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Dispatches from the Moth · Posted On: Aug 30, 2011

The Moth Profiles: Mazz Swift

by Laura Hadden, Media & Communications Manager

Mothpeeps Mazz Extra2

Many musicians have graced The Moth stage, but few as often as Mazz Swift, who began playing violin at age 6 and first bestowed her improvised pieces on The Moth audiences in 2006.

The role of The Moth musician is a unique one. Their music opens the show, drawing the audience’s attention to the stage before the storytelling begins. The musician also serves as a timekeeper, playing a few notes as a signal to storytellers that they are nearing or have exceeded their allotted time.

While the musician sits on stage for the entirety of The Moth show, the audience rarely gets to hear their story. With this in mind as well as her immense contributions to The Moth, it seemed fitting to select Mazz as the first of our subjects for our new monthly series of profiles on Moth community members.

Before we get started, we wanted to give those of you who haven’t heard Mazz at one of our Mainstages the opportunity to hear one of her beautiful improvised pieces. This one is from our “Shot Through the Heart: Stories of Beaus and Arrows” Mainstage at The Great Hall at Cooper Union in February 2011.

MOTH: To start, how does the theme of the night inspire your improvisation?

MAZZ: I guess when I’m playing this improv, I’m thinking of it as a question in the beginning; pondering the possibilities of a new relationship (shot through the heart). When I start out I usually kinda try and meditate on the theme of the evening but then I try to let go and just play what comes to mind without thinking too much…

So the question is asked (what does “Shot in the Heart” mean to me?) and I play about it for a while and then a melody/theme crystalizes. I could say that the direction the improvisation takes is a possible path of what could happen in a romantic relationship (A girl questions whether or not this possible lover is one she should go for. She decides it’s worth exploring and they groove together for a while. And then it gets intense. Certain themes reoccur, others unexpectedly present themselves. But they all converge and sail into the sunset; we leave the story unfinished, much like the ending of this particular improv: rife with possibility).

I *could* say that – and it would be partially true – as somewhat this is what I was thinking as I played it out that night. But I feel like when a player plays her story it means something often QUITE different than what the listener interprets it to be. And in the end, I really just want the listener to create his or her meaning/story from what they are hearing while they listen. I hope folks do that when they listen to this now.

Ultimately, I feel that there’s a really important truth in knowing that while your story may be intensely personal, people will only ever understand it through their personal filters and that’s not only ok but that’s the point of all this: to inspire people to think about and feel who they are. I feel like it’s a good day when that happens.

MOTH: How (and why) did you decide to pursue music professionally?

MAZZ: I always knew I wanted to play violin professionally. I went to school with that in mind. Truth be told, though, I lost courage right around the time I hit my early twenties and took a significant amount of time off from playing altogether. It’s kind of a long and convoluted story, but basically my 25th year rolled around and I was working in an office supplies shop as a purchaser when my good friend (a fellow artist) and I dared each other to get on a subway train and sing. It turned out not to be as scary as I thought it would be so the next day I dared myself to go back and try playing my violin. That went really well and I actually made some decent money so I kept going back. Eventually I realized I could make the same money I was making at my day job in about half the time daily, so I quit and became a professional subway player (haha) and freelance violinist for whoever would ask me to play with them!

MOTH: What have been some career highlights?

MAZZ: Wow. Well, hmmm. I consider myself very lucky to be able to say that I got to play for the 20th Annual Keepers of the Dream Awards, where President Obama spoke this year. Last year was also a really great year of collaboration with a wonderful Hungarian Gypsy band (Budapest Bár). I went to Budapest about six times last year and made a record with them that went double platinum in Hungary (which isn’t as much as the American 2 million but it still sounds great; and 5000 CDs sold in Hungary really is a damn fine job, haha!) It makes me giggle but I am all the same thrilled and looking forward to receiving my plaque! I also got to work with the same band on a separate project where I was Musical Director and Co-Curator. That project was called Fire + Fire = Gypsy Meets Black and included 15 performers and basically explored the similarities and differences between Hungarian gypsy culture/experience and Black American culture and experience. We performed to a sold out crowd at Művészetek Palotája – the Avery Fischer Hall of Budapest! Other highlights for me include performing music from my solo project, MazzMuse, on the TODAY Show this past Easter morning; playing with Whitney Houston.

MOTH: How did you find The Moth (or, how did The Moth find you)?

