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Q&A with Composer Missy Mazzoli—On the Importance of Mentoring Young Women Composers

Composer Missy Mazzoli, whose star continues to rise, is passionate about encouraging more young women to write music.  She spoke with WRTI’s Meridee Duddleston about her own path, and breaking through the barriers that have left creative women in the cold.

Now in her late 30s, Mazzoli’s career is surging and the classical world is taking notice. On July 1st, she became the new Composer-in-Residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  Carnegie Hall recently commissioned an extended work, premiered by her ensemble Victoire and Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche. Pianist Emanuel Ax, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Kronos Quartet are among those who’ve performed her music.

Mazzoli is also driven to help those coming up behind her. In 2016, Brooklyn-based Mazzoli and composer Ellen Reid founded Luna Composition Lab,  a mentoring program for young female composers, affiliated with the Kaufman Music Center in Manhattan.

She’s also a guest artist at the first Young Women Composers Camp at Temple University, which was set to start when we talked with her:

When you started to compose, did you get some support that propelled you forward?

Sure. I think everyone in this business has some sort of network of support, but in my entire life I have never had a female teacher.  And that was a real gap for me in my education. And I realized later on in my life when I met composers like Meredith Monk, Julia Wolfe, and Kaija Saariaho that I had a very different feeling working with them. I felt like I was able see a possibility for my future through them. And it made me feel the importance of having a mentor who looks like you.  

For a lot of women, we don’t get that chance early in our careers.  There are very few women teaching composition at a professional level and there are ... fewer celebrated women composers.  I remember being young and saying to myself ‘If this all works out for me, I’m going to make this easier for women who are younger than me.’

You never had a female teacher!

I went eight years to Boston University. I had a Fulbright [Scholarship] in the Netherlands. I went to Yale. And not at any point did I study with a woman.  

You live in Brooklyn now.  It’s a shot in the arm that you’re coming here to participate in the Young Woman Composers Camp.

Philadelphia is my hometown, so I’m always happy to return.

The numbers relating to compositions by women are still dismal.  What are some of the pitfalls you encountered, or you would expect young women would encounter in getting their work performed?  

Well, in some ways it’s very complicated, and in some ways it’s very simple. You know—everything from good old-fashioned sexism, to a complicated web of circumstances that make women think they’re not welcome in the field.  

But the two things I keep coming back to are this lack of role models and lack of female mentors. That’s actually a very serious thing. You know people want to help young people like themselves.  This is talked about a lot in filmmaking—a male director wants to help the young 22-year-old filmmaker who reminds him of himself.  So when you don’t have a lot of women in positions of power, and not just in teaching positions, but also as curators, as people who are running large musical institutions...that’s a problem.

And I think the other problem is the lack of emphasis on supporting women when they’re very young—when they’re in their teens actually.  I go around the country and I teach a lot of master classes. I do a lot of guest teaching, and I’m a professor at The New School and I’ve never once seen a freshman class that is a fifty-fifty gender balance, or even close.  

So that tells you that something is happening to young women before they even get to college that makes them feel unwelcome in the field. I think targeted support for very young women is really essential, which is why I started Luna Lab, and why I’m teaching at this camp. It’s a concrete simple way to change the landscape.  

What do you particularly like about working with young women who want to become composers; what do you feel you can impart?

There’s such tremendous energy and sort of brilliance from very young people. They say a girl reaches her artistic peak at age nine (laughs). There’s unbridled energy and confidence in nine-year-olds. After they get a little older, they start to close up and shut down.  I love to capture a little bit of that energy and encourage them to keep going.   

To me, teaching composition is just about teaching people to be themselves and to not shine away from your weirdest, most idiosyncratic ideas. Because the weird things are the things that make you stand out. They’re going to make you a singular artist. Teenagers in general, boys and girls, are taught to normalize themselves, and not to stand out. And so it’s really exciting to me to see the seeds of weird brilliance in these kids, and to be able to identify that, and encourage them to keep going.

I thought you might say there’s a lot of creativity, but not enough business acumen and knowledge about breaking into the scene.   

That’s not insignificant, which is why I dedicate so much of my life to being a mentor. Especially when you’re fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, you’re trying to figure out where to go to college, trying to figure out what to do as an artist, and if you want to dedicate your life to this.  There’s this false sense you have to figure everything out on your own.

I remember being that age, and feeling like I didn’t have anyone who I could ask for a letter of recommendation.  I didn’t haven’t anyone to ask for advice about where I should go to school, or who I should study with, or these really simple things.  One conversation can change someone’s life.

So encouraging [young female composers] them to ask questions and to have network of strong professional women who are available to answer those questions can be life-changing.

What happens when talent and aspirations don’t match up?  

I think it’s not such a clear equation. Actually, I think when the passion and focus  are there, anyone can make it — [although I’m not discounting] the role of external circumstances.  It’s very expensive to have piano lessons…to go to a conservatory. Some people are just lucky and they encounter people who can help them, or they have one supportive teacher in their high school who encourages them.  

[With] these girls who are at this camp, and the girls who are accepted in Luna Lab, talent abounds. You have to have a certain amount of a willingness and an ability to work hard at this profession.

You’re so enthusiastic!

I could talk about this all day.  I’m extremely happy to see more of these camps popping up.  The big point is to help the young women and girls who are participating.  But it’s also a just a sign to the world that lots and lots of young women write music.  

When I started my camp the big question [from others] was: ‘How are you going to find female composers?’ I’m like: ‘They’re everywhere!’  They're just not visible in public life. We're actually bombarded with applications. These young teenage girls who are creative are often overlooked. These girls are going to be the next leaders in the field.