As SFCMP prepares to perform Still Life with Avalanche, we asked composer Missy Mazzoli about the piece:

You mentioned in an interview that one of the most important things you were taught was that you must live a life in music instead of simply having a career in music. This seems particularly relevant to a piece like Still Life With Avalanche in which events from your life are actually the basis of some of the musical material. Can you speak about the decision to include an unanticipated event in your life in a piece of music you’d already begun to develop? Is this a standard part of your compositional process?

Actually when I was referring to having a life in music I was thinking of it more in a positive sense, in that I try to make artistic decisions that help me lead the life I want to lead and be the person I want to be, even when I’m not in the act of composing or performing.  I think it’s one of the advantages of being an artist – I don’t think of my career or my music as something separate from who I am when I’m truly being myself.  That said, the inevitable flip side of that is that the nasty stuff in your life finds its way into your work when you’re distraught or unhappy.  When my cousin died I wasn’t thinking about music.  I just wanted to bang on things and cry and make noise.  When I got tired of that I robotically went back to composing, only to find that I had become a completely different person.  It didn’t feel right to continue in the same direction.  Yes, I pulled the piece in a dissonant, angry direction, but there’s never that simple life-to-art translation of “I was angry so I made angry music” or “I was sad so I wrote a melody in D Minor”. When composers say things like that it feels a little too facile; I think there’s usually a much more complicated process of translation happening there, and it’s a process that is fascinating and mysterious.  So yes, every day the events of my life find their way into my music, but in a way that is complex and often hidden, especially to me.

Perhaps one of the defining features of new music is its use of instruments not typically found in what might be considered the “classical canon”. Could you talk about how you deal with new timbres and perhaps explain what qualities of the harmonica led you to include it in Still Life?

I love harmonicas because they’re always slightly out of tune!  I love introducing an unpredictable, vulnerable element into highly structured music.  Most people in the audience are familiar with the sound of someone breathing in and out into a harmonica, and I wanted to draw them in with a timbre that was both comfortable and haunting.  I love the contrast of the wheezing harmonica, played in a way that any non-musician could play it, with these virtuosic string passages that are only really playable by .0001% of the population.

Inevitably, referring to a composition as a “still life” is going to raise questions given the fact that any kind of change over time is typically perceived as “motion”. Certainly there is a fairly clear line in the piece between its more static and motive elements, but it seems, at least to me, that there is never quite the total stasis implied by a “still life”. Could you talk about how you dealt with and thought about the concept of a still life as it can exist in music, and why an avalanche spoke to you as a particularly appropriate motive element?

Honestly, this title was always like this joke that only I seemed to find funny.  The point is not that it’s actually a still life or an avalanche, but that it’s something impossible, something that had within it two elements that were pulling on each other because they can’t co-exist.  The music has this conflict too; there is a theme that wants to dig its heels into the dirt and repeat over and over in an almost manic, clown-happy kind of way, and all this harmony piled up that wants to drag it off the cliff and into the ocean.

Still Life with Avalanche will be performed on Thursday, October 25, 2012 (more information).

Missy Mazzoli will be a featured panelist for Young American Composers and the Legacy of John Cage on Friday, October 26, 2012 (more information).