Flute specialists in jazz have been few and far between. And where once the instrument was the double of choice of saxophonists seeking to augment their music with a different instrumental texture, even that aspect has been eclipsed by the soprano saxophone. So it was with great interest that I began to hear about a fresh new voice on the instrument out of Chicago at the beginning of this decade. I eagerly sought out her disc Afrika Rising and was rewarded by its forward-gazing approach, rhythmic sophistication, fresh original writing, and the sense of message and warmth conveyed by Nicole Mitchell‘s music.
A couple of years later along came the follow-up Hope, Future and Destiny, these first two being on her Dream imprint. Then last year, Chicago’s intrepid Delmark label had the good sense to make Nicole Mitchell the first woman instrumentalist-leader it recorded. Nicole’s Black Unstoppable represented significant advancement on the promise of her first two records. In each case I was impressed not only with the music and the sense of programatic thrust Ms. Mitchell strove to convey in her music but also by the continuity of the core players in her Black Earth Ensemble; equally impressive was her selflessness as a leader who never dominates the proceedings and who provides an almost co-op landscape for her fellow travelers.
Recently Nicole Mitchell’s visibility has happily increased on the strength of her Delmark release; Chicago writer Michael Jackson penned a fine feature interview piece on her for the April edition of Down Beat magazine. Current co-president of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Nicole is also savvy about funding opportunities to advance her many projects. A precipitous commission from Chamber Music America’s New Works Presentation program has enabled her to write a major suite dedicated to the late African American science fiction writer Octavia Butler. That particular work will be chronicled by Nicole Mitchell’s forthcoming release Xenogenesis Suite: A Tribute to Octavia Butler on the Firehouse 12 label. Friend and colleague Howard Mandel has referred to this work as "dense, dramatic, and daring"; further descriptions characterize the work as edgier and darker hued than Nicole’s past output. So began our recent conversation.
Willard Jenkins: What is it about Octavia Butler’s writing and books that so inspired you to compose this Xenogenesis Suite?
Nicole Mitchell: I discovered Octavia Butler’s books on my mother’s shelf when I was a teenager. My mother liked to make paintings and short stories of other worlds and I think Butler was one of her Afro-futurist inspirations. Butler’s writing is equally fascinating and disturbing to me. As one of few African American women writing in the field of science fiction, she was the only sci-fi author to win the MacArthur Genius Award. In fall 2005 I finally had the opportunity to meet Octavia Butler at Chicago State University’s Black Writer’s Conference and I found her prescence to be as unique and intriguing as her work. I decided to make a proposal to Chamber Music America’s New Works Creation and Presentation Program and the day after I put it in the mail I discovered that Octavia Butler had died suddenly. With that shocking news I decided that with or without the commission I would have to do the project. I was awarded the commission for 2007 and we premiered the work in June at the Vision Festival in New York and then at the Chicago Cultural Center in December.
Xenogenesis Trilogy and in particular, Dawn, the first book of the trilogy, is one of my favorites of her books. The most extraordinary thing about Dawn is the way it makes me feel as a reader. The story illustrates the experiences of a lone woman, Lillith, who has been plucked from nuclear destruction on earth to go through an orientation process with extraterrestrials on board their living ship. With my composition "Xegogenesis Suite" I decided to focus on that emotional process of fear, rather than specific events in the story. The process of facing fear head on is a human experience that we all may feel in the moments before real transformation.
As you wrote the "Xenogenesis Suite" what was your vision of adapting it to the specific skills of your Black Earth Ensemble?
Black Earth Ensemble [BEE] has been my primary group for my compositions and concepts, and over the years the instrumentation fluctuates in order to fit different projects that I’m doing. But before "Xenogenesis Suite" all the music I created with BEE could be defined as creative music that celebrates "Great Black Music" as it connects with blues, R&B, hip-hop, avant garde jazz, African rhythms and more. "Xenogenesis Suite", for me, was a turn toward a different musical expression because most of my music tends to be emotionally uplifting, as a reflection of my spirit, and this piece is dealing with some other colors. I think this made it one of my biggest challenges so far as a composer, to deal with the emotion of fear, because it’s something I and most people want to run from, not put squarely in their faces. It made me reflect on my own life experiences and deal with them in a new way. My mother died when I was a teenager, but throughout my childhood I was enraptured by her own fear of "ghosts" and the idea that she believed that there were negative forces governing her life. I always thought that was a scary reality to believe in and I’m thankful that I don’t see life this way.
"Xenogenesis Suite" as a composition incorporates a balance between written structure and improvisation. The approach I reached for in the improvisation for this piece was challenging because I wanted the musicians to go in directions that weren’t necessarily natural for them. You’ll find, for example, it’s not as "funky" or "swinging" as some of my other music (on purpose). Working with musicians that have a history with BEE made it possible for them to trust my ideas, even if at first they might not have understood where the music was going. In the end, I was really pleased with the results.
