“To provide a surprising path through a jungle of notes.”

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Matthew Zapruder and Missy Mazzoli in Correspondence

What follows is a conversation conducted over several weeks by email between composer and musician Missy Mazzoli and poet Matthew Zapruder, friends and fellow travelers, concerning their work together on Mazzoli’s recently released and highly acclaimed album Vespers for a New Dark Age, some differences and similarities between the effects of music and poetry, compositional processes and childhood loneliness formations, good and bad gigs, rocking out, teaching, creativity, and the 1990s. See Korea, the poem that inspired the vespers here.

MATTHEW ZAPRUDER: Hi Missy. What are you working on? And what are you up to right this very minute?

MISSY MAZZOLI: Believe it or not, this very minute I am sitting in my boring ole Brooklyn apartment, listening to a loopy playlist I made of Henry Purcell, Brian Wilson, and Beck, taking a break from packing. I’m about to go to Philadelphia for a few days to work with the opera company, and then down to Houston for a performance of Song from the Uproar, an opera I wrote in 2012. It’s strange for me to look up and notice how so completely opera and theater have taken over my life. 

I’m working daily on an adaptation of Lars von Trier’s film Breaking the Waves for Opera Philadelphia, and doing research for a few other theatrical projects. What’s occupying you creatively these days?

MZ: Sorry I haven’t written you. There is this little baby in our house now who has achieved a level of adorableness utterly inimical to adult scheduling. Right now I am staring at said four and a half month old baby, actually, his image in one of those little blue plastic monitors. In a minute I will go upstairs and kick it with him.

Right when my son was born I felt a burst of creative energy, which was quickly drowned in a wave of sleeplessness (I wrote a poem for you, in fact, with him on my lap!). My wife has been great about making sure that I have some regular times to work, but I have not been so good over the past several weeks at preserving that time: I usually end up catching up on “crucial” emails (I feel like crucial emails is an oxymoron) that I have not answered, or doing school or editing work, and then feeling despair, because I didn’t actually make anything except some lost pixels. 

I’ve also started work on another musical/theater project, something our friend Gabe Kahane is working on, an adaptation of a story for an opera. It’s all still very nascent, and I am mostly doing a lot of “research” (which, for a poet, usually involves buying an expensive book, reading four pages of it, and then talking incessantly about it like some kind of expert) and then writing some crazy poems from the points of view of certain characters or inanimate objects. I don’t know what use this will all be, but it’s been fun. Probably the best thing that has happened to me as a poet in the past few years is getting to know you, and Gabe, and being a very ancillary part of this amazing new music scene.

Your Brooklyn apartment does not seem boring to me. Is that where you do your composing? What’s your daily life been like recently as a creative artist, recording artist, performer? 

MM: I’m glad I’ve successfully fooled you into thinking that I’m an organized and productive person!  As a musician, every night is Friday night and every morning is Monday morning, so it’s a true mix of public performances and a fierce fight for private time to create. In the past week I participated in a masterclass at Opera Philadelphia, where I presented two songs from an opera-in-progress with the amazing soprano Dawn Upshaw. The next day I flew to Houston for a concert presentation of my 2012 opera Song from the Uproar, based on the life of Swiss explorer Isabelle Eberhardt. The day after I flew back I performed a short set at Carnegie Hall with my band Victoire, as part of a celebration of the composer Meredith Monk. 

In between all of that are the usual silly emails, the last-minute trips to H&M to find cheap but exciting stage clothes, and any sort of piano practice I can fit in. Who was it who came up with the three B’s of creativity? That idea that your most creative ideas come to you in the bed, the bath, and the bus? I’m going back to that now. The next few weeks are all about daydreaming and composing. And maybe some sleep too.

I am really excited about the album we just made together. However much you may downplay your role, your poems really set the tone for the whole record. Before we met I half-heartedly looked for texts I could set to music, texts that combined some notion of the sacred and the mundane. 

I’m not religious, but I’ve always been attracted to the rituals of religion; as a kid, Sunday church was the closest thing I had to an interactive, theatrical experience.  Everyone filters in, there’s a sort of prelude, everyone chants a text together, then a soloist sings something, everyone stands up together—the whole service has a flow to it that is at once predictable and mutable. I knew I wanted to reference the structure of a religious service and incorporate all the juicy, theatrical incantations and spooky call-and-response, but was looking for a text that was more or less secular.  

