEL’s Foundation for the Arts and Miller Theatre.


His Name is Jan (2013)

           His Name is Jan is the opening aria from my opera-in-progress Breaking the Waves, a collaboration with librettist Royce Vavrek based on the film by Lars von Trier.  Breaking the Waves was commissioned by Opera Philadelphia and Beth Morrison Projects and will premiere at Opera Philadelphia in September 2016. Set in the Scottish Highlands during the 1970s, Breaking the Waves tells the story of Bess McNeill, a naïve young woman who falls deeply in love with Jan, a hardened but compassionate oil rig worker.  The two marry despite objections by local church leaders. When Jan is paralyzed in an accident, he insists that Bess seek new lovers, and in her guilt and despair Bess comes to believe that her promiscuity is healing Jan’s broken body.  She finds herself caught precariously between her devotion to God and her fierce determination to keep her husband alive at any cost. In this opening aria Bess asks the church elders for permission to marry Jan.


Dissolve, O my Heart (2010)

            Dissolve, O my Heart has its roots in a late-night conversation over Chinese food and cupcakes with violinist Jennifer Koh. She told me about her Bach & Beyond project, a program that combines Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas with newly commissioned works, and asked if I would write a piece that referenced Bach’s Partita in D Minor. This request was, to put it mildly, utterly terrifying; the last movement of the Partita, the Chaconne, is undoubtably the most famous piece of solo violin literature in the world. It overwhelmed Brahms, has been subject to hundreds of transcriptions and arrangements over the past two centuries, and is dizzying in its contrapuntal complexity. But something about Jennifer’s enthusiasm was infectious, and I agreed to the project before I realized what I was getting myself into. Jennifer seemed to approach Bach through the lens of contemporary music, and I realized that this was what this new piece should do as well.

            Dissolve, O my Heart begins with the first chord of Bach’s Chaconne, a now-iconic D minor chord, and spins out from there into an off-kilter series of chords that doubles back on itself, collapses and ultimately dissolves in a torrent of fast passages. The only direct quote from the partita is that first chord, which anchors the entire piece even as it threatens to spiral out of control. The title comes from an aria in the St. John Passion, but has many potential interpretations.

            Dissolve, O my Heart was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and was premiered in 2011 as part of their Green Umbrella Series in Disney Hall.


Death Valley Junction (2010)

           Death Valley Junction is a sonic depiction of the town of the same name, a strange and isolated place on the border of California and Nevada. The “town” is home to three people and consists of a café, a hotel, and a fully functional opera house. Death Valley Junction is dedicated to Marta Becket, the woman who resurrected and repaired the crumbling opera house in the late 1960s and performed one-woman shows there every week until her retirement in 2012 at age 87. The piece begins with a sparse, edgy texture—the harsh desert landscape—and collapses into a wild and buoyant dance. Marta Becket once compared herself to the single yellow flower that is able to, against all odds, flourish in the desert. This piece attempts to depict some of her exuberant energy and unstoppable optimism, and is dedicated to her.


Tooth and Nail (2010)

           Tooth and Nail was inspired by the extraordinary musical traditions of Uzbekistan, where jaw harp (also called Jew’s harp or mouth harp) plays a prominent role. The jaw harp player consistently plucks the instrument, creating overtones and melodies by changing the shape of his or her mouth, and the central Asian style takes this technique to wild and beautiful extremes. I have created my own version of this music, based on my memories of hearing Uzbek jaw harp players. The electronic part is made up almost entirely of viola samples, allowing the live viola to play in counterpoint with itself.


A Thousand Tongues (2009)

           A Thousand Tongues was commissioned by cellist and vocalist Jody Redhage. This piece is a short but intense response to the following text by Stephen Crane:

                                 Yes, I have a thousand tongues,

                                 And nine and ninety-nine lie.

                                 Though I strive to use the one,

                                 It will make no melody at my will,

                                 But is dead in my mouth.


Harp and Altar (2009)

Harp and Altar was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet. At its core, this piece is a love song to the Brooklyn Bridge. The title comes from a poem by Hart Crane, in which he describes the Brooklyn Bridge as “that harp and altar of the Fury fused.” The borough of Brooklyn is impossible to describe, but the Brooklyn Bridge seems to be an apt symbol for its vastness, its strength, and its history. Halfway through the work the vocalist Gabriel Kahane’s pre-recorded voice enters, singing fragments of the lines below from Crane’s poem, The Bridge.

                                 Through the bound cable strands, the arching path

                                 Upward, veering with light, the flight of strings,

                                 Taut miles of shuttling moonlight syncopate

                                 The whispered rush, telepathy of wires.