You’ve now written several commissioned works, including a tribute to Alice Coltrane. How do you approach the task and craft of writing more large-scale, extended works of music?
I think my approach for writing evening-length works is a very intuitive process. I’ll use the Alice Coltrane work as an example. I was commissioned by the Jazz Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Cultural Center to make a full evening work for Chicago’s beautiful Millennium Park in summer 2007. The project had special guests Myra Melford on piano, Maia on harp, and Matana Roberts on alto saxophone.
For the Alice Coltrane project I reflected a great deal on Alice Coltrane and her personal journey, as much as I reflected on her music. In her creative work, Alice honored her knowledge that music can guide, heal and ground the spirit. Her music is rooted in African American cultural expression, but she was also deeply influenced by East Indian spirituality and music. "Where Many Paths Meet the Sea" was created to express different themes that we all experience in the human journey, perhaps in individual ways or "paths", but with the same desired end — happiness and self-actualization. We have many paths, like the many rivers, making their journey toward the same goal — where many paths meet the sea.
So in writing music for that [Alice Coltrane] project I first came up with that concept, "Where Many Paths Meet the Sea," which inspired my own personal narrative of a person going through phases of turbulence, desire, confusion, fear, and finally enlightenment, to ultimately achieve liberation and peace. These phases became the seeds for the compositions within the suite, titled "Seeker", "Sovereignty," "Focus," "Desire," "A Drop in the Ocean," and "Appreciation." The work was written for three flutes, two violins, cello, alto and tenor saxophone, trumpet, piano, bass, drumset and percussion.
Instead of trying to imitate Alice Coltrane’s work, I went directly to her sources of inspiration and her personal story. Alice Coltrane celebrated the pentatonic scale, a universal scale used in many traditional world musics. I explored these sounds, the sounds of avant garde jazz and also investigated eastern modes — sources of her inspiration. Once I have drawn from my sources and absorbed them, I start writing as much as I can. The actual writing is a very intuitive process. I define myself as an "inner ear writer," because I’m hearing the music inside and then translating it from my voice, the piano, my flute or directly to the pen and onto the paper. I write as much as I can and I honor all the music that comes out. I don’t edit when I compose. I don’t ask myself, is this music fitting my intent of what I’m trying to do? I trust it and allow it to flow. Then after everything is out, I choose the pieces that really speak.
To contrast the Alice Coltrane project with another commission, I did a commission for the Umbrella Music organization and Downtown Sound, and I proposed to do a chamber orchestra work titled "Qualities of My Father." This gave me the opportunity to give tribute to my Dad, Michael E. Mitchell. For this work I drew from qualities of my father’s character that had a great impact on me, including: integrity, honesty, self-determination, independence, courage and love. These were the seeds of the composition, but musically I connected with my European classical influences in addition to the sounds of the Modern Jazz Quartet because I wanted to appeal to Michael Mitchell’s aesthetics in that particular program.
Since you are actively involved in teaching, what would you advise students who might subsequently inquire about the whys and wherefores of successfully completing extended compositions?
That’s a big question! I would encourage students to compose as much as possible, but also to investigate themselves through journaling and other forms of art, because it all translates back into your fluency of musical expression. I think it should be important to honor your subject, and have a strong proposal that you are starting from and then investigte it fully. When you get into the actual process of writing, I encourage young composers to allow themselves to honor the creation process and consider that it is MORE than just an intellectual exercise. I consider creating to be BEYOND intellect.
What’s your acid test for knowing when such a work is complete and ready for public consumption?
I try to listen to my music with the ears of a non-musician, and if it moves me, then it should be shared.
Talk about your Black Earth Strings and what you have forthcoming for that project.
Black Earth Strings (BES) is different from Black Earth Ensemble in a few ways. BES is acoustic and is a fixed group — a chamber quartet of classical instrumentation with myself on flutes, Renee Baker on violin and viola, Tomeka Reid on cello, and Josh Abrams on bass. The group has been around for years, really since BEE expanded to include traditional jazz instrumentation. BES gives me the opportunity to stretch out a bit more in a smaller group with no microphones! Black Earth Strings is a compositional challenge that I enjoy, because with no drums I still want the music to swing and simultaneously explore more classically influenced musical forms. Unlike alot of "jazz with strings" all the string players improvise and my aesthetic isn’t for sweetness but for a passionate and edgy sound. In April we are looking forward to doing our first European tour throughout Poland. Black Earth Strings’ first recording will be coming out in September on my label.
What learning and professional affiliations have you found most rewarding, enriching, and inspiring towards your current and future endeavors with your BEE and BES ensembles?
