20 questions with Marisa Michelson!

March 26, 2018

Today we sat down with One Thousand Nights and One Day Composer, Marisa Michelson, and got to play 20 questions with her! That’s ten big questions and a lightning round of ten little ones.

1) Who or what inspired you to become a composer?

While practicing certain piano pieces as a young child (I began learning to play at age four), I remember feeling as though something was lifting-melting-unfolding-leaping inside of me. Music gave me access to a rich inner world and all I wanted to do was spend more and more time adventuring inside of the space. I guess you could say Life-force inspired me to create and invent.  I’m lucky that exterior opportunities and resources allowed me to continue to spend time where I felt most alive.

2) Who haven’t you worked with that you would like to?

I would like to connect with and collaborate with Krista Tippett and the folks at the podcast/movement OnBeing.  That podcast has been such a gift to my life and I feel great resonance with Krista’s point of view: that the pursuit of wisdom and moral imagination is as important as the pursuit of knowledge. I can imagine creating improvised performance pieces with my ensemble (Constellation Chor) at their events, exploring theme through voice, something like that.  Yuval Sharon is someone I’d like to work with. And I’ve worked with her in the past in a very surface way, but I’d love to work in a deep way with Meredith Monk.

3) Whats one experience that inspired your music for #1k1Day?

In this moment what suddenly comes to mind is my experience of being in the desert in Israel many years ago.  I remember looking up at the stars and feeling like the sky was so close I could touch it.  I felt intimate with the sky, like I knew it in a new way.  I also felt the spaciousness all around me, like a wide open, horizontal parallel universe.  When I seek spaciousness in the music I’m writing, I call upon that experience and ask it to inspire me.  The Map (song in the show) has that space in it.  So does the Finale.

4) This Genre-Bending score is so exciting- But what kind of music do you listen to and who are your influences for this piece specifically?

I truly cannot name or list any influences for this piece specifically because that’s not how I work as a composer.  Rather, I’m made of all the music I’ve listened to and explored throughout my life, and what comes out of me when I write, comes from a subconscious place.  Usually I notice that music I create reflects what I’ve digested a few years prior, rather than what I am listening to in the moment.

But here are some favorites on my playlists whose names have definitely made it into the conversations I’ve had with Music Director Kurt Crowley : Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Bjork, David Gray, Bon Iver, James Blake, Nine Inch Nails, Meredith Monk, Steve Reich and minimalism in general, Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Monteverdi…I also spent some months studying Hindustani singing in India when I was younger and that experience has certainly influenced this score.

5) How did you end up connecting with your Co-Creators?

Jason and I met in the Composer-Librettist Studio at New Dramatists in 2008!  We enjoyed writing a song together so much, and he asked me if I’d be interested in turning his play 1001 into a musical.   Erin and I met when she came to see TAMAR OF THE RIVER and we felt an immediate connection. We began exploring collaborative space, took a long hike and talked about our lives, and here we are!  I met Kurt and Karla through Erin, and thanks goodness. They are both miracles.

6) With this show did you start with lyrics or music first?

Jason’s play came first.  And the process has been really fluid.  Sometimes I’d sit in a room and bring him 4 bars of something, or an idea for a leitmotif, and other times he’d bring me lyrics.  My favorite times were when we lived in the same city and could be in different rooms writing the same song, checking in every twenty minutes to update the other on our work.

7) This story is so relevant and topical – what is one thing you want your audiences to take away from this experience?

I hope everyone feels moved to examine their own points of view and assumptions about others and about the world.  The narratives we create about others define how we view them.  When our narratives demean their humanity and limit their possibility for growth, that is never helpful or productive.  I mean this sincerely and no matter what your politics are or what your place is in this world.  I mean this for myself too. May I always be called to question my assumptions about others, again and again forever. May I always be open to changing my mind and may I allow others to change their minds.  May I not pretend I know another human being until I know them.  Knowing is a process.

8) Is there a character in the show you relate to most?

In my last musical Tamar of the River, I was 100 percent connected to Tamar’s emotional journey and motivations.  I remember watching that piece sometimes felt like watching my own inner journey.  But working on this musical is totally different: I don’t relate to any of the characters in the same way as I did with Tamar.  But I believe we humans contain multitudes within us.  It’s natural that we form our identity and feel separate from others, but we aren’t actually separate. And with this musical, I’ve gotten to know sides of myself I wasn’t previously in touch with.  Parts of me relate to parts of each character who sings.  But…Scheherazade is who I’d aspire to be.  Such bravery and clarity of purpose.

9) The company of this production seems to be really close knit! Did you collaborate with the performers as a part of your process?

Yes!  Chad Goodridge has been part of this piece since the very beginning!! He’s been part of every single iteration and knows this piece intimately.  He’s also part of Constellation Chor (my ensemble mentioned above) so he and I collaborate together every week.  Jen is also a member of the ensemble and a regular collaborator of mine.  And Sepi and Ben have been part of two readings previously.  The entire company is so so so special.  I am in awe of each person on our team, and my awe is renewed daily.


10) What is coming up next for you? and what do you hope for the future of this piece?

What?? Nothing exists in my heart except ONE THOUSAND NIGHTS AND ONE DAY!!!  🙂  Okay, but in June, NAAMAH’S ARK, my oratorio for five choirs/200 singers, will be performed in Rockefeller Park starring Victoria Clark as Naamah, and conducted by Ted Sperling.  Royce Vavrek wrote the libretto.


Let’s get down to it!

1) What was your favorite album in high school? Little Earthquakes – Tori Amos

2) Where is your favorite place you have traveled? Israel, India, Iceland.  

3) Dogs or cats? Dogs forever.  

4) Favorite smell? Sweetgrass 

5) Train, walk, bike or uber? Bike!

6) What book are you reading right… NOW! Malcolm Gladwell’s The Outliers

7) If you could have a super power what would it be? Endless patience, unwavering (yet discerning) trust.

8) Favorite way to spend a day off? In Nature somewhere, phone far far away or broken, journaling, reading and receiving inspiration from Life.

9) Met or MoMA? Planetarium!!!!

10) Finally! We made it! — What is the best advice you have ever received? 

You can’t control things.  Life is about putting in effort and letting go of attachment to outcome.  Incidentally, this concept is what every single piece of music I’ve ever written is engaging with. Because I need to learn this lesson until it lives in all my bones.


MARISA MICHELSON is a multi-award winning writer of interdisciplinary music-theatre, choral work, and musicals, and is the founder of Constellation Chor, a vocal performance ensemble whose “sonic expressions, from ethereal sounds to primal screams, animalistic wails and simply breath” have been likened to “vocal innovators like Kate Bush, Bjork, Florence Welch and even Yoko Ono.” (StageBiz). Marisa is also a sought-after voice teacher.  Her music has been called “exquisite” (NYTimes), “otherworldly” (Steven Suskin), and “gorgeous…adventurous” (Vox Magazine). Her musical with Joshua H. Cohen, Tamar of the River (Prospect Theater Company, 2 Drama Desk Nominations) was highly praised as “one of the most extraordinary scores in years (Jesse Green – NYMagazine).  Marisa’s oratorio for 200 singers, Naamah’s Ark (with Pulitzer Prize winner Royce Vavrek, starring Victoria Clark) headlines the River to River Festival in June 2018.  As a performer, Marisa’s presence has been described as “commanding as a goddess yet vulnerable as a maiden.” (StageBiz) Awards: 2017 Creative Engagement Award (LMCC); Jonathan Larson Award. Residencies: MacDowell, Ucross, Blue Mountain Center, New Dramatists. www.marisamichelson.comwww.constellationchor.com

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