Maybe all artists envy makers in other mediums; every novelist I know, at least, would much rather be a painter or a composer. Listening to Missy Mazzoli’s music, I feel what I want to feel (and to make others feel) in novels: that I’m subsumed in a mind thinking, with all its churning, quicksilver changes, its shades of feeling—and subsumed by means of a language more direct than the language I have. How lovely it must be to think outside of language, I imagine, without words always tiresomely pointing their fingers elsewhere.
Because Mazzoli’s music does feel like thinking, in the way that simple ideas—an arpeggio, a glissando—are asserted, revised, reasserted; elaborated, stacked, turned around; become a texture, a form, an obsession, an architecture. Her phrases remind me of a great novelist’s sentences, even those of my favorite novelist, Henry James, in the way that they seem always to be searching, falling back, leaping forward; in their hesitation and their charge, their faltering and their determination.
But this emphasis on thinking might suggest a kind of asceticism, a pursuit of abstraction at the expense of the body and its pleasures. In fact, as in a James novel, in Mazzoli’s music thinking is always embodied, always sensual; the shape of a thought, its sallies and circlings, is also the shape of desire. As this music approaches consummation, falls back from it, approaches again, finally arrives, one realizes that the division we sometimes imagine between intellect and desire, body and mind, is a false one. Whoever convinced us of it? It’s precisely through thinking–worrying over an idea, following it to an ineluctable end—that this music finds access to rapture.
This is music of intense drama, pungently gestural; but Mazzoli’s gestures are never orphaned, leading nowhere, as in so much contemporary music (and contemporary writing, too) that aims for drama. The peculiar, paradoxical density and amplitude of Mazzoli’s music, and also the great satisfaction one finds in it, comes from the sense it gives of memory, the way ideas and gestures are endlessly processed and transformed, but never abandoned. Each piece is a journey no step of which is forgotten, so that one arrives in a place that feels at once familiar and absolutely new.
Memory is the key to Mazzoli’s extraordinary formal intelligence. One hears in her music, for all its innovations, an artist reaching to the roots of a tradition, inhabiting and renovating older forms. “We fill preexisting forms, and when we fill them, change them and are changed,” writes the great poet Frank Bidart. I love the sense this music gives of an artist thinking with the whole history of her art: baroque sinfonias and 20th-century minimalism; the shade of Orpheus and the electronics of “Vespers for Violin.” Mazzoli’s music offers the exhilaration peculiar to great art: the feeling of someone using every resource at her command to think her life and her world at the highest intensity, her discoveries somehow transmuted to sounds in the air.
-Garth Greenwell, 2023
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