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Interview with Missy Mazzoli

img  Tobias Fischer

These days, originality appears to be the main gauge for artistic success: No insult could be worse than being made out a copycat or ripp-off, no praise higher than having one's work being commended as 'unique', 'personal' or 'inventive'. And yet, as much as it's in demand, originality is a highly problematic term. For one, entirely original music is an impossibility, since every composition already builds on what came before it in some form or the other. Also, originality as a main priority does not by default result in satisfying results. Even more critically, our notion of originality is questioned by the advances of the information age: The more people are making and releasing music, the smaller the potential for each of them to create something truly original, after all. What happens when everything has been done - every sound sculpted, every beat programmed, every chord played and every arrangement tried? In a series of interviews, we spoke to a wide selection of artists from all corners of the musical spectrum to find out more about their take on originality, how they see it changing and what it means in their work.

To composer Missy Mazzoli, originality doesn't rule out external influences - but quite contrarily means being open to as many as possible.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?

My favorite composers (Meredith Monk, John Luther Adams, David Lang, to name a few) each have such an idiosyncratic musical language that it would be almost impossible to imitate them without creating something that sounded like a cheap parody of the original.  What I saw in these artists, even at a young age, was recognition on their part that there was music that only they could make, and their steadfast commitment to figuring out what that music was.  I’ve always tried to do this in my own work.

What's your own definition of originality?
For me, originality means listening to oneself.  It’s not a rejection of external influences, and in fact is quite the opposite: it’s a practice of keeping an open mind to all influences, both musical and non-musical.  If a composer is able to be open to their imagination and remain as unself-conscious as possible, originality is inevitable.  (Easier said than done.)

Originality is one, but certainly not the only aspect of quality in music. What, from your current perspective, is the value of originality and has it become more or less important to you over time?
Of course originality is important but it feels kind of dirty and superficial to say it in that way.  I would rather say that honesty is important.  When composers try to be original for the sake of being original, the results often sound derivative.  When composers are honest with themselves, originality has room to flourish.

With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
I think the crowded musical landscape can sometimes cloud a young musician’s true intentions.  When there are thousands of composers living and working in your city, thousands of records released each year, and a dire financial landscape to boot, it’s easy to imagine that resources are scarce.  It’s easy to imagine that this is not a time to take risks of any sort.  At times like this originality is often squashed.  But the opposite is true - these are fertile times for creative people, times when individuality is more important than ever.  I see artists like John Luther Adams taking great risks in his work now.  I’m also inspired by the indie opera producer Beth Morrison (head of Beth Morrison Projects and a great champion of innovative work) and the Brooklyn-based record label New Amsterdam.

What are areas of your writing process at the moment that are particularly challenging to you and how does the notion of originality come into play here? What have been some of the more rewarding strategies for attaining originality for you? Please feel free to expand on some of your recent projects and releases.
I’m currently working on a new opera, an adaptation of Lars von Trier’s 1996 film Breaking the Waves.  When writing opera I’m always hyper-aware of how my writing fits into the grand history of opera and the current eclectic landscape of the genre.  There are so many moving parts - you have to be aware of how you’re writing for the singers, what’s going on dramatically, how the instruments relate to the voice - and I have to be vigilant to make sure my own compositional voice is not lost in the process.  When I feel the walls are caving in, I listen to something completely different - Brian Eno, Ben Frost, Dirty Projectors - and remind myself that it’s up to me to make this piece my own and listen to my intuition.  Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies are also great tools for bringing creativity into focus.

The idea of originality is closely related to one's understanding of the creative process. How would you describe this process for yourself - where do ideas come from, how are they transformed in your mind and how do experiences and observations turn into a work of art?
For me, composing is listening.  All my ideas are the sum total of everything I’ve encountered, and I try to listen to that swirling mass of information and pick out the most compelling idea. 

The aspect of originality has often been closely linked to copyright questions. I'm not so much interested in the legal and economic consequences, but your thoughts on how far an artist can claim an idea / composition as being their own – is there, perhaps, a better model for recognising originality than the one currently in place?
Our ideas about ownership of musical ideas have certainly evolved in the last decade, and I’m afraid that for the most part, it’s not for the better.  I think that sampling and remixing are fertile platforms for tremendous creativity, and have been for the last thirty years, but the general attitude that all musical ideas do not have a monetary value is very dangerous.  It’s not a mindset that is sustainable if we want artists to keep making original work.  I would love to see websites like Spotify, which essentially steal music and give it away for free to the world, have a payment plan in which you could listen to tracks three times for free, but if you want to listen more than three times, you have to purchase the track.  This would allow them to remain tools through which people discover new work, but would also better compensate the artists so that they can continue to make music.

How do you see the relationship between the tools to create music and originality?
Software certainly makes it easy to fall back on cut and paste, which for some composers puts a damper on their creativity.  But for some composers, it has made their craziest ideas possible!

In terms of supporting originality, what are some of the technological developments you find interesting points of departure for your own work?
Lately I’m fascinated by the idea of bringing the concept of remixing into the world of classical composition.  I have a lot of friends who are making minimal techno (shout out to Lorna Dune) and other beat-driven electronic music, and they’re always re-mixing their work and each other’s work.  For my upcoming album, Vespers for a New Dark Age (to be released March 2015 on New Amsterdam Records) most of the tracks are acoustic, but three of the tracks are electronic remixes of that acoustic material.  When I compose I have a map of the piece in my head, so shaking that up through a remix was incredibly fun and led me to many ideas I would have never otherwise thought of.  When I compose it’s already a sort of acoustic remix of the litany of ideas in my head, so the leap to electronics (through Abelton Live and Logic) felt totally organic.

The importance and perspective on originality has greatly varied over the course of musical history. From your point of view, what are some of the factors in the cultural landscape that are conducive to originality and what are some of those that constitute obstacles?
It’s hard not to look at the state of the economy and of the world and want to climb into bed at the first opportunity.  It’s hard to dream up a wild new idea for an opera when (speaking as an American artist) you spend the day trying to figure out how you’re going to get health insurance or how to keep your apartment.  Inevitably, economic pressure has a direct, mostly negative effect on the cultural landscape.  But it’s not all bad!  Right now in New York City I still see a tremendous outpouring of creativity, from galleries in Bushwick to new music venues that pop up all the time.  I think people have a basic need to create, to come together and express themselves, and I often see this need manifesting intensely in times of economic strain.  But it’s a strained, spastic kind of creativity, one that happens at nights and on weekends and in the cracks between day jobs.  It’s impossible to pretend that there won’t be a long-term connection between the state of the economy and the kind of art people are able or willing to make.

Do you have a vision of a piece of music which you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons?
Wow, so many.  The list of potential operas and albums is long.  If anyone from the Deutsche Oper Berlin is reading this, call me!

Missy Mazzoli Interview by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Missy Mazzoli