When CAConrad introduced me to your work, I immediately felt that your poems were the perfect combination of worldly and supernatural. I had the sense while reading your book Come on All You Ghosts that the speaker is someone struggling with his relationship to the invisible: God, his memories, figures from his past.  There are also all these sections that address God directly (Hello Lord / I’m sorry I woke you / but my plans / are important to me), and the repeated refrain “come on all you ghosts,” which I set as a sort of incantation that appears throughout the album.  From the beginning you have been so generous in letting me interpret these poems in my own way, and that’s one of the reasons I feel this collaboration has been so successful.  I felt free to take the parts of the poems that seemed to work as lyrics, to set them for three soaring female voices, and to surround it all with this crazy band of strings, synths, drums and clarinets.  I feel that it’s important to respect the poet’s intentions, but the music also has to be free to take unexpected turns, to make leaps the poems may not suggest.  

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MZ: I never heard that about the Three B’s of creativity. I wrote a lot of the poems of Come on All You Ghosts on a bus traveling around the country. The three b’s in my life lately have been Bed, Bath and Beyond, which my wife and I call “that place which shall not be named” (not to be confused with “that place where we always argue,” i.e., Ikea). Come to think of it Bed, Bath and Beyond is a lot more ominous and potentially poetic than I thought. Dickinson would have liked that name, I think.

I think you are right about Come on All You Ghosts being a series of moments where a person (voice) struggles with his relationship to the invisible. To a great extent that’s true about my most recent book, Sun Bear, as well. Obviously, the moment that the reality of the invisible becomes most apparent is when someone dies; that absence is most palpable. But aside from that obvious and extreme experience, I do believe in general poetry is naturally in dialogue with the unknown, in terms of its content and material both. Poetry’s main task in fact may be to reactivate, with whatever particular amalgams of happiness and sorrow appeal to each poet, that aspect of language which reminds us of the paradox of both being able to communicate, and all the ways words and language fall short.

It seems to me that music can in its wordlessness leap over that gap that saying always leaves. That is the tragedy of speaking and writing, and one that I’m not sure music shares. There is a kind of joy in music (along of course with deep wells of sadness, duende, mortal terror, etc.) that it is very difficult to achieve in writing, either as a creative experience or as a reader. Communion. I guess what I am trying to say is it is very hard to rock out in writing. I miss rocking out a lot. I have felt ever since you and I met that if we lived in the same town we would be in a band.

I will say about our process—which, not out of modesty false or otherwise but simple honesty, I would not call a collaboration—was that from the beginning I not only agreed, but insisted that you use the words without any regard for what you might imagine my feelings might be about them. That seemed absolutely necessary. Your job was to make the best piece you could, on your own terms, and worrying about what I might think or the original context or anything would not, in my opinion, have helped with that. And in creating some additional new scraps of poetry for you I also was responding to your needs as best I could, to your need for a little more writing for a certain part of the piece. I love being directed as a writer; it is such an unusual experience. It reminds me of how it feels to play lead guitar, to work for the songs, to be a good worker in the art factory.

Did I send you the actual scraps of paper I wrote on? Or did I transcribe them? I just remember walking around for days scribbling little god missives for Missy. It seems a million years ago now, but it was great, something to be working on all the time when everything else was going on. So I guess to answer your question, of course what I love is seeing my work in a different context, stretched and cradled by so many extraordinary musicians and artists, but probably what draws me to working with you most is the opportunity to make new work in a way I would not otherwise.

I loved hearing my words in Vespers for a New Dark Age. I felt a little self-conscious at Carnegie Hall, but also quite happy. The party after was so cool, all those geniuses at a cheesy bar. I was in heaven. Sarah was pregnant then so we couldn’t hang out for a long time, but I felt touched by a little penumbra of the action.

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Missy Mazzoli and Glenn Kotche / Carnegie Hall soundcheck


MM: I have no doubt that we’d have a band if we didn’t live 3,000 miles away from each other—the only question is, what would we call it? The Overthinkers?  Too Tough for Tenure? The Insomniac Twins? Beyond the Bed, Beyond the Bath? I actually always wanted to start a side project called Pseudo Tuxedo.  Which probably has to be a noise rock band, and probably involves untied bow-ties draped around all the players’ necks.  I’ve always loved that untied bow-tie look, the one that says “Damn right I’m classy, but I’ve also been out all night.” You in?

It’s an interesting paradox you bring up: because music leaves so much unsaid, and has the option of remaining almost totally abstract, the listener can attach her own story to it and the overall effect can actually be more visceral, more personal. Poor old quiet poetry must make do with words, which, in their precision, can sometimes leave a gulf between the experience of the writer and the reader. I agree that it’s a little harder to rock out in poetry, and it’s rare, in my experience to get to that trance-like, communal, live show experience at a reading.  

