5 Questions to Missy Mazzoli about Luna Composition Lab

In the early 2000s, several American composers came to define a style of post-Minimalism that defies the “contemporary classical” label. Missy Mazzoli, whose music sometimes seems to inhabit a sound dimension of its own, is one of them. Her collaborations with librettist Royce Vavrek are standouts of early-21st-century opera, usually exploring nonconformist female personalities.

The enterprising Mazzoli is also the co-founder (with Ellen Reid) of Luna Composition Lab, which fosters that resolute personality found in her operas among young artists — composers ages 13-18 who are female, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming. The annual Luna Lab fellowship selects a cohort of six artists and connects them with mentors who are established composers and also female, nonbinary, or gender-nonconforming. The program includes professional performances and recordings of the young composers’ new music, and a system of support for their careers.

The 2022–23 fellows — Hannah Chen, Lucy Chen, Lili Masoudi, Gabrielle Smith, Elaina Stuppler, and Isabelle Tseng — are between 14 and 17 years old, each from a different state. Their mentors are the composers Sarah Hennies, Nina Shekhar, Wang Lu, inti figgis-vizueta, Veronika Krausas, and Dawn Norfleet.

The highlight of Luna Lab’s annual festival this year, slated for June 10 at Mannes School of Music, is the premiere of a new work by each fellow, performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble, with which they’ve been workshopping their scores for months. The event, part of American Composers Orchestra’s SONiC Festival, also includes music by the mentor composers.

I recently interviewed Mazzoli about the origin of Luna Lab and the impact that the program has had in the classical music community since it was founded in 2016.

2022-23 Luna Composition Lab Fellows Hannah Chen, Lucy Chen, Lili Masoudi, Gabrielle Smith, Elaina Stuppler, and Isabelle Tseng -- Photos courtesy of Luna Composition Lab

2022-23 Luna Composition Lab Fellows Hannah Chen, Lucy Chen, Lili Masoudi, Gabrielle Smith, Elaina Stuppler, and Isabelle Tseng — Photos courtesy of Luna Composition Lab

At a time when your career as a composer was taking off, you and Ellen Reid made time to start Luna Composition Lab. What was the main motivator?

Around 2016, Ellen and I took a critical look at the field and tried to figure out where the system breaks down for women, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming composers. These artists are consistently under-programmed. Even more disturbing to me was the fact that, with all the teaching I do around the country, I rarely, if ever, encounter a freshman class of composers with anything approaching gender parity. This tells me that something is happening to very young female, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming composers that discourages them from entering the field even before they apply to college. Ellen and I decided that we could address this imbalance by connecting composers of that age with prominent female and non-binary mentors in the field. As our own careers took off, we found we could provide instant access to institutions and people in positions of power; it’s a way of building a pipeline and also just kicking down the barriers to entry for promising young people.

Over the years, how has Luna Lab catered to the specific needs of young female, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming composers, and has this approach continued to evolve with each iteration of the program?

Ellen and I feel that it’s crucial to support young musicians at the age when they decide to enter the field, which is often in their early teens, and that providing role models is an essential step. This has been a part of our approach from the very beginning. Beyond that, the program has continued to evolve based on feedback from our composers, the changing conversation around gender, and also the particular needs of young people, which have changed considerably over the last seven years. We’ve led discussions in the last year, for example, about mental health and anxieties around climate change, always letting our composers lead the conversation.

Many opportunities for emerging composers require the submission of a completed work, which might be a hurdle. How does Luna Lab approach this? Do applicants need to have a work ready or in progress to apply, or do they begin composing once they’ve been accepted, in collaboration with Luna Lab’s mentors and performers?

Our staff at Luna Lab has thought a lot over the years about how to eliminate barriers to entry, particularly for emerging composers who might not have access to music education in their high schools or towns. While we do require the submission of a completed work for our Fellowship program, that work can be electronic, a graphic score, or any other form our composers dream up.

We also have a beginning online composition class — Adventures in Sound, led by the fabulous Whitney George — with no submission requirements, which composers at the very beginning of their artistic journeys can take. It’s a class that teaches the basics of notation and theory along with listening assignments, designed to get composers to start writing their very first pieces. We’ve had a few composers take the class and then go on to be part of the Fellowship Program. In this way, we hope to create a space for everyone and eliminate barriers to entry that might be based on income or geographic location.

Missy Mazzoli and Ellen Reid with past Luna Composition Lab fellows in New York — Photo courtesy of Luna Composition Lab

Tell us about the impact the program has had in the community, from the perspective of the careers of the fellows. Some have gone on to study at Curtis and Juilliard, and many have been commissioned by orchestras. How has each cohort been different, or progressed, starting with the first group in 2016?

We’re very proud of the fact that 95% of our graduates go on to study composition in college, and 100% continue to be involved in music in some way. One of our first graduates, Michelle David, just premiered a work with the World House Choir in Cincinnati, commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony, in which she sang and rapped in collaboration with local artist Tron. This year, our recent alum Ebun Oguntola was accepted to Harvard, Yuri Lee was accepted to Princeton, Azalea Twining was accepted to Columbia, Abby Harris was accepted to Mannes… the list goes on!

One of our big goals in setting up the program was to provide composers with high-quality recordings and videos of their work so they could use them to apply to college, and as we like to joke, “our evil plan is working.” That said, every one of our alums is a unique artist with different needs and interests, so we support them as individuals who are still very much in the process of finding their voices.

What are the general goals and aspirations that Luna Lab has for its fellows and their influence in the community, as they mature and progress in their careers?

Our biggest hope is that our alums will feel empowered to be themselves, make bold decisions in their careers, and tackle large projects without fear. All of this feels much more possible when one has a vibrant community of peers, strong role models and mentors, and a compelling portfolio of recordings and videos with which to share one’s work. Ellen and I had to fight for decades to find that for ourselves; neither of us really connected with another female composer until we were in our 20s, and we thought that by the time we were in our 40s things would have changed more than they have. It turns out that’s not the case, but it’s one of the great joys of our lives to be able to make life just a bit easier for the next generation and to provide them with the community and support we desperately wanted at their age.


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