There have been a great many people and institutions who’ve helped me to develop as a person and as a musician. I would first thank the many musicians that have worked in Black Earth over the years who have helped me to develop my musical concepts and vision, including Josh Abrams, Tomeka Reid, Tony Herrera, Savoir Faire, Darius Savage, Arveeayl Ra, Hamid Drake, David Young, Ugochi (African Butafly), Iyiola, Dee Alexander, Isaiah Spencer, Harrison Bankhead, Jovia Armstrong, Corey Wilkes, Justin Dillard, Miles Tate, Jeff Parker, Edith Yokley, and many others.
I also give special thanks to my partner, David Boykin, who along with Hamid Drake encouraged me to start my own group in the first place and have constantly inspired me with their own examples of excellence and genuinity.
The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), has been a cornerstone in my identity as I found a community of musicians that supported each other in taking musical risks and being true to the music. I’ve had great mentorship from members of the AACM, including Hamid Drake, George Lewis, Fred Anderson, Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, Ed Wilkerson, Arveeayl Ra, Maia and others. These are people who took me under their wing and gave me the courage to develop my own music and my own voice.
Multi-instrumentalist Maia was my first role model as a woman instrumentalist, and together with Shanta we started the first all-woman ensemble of the AACM.
George Lewis and Anthony Braxton are two of the most intelligent and generous people I’ve ever met and it’s been a real blessing to converse with them about music and to work with them.
Flutist-composer James Newton impacted me with the endless possibilities of the improvised flute, and throughout my whole career he has always been a great supportive friend and mentor.
In addition to the AACM, the Jazz Institute of Chicago is an important organization that makes jazz accessible to all neighborhoods in our city throughout the year, helps train high school jazz musicians, and organizes the Chicago Jazz Festival. Also, the Chicago Cultural Center has supported my concerts in their wonderful facilities from the inception of Black Earth Ensemble in 1999. At the core of these two organizations, Lauren Deutsch and Michael Orlove have been what I call "dream facilitators" — people who help artists manifest ambitious projects and develop their creativity. These are people with eyes on the big picture in terms of creative music in Chicago and make things possible that just wouln’t be [otherwise] possible. Lauren Deutsch of the Jazz Institute encouraged me early on, and sponsored my first lage scale multi-arts project, Vision Quest. Deutsch teamed up with Wojciech Juszczak of Estrada music in Poland who organized a festival where they hired me to write for and lead a large ensemble, which I titled the "Harambee Project," and premiered in Poznan, Poland in November 2006.
Chicago has many elements in its supportive infrastructure for music, which also includes [radio stations] WNUR, WBEZ, WTTW, and I could go on and on in terms of thanks, including many thanks to the Illinois Arts Council for continually supporting my work as a composer, and to Chamber Music America who sponsored the "Xenogenesis Suite".
Violinist-composer Renee Baker, vocalist Brenda Jones Sunfruit, and my daughter Aaya Samadhi have also been special inspirations to me, as examples of brilliant women who are fearless and consistently inventive on their artistic paths.
Beyond "Xenogenesis Suite" and the Black Earth Strings project, what’s next for Nicole Mitchell?
In April I’m looking forward to heading out to Vancouver to perform some of my work with Coat Cooke and the NOW Orchestra and then doing the Poland tour with BES. In May we’ll be having the CD release for Xenogenesis Suite in Chicago. The program will include an exhibit by visual artist Krista Franklin, a short lecture on Octavia Butler by a scholar on her work, and the music performance will also include experimental video by Floyd Webb. In June, I’m honored to do my third residency as the director of the High School Jazz Intensive at the Vancouver Jazz Festival.
Before the year is out I plan to release my first solo CD, Duo with Deer Isle [detailed in the April ’08 issue of Down Beat], and the live recordings of Qualities of My Father and Where many paths Meet the Sea: A Tribute to Alice Coltrane. I am also looking forward to composing my first piece for orchestra, Flights for Freedom: A Tribute to Harriet Tubman, and a new chapter of my Xenogenesis Project: Intergalactic Beings. I’m currently doing research for my upcoming multi-arts piece, Mamapolis 2020. Mamapolis 2020 will portray a vibrant, egalitarian futuristic society designed and guided by women who have the spiritual ability to communicate with the "Great Mother." The piece will be expressed through live music, video and dance.
How’s life as co-president of the AACM and what is the organization working towards?
I’ve served as the co-president of the AACM since 2006 and as vice-president from 2005-2006. We just successfully completed a three-year partnership with the Sons d’hiver Festival in Paris, finishing out with the AACM’s twenty-five piece Great Black Music Ensemble lead by George Lewis and Mwata Bowden. We’re looking forward to celebrating George Lewis’ new book "Power Stronger Than Itself," on the history of the AACM, which will be coming out in 2008. We’re looking forward to celebrating the AACM’s 45th Anniversary in 2010. Please visit our website for upcoming events: www.aacmchicago.org.
Reach Nicole Mitchell at: www.nicolemitchell.com
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