MAZZ: I am friends with Katy Cox, a really wonderful fiddler and one of my favorite people on the planet, who played as timekeeper for the Moth before moving to Austin, TX. She recommended me to Catherine when she left NYC and the rest is history.

MOTH: What was your first Moth show like? The Moth’s Artistic Director, Catherine Burns, mentioned she accidentally scratched her nose during the show and then you played at like the 5 minute mark – do you remember that?

MAZZ: Haha! I do remember that, although that really wasn’t part of my first impressions. That was the first “Selected Shorts” at Symphony Space that I had done with The Moth. As I recall, Catherine was sitting off to the side and the house lights were down. I had stage lights pointing towards me so I really couldn’t see much. Someone was telling a story about being in Dallas when JFK was shot. I think somebody started talking to Catherine and she nodded her head in response, which of course I took as a “go” and started playing. Next think I know I see Catherine waving her hands like “STOP!!!” Ugh. What made it worse was that she started nodding again, this time even bigger, so I thought she was saying, “NOW go!” but she was still just responding to whoever was talking to her. So, again, I started playing. And again she started waving her hands in the air. My face still gets hot to this very day when I think about it! I was mortified. What made it worse was that when we were back stage, he told me that if I had to play, could I play some Stephane Grappelli and I had told him yes. So I wasn’t just playing one note like I usually do. I played the beginning of the Reinhart/Grappelli tune “Minor Swing.” Oh man. MORTIFIED I tell you!

But the first show I did with The Moth was when Darryl McDaniels told his story of being on the road and deciding to commit suicide when he got home but then he got in a cab and heard Sarah McLachlan’s song “Angel” on the radio and how it saved his life. I actually was afraid I was going to have to play him off the stage. I think he’s the only one to this day where I played twice and was about to play a third time. Thankfully he ended and I didn’t have to. That was kinda tough. It was such a beautiful story but then he just kept on going!

MOTH: You have a unique role on stage. How does being the timekeeper affect your experience of watching the stories?

MAZZ: I have always looked at it as if it’s my job – cause it is, haha! – so I have never had a real problem with interrupting people. Sometimes it’s hard because of the way the story is being told, I always try to find the right moment in which to play and sometimes there really just isn’t. So it can be awkward, but then again I just have to remind myself that that’s what I’m there for and it just is what it is.

It’s kind of fun to experience the stories from the stage. I do try to keep a poker face at times although I mostly just try to be as natural as possible. I keep my eyes focused on the person who is speaking (I heard somewhere a long time ago that it helps other people to do the same). I like to laugh with the audience but try not to overtly cry. And the one thing I really try to keep from being is judgmental. And if something strikes me as odd, that’s when I employ my poker face. Hmm. Actually, I think I’ve gotten pretty good at the poker face for that reason. Maybe I should actually give poker a try! ;)

MOTH: Have you always been interested in storytelling? How are telling a story and playing a song related?

MAZZ: Well, that’s exactly what I’m trying to do every time I get up and improvise a piece or write a song. I try to tell a story. I’ve heard it said that a story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And that’s cool. But I also like the idea of being dropped right into the middle of a larger story (i.e. someone’s life) to hear about a specific thing that happened (i.e. an instance in someone’s Life). I really like to explore that aspect of story telling. It’s implied by half melodies and rhythms. Sometimes I try to riff on whichever theme is proposed for the evening.

MOTH: If you were to tell a story on The Moth stage – what would it be about?

MAZZ: I often joke to my friends that I should tell a story about what it’s like to be the timekeeper for the Moth. But I think I probably have more significant stories to tell. I don’t know. I’d have to think about it, but based on the answer to my last question, actually, I like to think that I am lucky cause I get to tell TWO stories per event – with music!

MOTH: What have you learned from The Moth, either as a timekeeper or through listening to various stories?

MAZZ: I’ve learned that people really do want to connect with each other. Sometimes it seems like we don’t because of the way we go through our lives, you know, our preoccupation with the hustle to get “somewhere”, to advance, to “make it”, to contribute something meaningful to this world. As distracting as that can be, I think it’s the Moth’s ability to break through that chatter for a few hours that makes it a special and necessary part of people’s lives. Getting people to tell their stories is tantamount to being a healer. And getting people to listen to OTHER PEOPLE’S stories, I think, is downright revolutionary.

For more Mazz, including how to buy her music, visit her website at

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