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Paradise lost: ACO's Missy and Max

How a 400-year-old double bass found in an Italian monastery inspired Missy Mazzoli's new concerto for the Australian Chamber Orchestra

This article was first published by the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

Australian Chamber Orchestra

In celebration of his 20th year with the orchestra, Principal Bass Maxime Bibeau was given the opportunity to commission a new work from a composer he felt reflected his time with the ACO. After considerable research and exploration (including hours of listening) , Max selected Brooklyn based Missy Mazzoli, explaining that she “stood out to me as a composer with a very strong and distinctive voice that I hadn’t heard anywhere else”.

This is the point in a commission where the story generally ends. One artist passes the baton to the other and both reconvene at rehearsals. Mission accomplished. But Missy opted for a different route, tugging at the thread of Max’s instrument’s history to set the focus for the work.

“I was inspired in no small part by Maxime’s double bass, a massive instrument built in 1580 that was stored in an Italian monastery for hundreds of years”, says Mazzoli. “I imagined this instrument as a historian, an object that collected the music of the passing centuries in the twists of its neck and the fibres of its wood, finally emerging into the light at age 400 and singing it all into the world.”

"The solo part features these beautiful, soaring melodic lines, alongside some grittier, crunchier moments from both the bass and the orchestra."

From this foundation, Mazzoli and Max worked together throughout the creative process, collaborating through Skype and in person during a special trip to Brooklyn.

“Missy has been very open about bouncing ideas back and forth, and exploring the full range of the instrument”, says Max. “The solo part features these beautiful, soaring melodic lines, alongside some grittier, crunchier moments from both the bass and the orchestra.”

Missy wanted to keep the character of Max’s bass alive, so immersed herself in music from the Baroque and Renaissance periods to capture it's history and showcase its unique tone.

The cooperative process was a new approach for Mazzoli as well. “I’ve worked with Maxime on this piece more than I’ve ever worked with a soloist,” she explained. “A Contrabass Concerto is a tricky medium in that there are all sorts of potential issues with balance and range, but Maxime was very adventurous and willing to help me come up with innovative solutions”.

The outcome of their partnership is Dark with Excessive Bright – a piece two years in the making that carefully interweaves the unique story of Max’s instrument into a modern composition that’s considered in every detail, right down to the name.

Dark with Excessive Bright, a phrase from Milton’s Paradise Lost […] is a surreal and evocative description of God, written by a blind man”, explains Mazzoli. “I love the impossibility of this phrase, and felt it was a strangely accurate way to describe the dark but heartrending sound of the double bass itself”.

Dark with Excessive Bright will have its world premiere in February's Tognetti Tchaikovsky Brahms concert, with Missy Mazzoli joining Max and the orchestra for final rehearsals and the subsequent national tour.

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