speaks out for women in classical music
They are determined to use their experience, influence, and positions to help make their business, organization, and world more inclusive. They are breaking barriers—and then reaching back to help those behind them overcome the same hurdles. They are BU alumni, faculty, and staff—of every race, ethnicity, age, and gender—and they are “Opening Doors” for the next generation.
Missy Mazzoli began playing piano when she was seven.
“I knew instantly that I wanted to dedicate my life to music; it had such a profound effect on me,” says Mazzoli (CFA’02). “I started writing when I was 10. I made the decision to be a composer before I knew what that meant.”
Now, she is one of America’s preeminent composers—Time Out New York calls her “Brooklyn’s post-millennial Mozart.” Recently composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Mazzoli is writing an opera based on George Saunders’ novel Lincoln in the Bardo for the Metropolitan Opera, and she rattles off new works that are performed or about to be performed by the National Symphony, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and others. Musical America named her its 2022 Composer of the Year. In addition to her bachelor’s degree from BU, she has a master’s from Yale and studied at the Royal Conservatory at the Hague. She is on the faculty of New York’s Mannes School of Music.
She’s one of a small but growing cohort of women composers trying to make their way in a classical music world that’s been dominated by men—white men—pretty much forever. The Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy found in a study of the 2021–2022 season at the top 21 American ensembles that only 15 percent of works scheduled were by women, and those works represented only 11 percent of performances.
Mazzoli and Pulitzer Prize–winning composer Ellen Reid started the Luna Composition Lab, in collaboration with the Kaufman Music Center in New York, to give teenage female, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming composers a head start. Mazzoli also makes it her practice to advocate for better representation for women, publicly when needed.
“Even my beloved Philadelphia Orchestra, my hometown orchestra—a couple of years ago they had a season that was all men [composers]. And I was very vocal on Twitter about pointing this out,” she says. “Like, this orchestra meant everything to me as a kid, and it’s disappointing to feel unwanted, like there’s no place for me in this organization. It was well publicized, and they made really concrete, amazing steps in a positive direction.
“They hired Valerie Coleman (CFA’95), my fellow BU alum, and started programming many, many more women. I had a piece with them in December,” Mazzoli says. “Change can happen fast.”
with Missy Mazzoli
Bostonia: How was your experience at BU as a composition major in the College of Fine Arts School of Music?
Missy Mazzoli: I like to look at the numbers and the statistics and the ratio in terms of representation in any program I’m in or in a leadership position in. At BU, for a couple of years I was the only female undergrad. Not the only woman in my year, the only woman out of four years. Then I think at the end of my sophomore year, one more transferred in, and there were two of us. And 2 out of 40 is not a great number.
Anytime you are that significantly in the minority, that’s not the best learning environment. There was Marjorie Merryman teaching in the department at the time. She was the only woman, and I actually never got to study with her. It’s great there’s one female faculty member, but one out of six or seven is not a great ratio.
I had an amazing time at BU, I had amazing professors, I learned a lot, and they really kicked my butt and drilled the fundamentals into me, and I draw on that knowledge every day. [But] when you are the only one in your situation, that is not ideal and usually not a supportive environment. Also, there were very few students of color. And at the time, we didn’t have the language to recognize people who are not binary. It was a very white, male department. That is still the overwhelming majority of people who make up composition departments.
Bostonia: How would you change that?
Missy Mazzoli: I would hire a lot more women. Everything I’m saying also applies to race and representation of nonbinary and trans individuals. But from my perspective as a woman, when you have women in positions of power, more women are attracted to apply. So at NYU, you have Julia Wolfe. I see a lot of women in that department. Up until recently, Jennifer Higdon was teaching at the Curtis Institute of Music, and that program, though it’s small, had a lot of women. My department at Mannes could be better, but there are a lot of women on faculty, so we get a lot of female applicants.
I would also find ways to recruit exceptional young women who are in their teens. Part of the reason we founded Luna Lab was to shine a spotlight on really young, female, and nonbinary and gender-nonconforming composers who are making decisions about where to apply. I could imagine some kind of recruiting situation where, if BU was interested in those students, we could encourage them to apply.
BU has women on the faculty. It becomes a sort of knotty situation when these programs don’t have significant numbers of women on faculty—then I cannot in good conscience recommend that program to my students. It takes time, building a department where young women feel like they’re heard and they’re welcome and they’re recognized.
Bostonia: As a high schooler, you also studied at the BU Tanglewood Institute’s Young Artists Composition Program.
Missy Mazzoli: I was the only woman in the program there too, and I had a really hard time because of that. It’s the same exact problem. I do believe it has opened up now, and I am working with them as an advisor to help it open up even more. [She is an advisor for a new BUTI program—the Composition Fundamentals Workshop—for composers earlier in their development.]
Bostonia: Is this an academia problem or a classical music problem?
Missy Mazzoli: It’s both. I see the problem more acutely in academia because the numbers are smaller. I never had a female professor at Yale or at the Royal Conservatory at The Hague. There were no women on faculty at all. And this was not that long ago! This was, like, 15 years ago.
Up until recently, there were orchestras that would have entire seasons with no female composers on them. So, I’m reacting against the number zero. I’m not saying to these orchestras you need to have a 50-50 split—even though an accurate representation of our population would be 51 percent female—I’m just advocating for having someone on the season who is not white and male.
