Classical Resolutions: Missy Mazzoli Defies Dogma, Demands Diversity

Where is classical music now, and where is it headed? Join the discussion with prominent musicians like Missy Mazzoli by leaving your thoughts in the comments section.

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hide captionMissy Mazzoli says composers should stop worrying about whether their music is "smart" enough.

Stephen Taylor
Missy Mazzoli

Missy Mazzoli says composers should stop worrying about whether their music is "smart" enough.

Stephen Taylor

I often hear composers talk about the "dark ages" of the 1970s and 80s — a murky and mysterious time when composers felt compelled to write in a specific, highly academic style in order to be accepted as "serious composers."

I understand that criticism of anything remotely accessible, plus a system that largely ignored music outside the academy, and a rotten and unfair funding structure made many composers feel that they had to write music in a style that was not truly theirs. But really, the more interesting composers of the past fifty years never stopped doing exactly what they wanted. They bravely faced criticism and accepted the consequences or found a way around the problem altogether by ditching the "composer" label and abandoning all hope of acceptance within the increasingly isolated, grumpy and dogmatic world of "classical music." It was a sort of academy-sponsored composer brain drain.

We're not out of the woods yet. Most of my students, and many of the composers I met through my work with the MATA Festival, still struggle needlessly with the idea that their music will not be taken seriously as "classical" music if it does not include some of the surface tropes of early 20th century academic sound. If it does not include a Latin text, some feathered beaming and a metric modulation, it's not certified "classical music."

Students come to me after writing music they love and ask me if it's too simple to be any good. Some critics have claimed my recent album Cathedral City is not classical music, even though it is fully notated, uses several instruments straight out of the orchestra, harmonies straight out of Stravinsky and was written by a composer straight out of music school. Huh?

Meredith Monk is often classified under "world" music in iTunes, (hailing from exotic Manhattan) but I experience her music as some of the most complex and innovative classical music I have ever heard. Similarly, William Brittelle's Television Landscape and Mohair Timewarp are albums of notated, deeply considered chamber music that happen to have some face-melting guitar and drum parts.

Why is the classical music world not clambering to claim this excellent music for its own? Because its creators use repetition as a compositional tool? Because they write triads? Is it the electric guitars? The drums? Is it that the composers don't look or act like the "composers" we read about in music history class? Let it go!

If classical music presenters, venues, and funders could open up more stylistically and stop excluding this music for superficial reasons, we'd probably see more diversity in terms of gender and ethnicity in the classical and new music communities. If we lived in a world where "outsiders" like Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson and Pamela Z were deeply respected by the "academy," the "well-funded" and the "tenured," we might see more young women eager to call themselves "composers."

I'd love to be able to see my students stop wasting their time worrying that their music is not smart enough. Yes, we've made great strides since the supposed dark ages of the 70s and early 80s, but we have much further to go.

What do you think composers should be worrying about these days? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section.

Missy Mazzoli is a composer, keyboardist, bandleader and curator from Brooklyn, NY. Her most recent piece is In Spite Of All This, on the album 'Sweet Light Crude' by Newspeak.

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