Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Missy Mazzoli

by 5:4

This evening’s Prom concert includes the first European performance of the orchestral version of Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) by US composer Missy Mazzoli. For those unfamiliar with her work, here are her answers to my pre-première questions, together with the programme note for the piece. Many thanks to Missy for her responses.

1. For anyone not yet familiar with it, could you give a brief summary of your music, i.e. characteristics, outlook, aesthetic, etc.?

My music is usually composed of strange, dense harmonies and propulsive rhythms, often layered in unexpected ways. I’m interested in unusual instruments like harmonicas, junk percussion, and gently out-of-tune guitars, and I draw on inspirations as diverse as Baroque music, noise, and modern electronica. My musical life is varied and exciting; I have played in bands, studied Balinese gamelan, toured around the world with my own ensemble, done arrangements for pop stars and indie bands, and written orchestral and chamber music. In the past few years I have focused on operatic and theatrical compositions, as well as installations, and am currently working on my third opera.

2. What led to you becoming a composer? Did/does it feel like a choice?

As a kid I played piano and fell in love with music, but was also interested in visual art, literature, poetry, and theater. Composing seemed to be a way to combine all of these obsessions. Composing has also always been the best way I have of organizing the world around me, my most effective method for processing data and making sense of things. There’s a logical side to music that I’ve always loved, a beautifully rigid math behind what seems like an endlessly curved manifestation of pure emotion. It felt like a choice, and even early on I felt very aware of the sacrifices I would have to make to forge a life in music, but I have never regretted my decision.

3. Where did you study? Who/what have been the most important influences on your work?

I studied at Boston University, Yale School of Music, and had a Fulbright grant to the Netherlands where I studied at the Royal Conservatory of the Hague. My teacher in Amsterdam, Louis Andriessen, has been a huge influence on my life and work, as have the American composers Meredith Monk, John Luther Adams and David Lang. Lately I’ve also been obsessed with Icelandic composer Daniel Bjarnason, who I got to know when we were on tour together a few years ago.

4. How do you go about writing a new piece? To what extent do you start with a ‘blank slate’ and/or use existing methods/materials?

To some extent I try to reinvent myself with each piece; I always try to explore a new organizational technique, a different approach to orchestration or texture. There are also some techniques I return to again and again – I’m obsessed with harmony and will often start a piece by creating a chord progression, and I love working with unusual instruments like harmonicas, melodicas and accordions.

5. How does the piece sit in relation to your previous work? Why did you particularly compose this piece at this time?

Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) is my most recent orchestral work, and is the culmination of a lot of techniques I developed in earlier work. The piece has some strange instruments peppered throughout the ensemble, and also has many characteristics of Baroque music, sort of “ornaments gone wild”. The piece was commissioned by the LA Philharmonic a few years ago.

6. If people really like your piece, what other music of yours would you recommend they check out?

In the past few years I’ve focused on writing opera, which has really come to feel like an artistic home. So if they like my work maybe they should check out my last opera Breaking the Waves, or my 2012 opera Song from the Uproar, or just come to my website: And if people don’t like my work but still enjoy music enough to have read this far in this blog, they should check out work by some of my excellent friends and colleagues: Anna Clyne, Judd Greenstein, David T. Little, Kate Moore, to name a few.

7. What’s next?

I’m currently working on my third opera, Proving Up (with librettist Royce Vavrek, based on a short story by Karen Russell), for Washington National Opera, Opera Omaha and Miller Theatre in New York.

Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) – programme note

Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) is music in the shape of a solar system, a collection of rococo loops that twist around each other within a larger orbit. The word “sinfonia” refers to baroque works for orchestra but also to the old Italian term for a hurdy-gurdy, a medieval stringed instrument with constant, wheezing drones that are cranked out under melodies played on an attached keyboard. It’s a piece that churns and roils, transforming the ensemble turns into a makeshift hurdy-gurdy flung recklessly into space. Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and premiered on their Green Umbrella Series. The performance by the BBC Symphony will be the UK premiere.

—Missy Mazzoli

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