Okay, now that we’ve established that music is awesome and poetry sucks, let me contradict everything I just wrote and confess that I suffer from extreme writer envy. My best friend Farnoosh Fathi is an incredible poet, and I’m constantly jealous of her ability to sit in a coffee shop and make art with a pencil while I’m outside on my dying cellphone trying to schedule rehearsals or get my piano tuned. I also crave the precision of language. You can write, “I know I belong in this new dark age” and there it is, something direct and beautiful. I can write a symphony that tries to communicate that notion (as I sort of just did), and fast forward a few years to when I can release it on a record, there is still so much people have to wade through to get to that simple core idea. Sometimes I want to be direct, to be as simple as possible in my expressions, and that’s very hard to do with notes and soundwaves.

Conclusion: poetry is awesome too. Let’s party. Get your bow-tie.

I do think people are rocking out in poetry a little more these days, at least in readings. Farnoosh, as well as our friend CAConrad, are the first examples that come to mind. They both have a way of creating rituals and collective activities that spring organically out of their words.  I just “assisted” Farnoosh the other day when she read at the Zinc bar here in NYC as part of the Segue series.  Instead of reciting her work in a traditional way, she had some audience members write down fragments from one of her poems, while other audience members traced those lines.  The whole thing had a very meditative, surreal quality. While this was happening I played music I had written that was a setting of the same poem. When she finally did read the poem, we had all already experienced it in about five different ways. There were definitely many moments of rock star chaos that night.

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MZ: As a name for our band I would suggest The Twinsomniacs but I would then have to hate myself because puns are an evil habit. That would be the band where we had never met, but just sent each other tracks through Gchat at 3am. Pseudo Tuxedo though, I’m in. That reminds me of the hilarious beginning to that David Foster Wallace essay, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” where he goes on a cruise ship, and instead of bringing black tie formal wear as instructed, instead packs one of those tuxedo t-shirts, which he thinks is going to be hilarious to wear to the big formal dinner until he realizes he has to walk into a room full of hundreds of people wearing that stupid t-shirt. That seems to pretty much sum up some way of being in the world that I totally recognize.

I do think on some basic level music is awesome and poetry does suck. The world seems to agree. But the thing about poetry is, if you can somehow transcend the inherent suckiness of it, its tendency toward droning soporific fancified narcissism, it has the double power of being awesome and also shocking people that it doesn’t suck, if that makes sense. That’s especially true live. I like going into a reading when I feel the audience isn’t expecting anything, and then trying to create that attentive lucid dreaming space. A kind of silence that can, in those moments, feel completely essential, and unachievable in any other way. That aspect of giving readings does remind me of playing music live in the sense that it is dynamic: you work with the situation, to create something, given the unpredictable circumstances in which you find yourself. The goal is the same, to conjure an experience, like Farnoosh did, that’s really fantastic, creative, and brave. More people should do that kind of thing, though as we know she is singular as Uruguay!

It’s really risky to give poetry readings, no matter how many you have done. I have made so many mistakes in live performance. I read in Seattle about a year ago at AWP. There was an open bar at this kind of rock club in Capitol Hill, and of course, as could have totally been predicted by anyone, there were a bajillion people there who had no interest in shutting up and listening to poetry. They just wanted to drink for free and make at least a desultory effort toward getting laid, which is exactly what people should do in a bar on a weekend. It would have been the perfect place for Pseudo Tuxedo, though not the Twinsomniacs, they would have gotten killed. 

I just tried to power through, but it was totally awful. I realize now what I should have done was gotten down off the stage and gathered around the twenty people who actually wanted to listen and just read very quietly, but I didn’t have the presence of mind to think of that then, and anyway, the conception of the dramatic act always at the moment at least escapes me.

One thing I do miss about playing music is the awesome sound a guitar makes. I usually play a dark sunburst Les Paul Jr. with these insanely great Lollar pickups, through an early 1970’s Vibrolux and some esoteric boutique pedals, for which I am a sucker. That brrraaangggg sound, especially the first moment of the show, before the first song, is just the best. The ability of a band to dominate the room is what makes music so awesome, but can also make it so horrible. I also miss my band. From the moment the four of us first played, twenty years ago (!), we had an intense musical connection, and nothing in my life, musically or otherwise, has ever had that same quality of wordless ease. 

