20 Questions: Missy Mazzoli

Missy Mazzoli
Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt
New Amsterdam

When you decide to make your debut album a full-blown concept album, you know full well that you’re making a rather bold entry into the world of music. When said concept album is revealed to actually be a full-blown sample-based opera about the life of female mountain climber Isabelle Eberhardt, no longer can you trust whatever expectations you might have — you just know you’re in for an experience.

Yet this is exactly what NYC-based Missy Mazzoli has done. She’s no stranger to the world of indie rock, mind you, being a member of the all-female group Victoire and having collaborated with the likes of Efterklang and the Skeletons. Yet while reading about and stumbling upon the letters and journals of Eberhardt while in Boston, Mazzoli became fascinated, and soon developed the sometimes downright experimental post-rock opera that is Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt.

With contributions from the NOW Ensemble keeping it expansive — all playing the score Mazzoli created along with the libretto that she co-wrote with Royce Vavrek — the multi-media project has very much taken on a life of its own, vinyl player crackles leading to layered vocals saying simple phrases like “there are 100 names for God”, all while live performances feature films that play, video screens highlighting the performers — it is, in short, a “total theatre” experience, and one of the most unique ones to come across the classical landscape in some time.

Now, sitting down to answer PopMatters‘ 20 Questions, Mazzoli reveals more about what drives such a unique talent, digging up favorite moments from Dead Poet’s Society, scandalously revealing she’s really not that big a fan of the Beatles, and how people may not know that she’s also really good at tap-dancing — and Mahjongg.

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1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

Dead Poets Society. Yes, I know, it’s cheesy. But it was on TV the other day and I was reminded of my 11-year-old self, scrawny fist curled tight against chin, stomach on the floor about seven inches from the screen, lips moving in synch with Ethan Hawke’s as he mumbled “Carpe . . . Carpe . . . Carpe DIEM!” and I actually cried. I grew up in a bit of a cultural desert and I used to cling to these dippy movies like they were actual poetry. I didn’t know what Robin Williams was talking about when he told all those cute boys to “suck the marrow out of life” but I knew I wanted in. I practically memorized that script, inadvertently absorbing a little Whitman and Tennyson along the way, which I’ve never forgotten. Before Dead Poets it was Philip Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach, which is a much cooler answer. I started crying about four minutes in and then realized I had five hours left to go and pulled myself together.

2. The fictional character most like you?

While I imagine myself as a never-before-seen combination of Lucille Ball, Lisbeth Salander, and Xena, Warrior Princess, I’m probably most like Mick Kelly in Carson McCullers’ novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Mick wants to be a composer, she makes violins out of cigar boxes, tags the name “Motsart” on abandoned buildings, and listens to her neighbor’s stereo through the open window at night. All this happens in 1930s small-town Georgia. I like to think I’m maybe two-thirds as awesome as she is/was. (Sidenote: it’s really hard to find fictional female characters to relate to. It took me a really long time to answer this! I mean, Hermione from Harry Potter? Hester Prynne? Slim pickings.)

3. The greatest album, ever?

The first thing that popped into my head was Paul Simon’s Graceland, which is one of the seminal albums of my youth. The second was Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Both of these albums are fantastic in that there are no weak links; each track is the nuclear option. I think Thriller belongs on this list too. And Nevermind. I know Paul McCartney is probably going to sue PopMatters if I don’t mention the Beatles here but you know what I’ve never liked the Beatles. Yeah, I said it.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

Star Wars . . . but why do I feel like I’m going to incur the wrath of a geek army no matter what my answer is? A geek army led by Paul McCartney.

5. Your ideal brain food?

I’m really revealing my nerd self in this interview, but I have to say I’ve been diving into Einstein’s book Ideas and Opinions whenever I get stuck. I also read a lot of poetry (recent favorites are Matthew Zapruder, Farnoosh Fathi, and CA Conrad) which is great brain food because you can quickly absorb a poem and it sends your brain in all kinds of directions.

6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?

I’m really proud of my latest album, the debut recording of my opera Song from the Uproar. I feel like everything positive in my life converged in this project. It was always my dream to bring together everyone I loved and admired and create something BIG together, and this is exactly what happened. The opera is based on the life of early 20th-century explorer Isabelle Eberhardt, and I’m also proud of the fact that this opera brought more attention to her incredible writing and her remarkable life.

7. You want to be remembered for . . . ?

I’d love to be remembered for helping young composers to not only find their voice, but to shed some of the anxiety and fear that seems to inevitably accompany a career in the arts. Teaching is just as important to me as creating new work.

8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?

For me it’s Meredith Monk, Philip Glass, Beethoven, John Luther Adams, and Delia Darbyshire (pioneer of electronic music and one of the first women in the field).

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

Einstein on the Beach, Guernica, War and Peace, Waiting for Godot . . . I want it all!

10. Your hidden talents . . . ?

I’m really good at tap-dancing and Mahjongg. I’ve been practicing for retirement for years. I actually had a job for a while teaching tap dance to little kids — best day job in the world.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

Philip Glass once told me that I shouldn’t be afraid to promote myself and to ask to be paid well for my work. This advice may seem boring or obvious but there’s still this fallacy among “classical” composers (as opposed to musicians working in a more commercial realm) that blatant self-promotion, and the exchange of art for money, is cheap or demeaning. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Really, every composer promotes themselves. Philip Glass was one of the first composers I met who was open about this. Philip also encouraged me to ask to be paid for everything, even if it’s a minuscule sum. He taught me that music is something that should, on principle, be paid for, and composers need to encourage the world to think this way in order to ensure the future of the field.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

I bought a toy accordion at a flea market in Mexico for five dollars and ended up carting it around the world with me and writing a lot of music for it. It’s tuned in this crazy, nonsensical way, and I can’t replace it so I just keep repairing it with cardboard. It’s a bit of a Frankensteined contraption by now. As for stealing, there used to be this sheet music store from another era (literally — it’s actually not there anymore) called Petelsons. It was a great store — I used to spend hours in there digging through opera and orchestra scores. But they had this section labeled “Women Composers” and it always bothered me. I mean, if I write an opera I want it to be shelved with all the other operas, not in the ladies’ bin! So one day I stole the sign that read “Women Composers” and hung it in my bathroom. No, it’s not the most badass thing to steal, but I don’t steal too much and I’m still proud of this one.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or . . . ?

I have a set of Barack Obama pajamas from 2008. They are the most comfortable and ridiculous things I own.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

Hard not to say Jesus, or Gandhi . . . oh, to hell with it. David Bowie. My first love.

15. Time travel: where, when, and why?

Again, hard not to say that I’d love to meet Jesus, and sort of hang around in the background for the birth of Christianity. I’m not Christian, but as an American, Christianity is inevitably a defining force in my life, for better or worse.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation, or Prozac?

Hiring a hit man sounds stressFUL! None of the above. I meditate a lot and drink a little. It’s a combination that works for me.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or . . . ?

All of the above! Coffee in particular.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

New York City all the way. I’ve been here seven years and my love for this place increases daily.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

Please oh please implement some serious gun control ASAP.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

I’m writing a piece for the Detroit Symphony, in which I re-imagine the orchestra as a giant pipe organ. The idea came from a book by my friend Mark Binelli called Detroit City Is the Place to Be in which he describes the smokestacks of the abandoned Detroit factories as the pipes of a huge, city-sized organ. It’s an image that has stuck with me for months. I also can’t shake the idea that Basquiat will somehow be a part of the piece, though I don’t quite know how he fits in. I guess I think that, if he were alive, he’d have some pretty badass ideas of how to transform the urban prairie that so much of Detroit has become.