I think classical music has this genius problem, where genius trumps all. And that classical music is somehow above the fray and untouched by these earthly concerns about gender and race and racism. And we are not! This is music made by people. This is a job. And when you don’t represent people, you deny them jobs, work, artistic fulfillment; #MeToo has not really fully hit classical music or music academia yet.
Bostonia: Despite the numbers, you survived and thrived. How?
Missy Mazzoli: I really drank the Kool-Aid of ’90s riot grrrl feminism, and I’m so glad I did. My models early on were people like Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, these punk rock women who were very vocal against sexism and unequal treatment. I internalized that, and that is the core of my strength. I just held out hope that things would change. And I think, with #MeToo, they have—a little bit. We have a language now to discuss these things. But things are not changing fast enough for me, and that’s why I was motivated to start Luna Composition Lab and why I’m very vocal about these issues—and very motivated to help organizations that show a willingness and a desire to change.
Bostonia: How often do you come across overt discrimination? I’m sure they don’t come out and say, “We’re not booking any women composers this season,” but…
Missy Mazzoli: Even if they’re not saying it, the numbers don’t lie. The kind of gender discrimination and sexism that I’m fighting against is systemic. I’m looking at the reasons we got here and what is perpetuating this very old-fashioned idea today. I’m more interested in that than in getting revenge on the people who have slighted me to my face—which, of course, has happened.
There’re also things I would put in the category of a microaggression. Like, often I get these calls to be part of a season or for a new commission and I’m very excited, and then they say, “Yeah, we really wanted this to be a concert of all women” composers, and my heart sort of sinks. Or, “Yeah, we wanted a woman on this program.” Are you asking me because you like the art or because I’m filling some sort of quota for you? I usually say no once that has been brought up. I don’t think these concerts of all women [composers] are helpful, because you’re still “othering” those women.
I want to see these organizations succeed. I’m not a burn-it-all-down kind of person. I want to help them.
Bostonia: How did you push through that stuff early in your career?
It was not a very joyful, supportive time. I did often feel I was pushing through something or overcoming something. Which is not good for a 17-, 18-, 19-year-old who’s trying to go to college. You shouldn’t have to feel that you’re 17 times as good as your peers to have an equal shot at the opportunities they will have. That’s not a healthy academic environment. I can say I really pushed and was really resilient, but it makes me kind of sad to say that, because that’s not everyone’s personality, and you shouldn’t have to have that just because you’re a woman.
To be in a room with all men, maybe some who are making aggressive comments, comments under their breath in seminar, comments to my face about how they didn’t like something I was doing. There was a lot of exclusion, where all the male composers would hang out together and I was alone. This happened a lot at BU because I was the only female student. They were all living in a dorm together and had this real camaraderie and support and they’d listen to each other’s music, and I was alone in a dorm. It’s not OK. That’s not OK for a 17-year-old. I felt like there was something wrong with me.
We are missing out on the voices of so many young women who may not be willing to put themselves through that. When I was in college and grad school, I often had the thought, what self-respecting woman would put herself through this situation? Do I need to just pursue something else?
Bostonia: Now you feel empowered to speak out, though.
It’s great joy to have some years of composing under my belt and to have this reputation, so I can, for lack of a better term, call people out on things without fear of being just dismissed. No matter what you are doing, no matter how you identify, the arts is a very challenging field. And you’re often clinging to every opportunity and trying to be friends with everybody, trying not to rock the boat. I’m glad now that I’m at an age where I can call things out for what they are.
I think this next generation is much better at this than my generation was. They’re not afraid to call people out on these things. I think it’s amazing that we have the language and these formats for it. For better or worse, social media is sort of an equalizer that most people have access to for their voice.
But if I’m on a panel and there are no people of color on that panel, I will say something. Even if it’s, “Next year you need to broaden this, get a better representation on this panel.” If I’m teaching at a university—I do a lot of guest-teaching around the country—I’m asking, “Have you considered hiring any women in this department? Are there any openings?” Because I notice again, it’s, like, five white men. I can recommend people! I want to see these organizations succeed. I’m not a burn-it-all-down kind of person. I want to help them. I can be that link.
Bostonia: Tell us about Luna Composition Lab.
Luna Composition Lab supports women, nonbinary, and gender-nonconfirming composers aged 12 to 18. We select six composers a year from all over the country and connect them with prominent female, nonbinary, or nonconforming mentors in the field.
They work together, they have lessons every two weeks for nine months, basically October to May, and then the whole season culminates in a big festival in New York. We bring all the composers to New York, we have a big concert of their pieces, we take them on a tour of the Met, we do master classes, we go to concerts, we have networking events and pizza parties. It’s a fast-forward button. They get to be on a concert in New York, at Merkin Concert Hall, and they have a community of peers they are instantly plugged into and a mentor who looks like them and has a shared experience. They leave the program armed with every tool they need to apply for college or competitions, if they decide to do that.
We’re in our sixth year, and we’ve already seen change happen as part of this program. Our students have gone on to some of the best schools in the country. And we’ve seen the numbers go up in these undergraduate programs.
Bostonia: This would have been a good program for teenage you.
Oh my God! Exactly! My life would have been so different. I would have felt so much less isolation. I had this idea that I had to do everything on my own. I had to think my way through it, which, looking back, is insane—the idea that a 16-year-old from rural Pennsylvania would somehow know how to crack into the music community of Boston or New York City or Amsterdam.
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