We used to pride ourselves on being able to play very quietly, and then loud, not really so much like the dynamics of a 90s band like The Pixies or Nirvana, something more gentle exploding toward something more primal, maybe the same quality Wilco used to have. Whenever anyone asked what our band sounded like, we would say Lynyrd Cohen. Just recently there was a great article written by someone in Scotland about the songwriter in our band, very nostalgic about the 90s (which I know you would LOVE), lots of references to Pavement and Silver Jews and Bill Callahan, etc. We have made many records few people have heard, and I’m sure we’ll figure out a way to keep making them, even though three of the four of us now have babies (not with each other, which would be creepy).

I do wonder about something you wrote below, when you talked about writing a symphony to communicate a certain emotion. Writing poetry, I rarely if ever start out wanting to communicate an idea or notion, probably at most just a vague impulse. I go out with my formless emotions into language, and try to find the words that give them form. In a way, I don’t know what I think or feel until I write the words. That for me is the great satisfaction of writing poetry, that experience: everything that comes after, good and bad, is ultimately ancillary to that private click into momentary self-knowledge, which (because poems are written in our most collective medium) I deeply believe can also provide the same experience for other people, not just myself. Virginia Woolf wrote, “The poet is always our contemporary,” by which I think she means, no matter the particular circumstance of the poem, how long ago or how far away it was written, there is something in the very fact of language itself that makes it abstract, that is, applicable to many different experiences, not just an individual one, that is ours.

Maybe because words tend so much toward meaning, to write poetry one has to suspend that way of relating to language at least for a while, to liberate oneself into the possibility of what might be said. Music is of course much more naturally abstract and communal.

MM: Your email is so full of 90s nostalgia it’s making me happily sentimental this Monday morning. Just the phrase “dark sunburst” conjures a whole world of Clinton-era afternoons at Martin’s Guitars in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, where I started hanging out after being kicked off my high school softball team. Oh, the twisted wheels of fate. Thank heaven for my lifelong lack of coordination.

I love the idea of shocking people into realizing that poetry doesn’t suck—the same can be applied to contemporary classical music.  People often assume that it will be inaccessible or purely academic, and I’m very happy when listeners find a personal, familiar pathway into my work.  I think that’s one of my jobs as a composer, to provide a surprising path through a jungle of notes.

Maybe it’s similar to the “attentive lucid dreaming space” you mentioned.  We create a space where people can let their guard down enough to be receptive, and then they are open to even the most complex, abstract ideas.  Easier typed than done though; I’ve spent most of the last ten years trying to create work that expresses the complex sounds in my mind while still providing a way in for the uninitiated.  Is this something you think about in your work?  This idea of giving readers a path?  For composers there’s sometimes a sort of feigned indifference towards audiences, when in reality we’re all googling our own names the second we’re alone, desperate to have made some sort of impression.    

Your experience at AWP is painfully familiar to me.  Maybe the lesson here is to never combine the phrases “poetry reading” or “classical music” with “open bar”.  Or not to combine anything with “open bar”, except maybe “wedding” or “party.”  Unless it’s a Pseudo Tuxedo gig, which would be way too loud for conversation, but would hopefully still help someone get laid.  

It’s so interesting to learn about how you write, how a vague impulse can transform into such cohesive, narrative poems. Sometimes my ideas come from a single sound—a strange chord on a guitar, a new idea about how to combine a violin and a synthesizer- but very quickly that idea becomes the catalyst for a larger structure.  I do feel that some sort of concept or an ear towards form is essential in creating my large-scale works. That said, my approach has always been to make the plan and abandon the plan a dozen times over while composing. While all this sketching and planning happens upfront, I too feel that I don’t know what I have, or what I’m really going for, until the piece reflects it back at me.  With Vespers for a New Dark Age I began with your poems, and that line at the beginning—“If the heart/ makes the sound/ of two violins”—led me into a texture using the violin and the double bass.  From there I spun out a form, and had a vague idea that it would end with this kind of repeated chorus in strange time signatures, dominated by voices and drums.  But the paths through the text, the particular harmonies, the way the instruments overlap, all of that came out of experiments within that form.  The overarching theme of the work, the idea that I could create a modern Vespers service and through that possibly express ideas about spirituality and technology was there from the beginning, but the exact way to do that was initially a mystery to me.  It was something that I had to discover through composing.  I often feel like a mad sculptor who blasts out a chunk of rock with dynamite and then refines it obsessively. 

