Each year, I pick a living composer for our students to study, someone whose work presents lessons I feel my students should take to heart. Last year we focused on John C. Adams, a composer who has stood at the pinnacle of the profession for quite some time and whose impact, especially in the orchestra and opera worlds, has been enormous.
This year we’ve been studying the music of Missy Mazzoli, a composer in the early stages of her career. Last Thursday we gathered for presentations on four of her works: A Thousand Tongues, Magic With Everyday Objects, These Worlds in Us and Still Life With Avalanche. We identified traits and techniques these four works share, as well as distinguishing aspects. It’s been fascinating to see how the students connect with this music that is by a near-contemporary – at least they are much closer in age to her than they are to me.
This Thursday we’ll be skyping with Missy to discuss her work. I’ve shared with her five directions I’d like to see the discussion move in, but we’ll see how things play out. One of the fun things about meeting with a composer online, as opposed to in a classroom, is that the students will get a glimpse into her workspace, in her home in Brooklyn. It seems a bit intrusive: I know I’m pretty shy about showing people my studio. But it’s a great opportunity for students who are finding out all the things it means be a composer.
I’ll be curious to see what my students get from this encounter. My experience with guest composers, both from hosting them and from being one myself, is that sometimes the event is memorable and sometimes it’s largely forgettable, and I’ve never been able to come up with a explanation for why it works one way or the other. I know that when I’ve been the guest, I’ve done exactly the same things with different gatherings and had completely different responses. With composers I’ve brought in, I’ve had students sit stone-faced for 90 minutes, then tell me later that it was the most wonderful thing they’ve ever experienced. I’ve also seen them pepper a guest with questions and exclamations, only to come out of it having learned nothing. Seems to be a matter of getting the right ingredients into the cauldron, then hoping for some kind of synthesis.