Alum Composer Is Up for Two Grammys Sunday
“It’s a vote of confidence from the community,” says Missy Mazzoli (CFA’02)
Editor’s note: Missy Mazzoli did not win a Grammy at the awards show on February 4.
The Grammy award Composer Missy Mazzoli is a vocal advocate for women in classical music, and Sunday she’ll walk the walk right into the Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles as a nominee for the 2024 Grammy Awards.
“Women are certainly still in the minority [in classical music], as are people of color,” says Mazzoli (CFA’02). “And so it is important, I think, for me to go to the ceremony and to show people that this is what contemporary music can look like—a relatively young woman who’s making work and showing up and being celebrated.”
Mazzoli is nominated for Best Classical Compendium for her album Dark with Excessive Bright, and for Best Contemporary Classical Composition for the album’s title piece. (Click here to listen music from that album.)
She was in Cincinnati for a workshop of her new opera when she learned of the Grammy nods: “I was with my librettist, and we came out of a concert and he said, ‘They’ve announced the Grammys. We looked online, and I screamed and ran through downtown Cincinnati. I was so thrilled and surprised.”
Mazzoli was nominated in 2019 for the composition Vespers for Violin, but Grammy nominations for a female composer are still a fraction of the list. Only four women have won the award—Joan Tower was first, in 2008, followed by Maria Schneider (2014), Jennifer Higdon (2010, 2018, 2020), and Caroline Shaw (2022).
Jessie Montgomery is nominated this year for composing, along with Mazzoli and Thomas Adès, Andy Akiho, and William Brittelle.
Representation is by no means the only reason Mazzoli is happy about being nominated.
“It’s a vote of confidence from the community,” she says. “The Grammys are voted on by peers. It’s members of the recording academies, musicians, producers, engineers, performers, composers who are voting in these categories. So, it was a real heartwarming thing that my peers voted for me.
“I don’t put much stock in awards, but we also live in a world where these things do have meaning. The first time was in 2019, and it really boosted everything for me. I had much more recognition. I got more gigs. I got more commissions. We can argue forever about whether or not that’s right or fair, but that is the way it works.”
The Dark with Excessive Bright album features soloist Peter Herresthal, with conductor James Gaffigan leading the Bergen Philharmonic and Tim Weiss leading the Arctic Philharmonic. It was released last March by BIS Records.
“The idea for this recording started way back in 2017, when I met the Norwegian violinist Peter Perasthal,” Mazzoli says. “He asked me where he could hear some of my orchestral music and I said, ‘Well, none of it has been recorded.’ He was shocked and said, ‘We should record it here in Norway.’ I don’t want to say that it was easy, because it was not easy, and there were years of pandemic delays. But in comparison to making an orchestral album in America, it was actually very easy, and we recorded it with two amazing orchestras and two amazing conductors, James Gaffigan and Tim Weiss.”
The title piece was originally written as a double bass concerto for Maxine Bibeau, bassist for the Australian Chamber Orchestra, who had commissioned the work. “It really took off. It’s played all over the place,” Mazzoli says. “I feel like every bass player in America and Canada has been picking this up and playing it, which is amazing.”
The Grammys are voted on by peers. It’s members of the recording academies, musicians, producers, engineers, performers, composers who are voting in these categories. So, it was a real heartwarming thing that my peers voted for me.
The phrase “dark with excessive bright” is used by John Milton to describe the robes of God in his epic poem Paradise Lost, the composer says, “which I thought was such an evocative expression on its own, especially coming from a man who was blind—that this is how he was imagining God’s robes. It also was a really fitting description of the sound of the double bass. I was interested in embracing the instrument for what it was and embracing the whole spectrum of sound.”
Converting that piece to a violin concerto “wasn’t strictly about taking the solo bass part and making it for solo violin,” Mazzoli says. “It’s not an arrangement; it’s really a new work. In some instances the solo violin is playing what would have been part of the orchestral accompaniment in the previous version. And I’ve taken the line that the solo double bass was playing and put that back into the orchestra. So, it’s really taking these lines of counterpoint and seeing if they work in a different order. Which, for the math nerd in me, was very fun.”
Her always busy schedule this year is otherwise filled with work on Lincoln in the Bardo, her opera with libretto by Royce Vavrek, based on the celebrated novel by George Saunders. A coproduction of the Metropolitan Opera, which commissioned the work, and the Los Angeles Opera, Lincoln in the Bardo will premiere in LA in 2026 and then move to the Met. The creative team is already workshopping it, sometimes with Saunders in attendance, which is why Mazzoli was in Cincinnati.
She also performs on piano with her friend, violinist Jennfer Koh.“That’s instant feedback from the audience, where I’m playing and I’m feeling their energy in the room,” she says. “And then on the other side of the spectrum is opera, where I’m sitting here, writing at this desk basically alone for sometimes years and not getting that instant feedback. But there’s a certain joy in planning something so massive. I think all of it kind of fits together in a really exciting way right now, and I’m thrilled.”
As if all that weren’t enough, she continues her work with Luna Composition Lab, which she started with Pulitzer Prize–winning composer Ellen Reid to give teenage female, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming composers a head start. They’re planning Luna’s 2024 festival in June in San Francisco, with Kronos Quartet performing as the ensemble-in-residence.
On Sunday, Mazzoli’s categories won’t be presented as part of the pop-centric main Grammy telecast, but she will get to speak if she wins. “I have no idea what I’m going to say, but I will figure that out.”
Don’t be surprised if she mentions the role of women in classical music.
The 2024 Grammy Awards will air live on Sunday, February 4, on CBS and Paramount+ beginning at 8 pm. The red carpet and other events will be streamed at live.GRAMMY.com.