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Olivia De Prato, Eileen Mack, Missy Mazzoli / Carnegie Hall soundcheck

MZ: You were kicked off your high school softball team, I was kicked out of Cub Scouts, and subsequently out of the Safety Patrol, which at Chevy Chase Elementary School was under the command of Miss Hanrahan, a kind of elementary school Gestapo, with monthly conclaves where younger kids who accumulated too many demerits would be publicly shamed in front of an orange belt clad mob of 5th and 6th graders. By the time I got to high school any group activity was out of the question. I spent a lot of time in my room playing guitar and listening to cassettes and also Strat-o-Matic baseball and an infinite game called Source of the Nile, where one mapped out explorations through mysterious Africa, hexagon by hexagon. This does not seem particularly auspicious for a life of art, but then again, I was within myself gathering a lifetime of loneliness that would make me appreciate my artistic friendships measurelessly.

When I was writing the long poem “Come on All You Ghosts,” as I was moving through I would occasionally spontaneously remember poems from before that never really made it, and have the intuition there might be a line or two that belonged in the poem I was currently composing. That line you reference actually came from an earlier poem that never really worked, but it finally found its place in the longer poem. And now it has another form, and I’m sure my future writing will continue to be formed by your work, listening to it as I write, which I have loved to do with the first Victoire record, and now with this one too.

I agree with you completely that some sense of form emerging out of the formless creative impulse is essential. I often think, this is what I can teach my poetry students, various ways to move in various formal directions after the initial, highly idiosyncratic act of creation. I don’t believe I or anyone can (or really needs to) teach the creative act itself: Aristotle wrote that a poet is one who has an “eye for resemblances,” that is, someone who can intuit the metaphor or image or symbol etc. in language and move toward it instinctively, and be as surprised as the rest of us when a connection is made that was not apparent before. I do think I can show my students some interesting ways to put themselves in positions where they can have an opportunity to be creative (our friend CAConrad’s (Soma)tic exercises of course are an example of this, and there are many others, albeit mostly not as interesting!). But more important, I can help them see the formal possibilities that can start to suggest themselves as the creative impulse emerges into language.

I try not to get too permanently attached to one particular formal solution, to try different things, and to stay light and in a certain sense away from an image of myself as a particular “kind” of writer. My students are often worried about “finding a voice,” which sometimes seem to me to mean, a permanent solution to the unsolvable dilemmas and contradictions inherent in language, and in being a poet. It’s probably bad marketing to keep changing the way one does art, and no matter what I suppose there are developing through lines (formal and otherwise) that others will most likely be able to perceive better than the artist herself. But I like to think with each poem, what is the form that feels right for this piece, as it is emerging. It’s a very intuitive thing.

But in the process of creation it also completely makes sense to get temporarily extremely attached to a certain formal solution, and then heartbroken when it doesn’t work, and then to recover, over and over. This all becomes easier after a few times of having gotten to the end of the process and seeing it actually work. It’s strange how it’s hardest at the beginning of being an artist, because you have the fewest tried and true tools at your disposal, and also the least reason to have faith that it will actually come together. That’s why I look at the young artists I know and marvel.

Obviously writing something longer like you often do is a totally different matter, it has to work together as a whole, more than a group of poems, which can be quite heterogenous and still function in a collection. Again, I love your description below of how you work, and really have nothing to add to it, other than to say, yes, I believe there is an exact poetic equivalent: writing poetry! The chunk of rock is language itself. The dynamite is the particular creative process, whether it’s scribbling in a notebook, or writing a sonnet, or doing one of Conrad’s (Soma)tics, or just sitting with a writing implement or typewriter or computer, staring into space, waiting for a word or phrase to suggest itself. Get totally into the plan, abandon the plan, do it again and again. Fail better. That’s our 1990s, and I guess we’ll just keep doing it.

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Matthew Zapruder is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Come On All You Ghosts, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and Sun Bear. Why Poetry, a book of prose, is forthcoming from Ecco Press in 2016. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a William Carlos Williams Award, a May Sarton Award from the Academy of American Arts and Sciences, and a Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship in Marfa, TX. An Associate Professor in the St. Mary’s College of California MFA program and English Department, he is also Editor at Large at Wave Books. He lives in Oakland, CA.

Missy Mazzoli was recently deemed “one of the more consistently inventive, surprising composers now working in New York” (New York Times) and “Brooklyn’s post-millennial Mozart” (Time Out New York).  Her music has been performed by the Kronos Quartet, the Detroit Symphony, the LA Philharmonic, the Minnesota Orchestra and many others, and she is currently Composer-in-Residence with Opera Philadelphia, Gotham Chamber Opera and Music Theatre-Group. She is working on an opera for Opera Philadelphia, and recently released Vespers for a New Dark Age, an album commissioned by Carnegie Hall and composed for her ensemble Victoire, electronic producer Lorna Dune and  percussionist Glenn Kotche of Wilco, with texts by poet Matthew Zapruder.