and Sound Strategies
Words: Steve Smith
Words: Steve Smith
New York City is having a Nicole Mitchell moment right now. Mitchell, a dynamic flutist, composer, bandleader, and teacher, is midway through a stint as artist-in-residence for Winter JazzFest, the city’s premier annual jazz event. Last week she participated in the festival’s signature marathon evenings, presenting a collaborative trio with singer Sara Serpa and guitarist Liberty Ellman and a project inspired by the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, presented with pianist Jason Moran.
Mitchell has two more JazzFest presentations to go, both at Le Poisson Rouge. On Jan. 16, she’ll present the local premiere of Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds, the fantastical mix of science fiction, poetry, politics, and multicultural musical styles heard on her widely acclaimed 2017 album of the same title. And on Jan. 17, Mitchell will reprise Maroon Cloud, a similarly literary project she first presented in March 2017 at National Sawdust.
Even after JazzFest concludes, Mitchell’s music will continue to resound: The International Contemporary Ensemble will perform the New York premiere of her composition Inescapable Spiral at National Sawdust on Jan. 21. During a recent conversation at a Times Square hotel, Mitchell spoke at length about those projects, her creative path, and her aspirations both in and beyond music.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: From the first time I heard Mandorla Awakening II last year, I remembering thinking very clearly that it would be one of the records I’d still be listening to and talking about at year’s end. Even now, I’m still finding new things, different nuances. How did you initially conceive the project?
NICOLE MITCHELL: Well, first of all, I wanted to create something that had something to say about what’s happening in our world now. There were a few different seeds. One was that I had done several projects inspired by Octavia Butler, so this idea of using science fiction as a platform for creative music had become really exciting to me. But also, I had read this book by Riane Eisler called The Chalice and the Blade, which reframes human history as kind of a struggle between two ways of life: the way of partnership, which is the way of the chalice – the way of sharing, of nurturing, of family, of creativity – and the way of the blade, which is hegemony, violence, power, and dominance.
That sounds like a manifestation of classic yoni/lingam duality.
Right. That was a starting point, but I felt like it wasn’t really the answer. I’m kind of a child of black hippies in a way, so this whole utopian thing from the ’70s, I think people really had this hope and this idealism about being able to make a better world. And I felt like now, looking at the world, when we ask “What is progress?” and “What is this Western way of life?” we have to face the truth that, first of all, we’re not treating each other any better than we had been thousands of years ago—and that’s a fact, and no one can deny it anymore. Even the technology that’s so advanced, because we haven’t grown spiritually or in terms of how we treat each other, all of that goes toward destruction of the earth for the most part as well. And so I ask the question, what is progress? And also, what would a technologically advanced society that is in tune with nature look like?
That kind of created the seed for me to make my own narrative, and from that narrative I wanted to express this in music, and I wanted to deal with this idea of collision of dualities. So instead of having a right and wrong, or a utopia versus dystopia, I wanted to collide the two. There’s ancient wisdom in terms of earth-based traditional cultures that had a way that was ecologically sustainable – in some ways way more wise than the way we live. And to bring that wisdom together with the technology we have, I feel like that would give us answers. So I wanted to collide things in the music: I wanted to collide urban versus country, I wanted to collide intercultural dialogue with different languages of music. You’ve got traditional Japanese language in the taiko and the shamisen and the shakuhachi. In some places the shakuhachi is very vulnerable, and then you’ve got the electric guitar, which is like a total symbol of urbanism and modernism.
So, clashing these things together, and finding a way in this collision for there to be a healthy coexistence of these different ideas and different entities. I didn’t want to over-compose it, which drew me toward doing a hybrid score that was a mixture of graphic score and notation. So it’s not just like everything is rigidly figured out; it’s like a living, breathing thing that people have to enter and kind of bring themselves in.
Did the music precede the text, or vice versa? Or did they somehow develop simultaneously?
The text was first, and then I had to create the music. And I really feel like I’ve only scratched the surface with the concept – I feel like I could start again with the same idea, and create completely different music. And also, the idea of… what if I had a book where people could contribute their ideas of how they’re addressing this question of a more advanced society in tune with nature? Like, there’s people dealing with green architecture on one hand, and on another hand they’re dealing with… I was in India, and in this ashram called The Art of Living Ashram, they’re literally taking garbage and turning it into oil, taking plastic and turning it back into petroleum, to use it for energy. So there’s lot of people doing things, but people aren’t connected, and so we’re not seeing a big picture of how things can actually progress.
This does seems like a remarkable time for Mandorla Awakening II to have arrived. You were talking about hybridity. I’d been using the term utopian to think about the piece, but really it’s less like utopia and more like a kind of perfect, enlightened democracy: these disparate musical forces that you’ve brought together and harmonized in very effective ways. So does that make you the beneficent dictator of this ideal world?
[Laughs] Well, you know…
Just a suggestive architect, maybe?
I guess I would call myself a… I mean, it’s still a composition, and I haven’t been able to escape that. The fun thing about music is, you can have a vision and you can manifest that vision, and the fun is that you can take turns. I can play in other people’s projects and support their vision; they can play in my project and support my vision. But in the moment, there is a certain leadership that I can’t really escape.
I am very fascinated by, for example, Anthony Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music, because I feel like he has really answered that question about democracy, where he has people making decisions that can be a complete surprise, and that he has no control over, and yet all the materials in the music are his materials. So the DNA of the music is still his, but people are making choices that kind of usurp the more traditional kind of leadership space. I would say with the graphic scores and with the way I’m working with the ensemble, it’s definitely not rigid.
Anthony Braxton is a perfect example, because when I think about his compositional paradigms like Ghost Trance Music, which put so much choice into the hands of his collaborators, invariably I come away with a feeling of tremendous optimism at the thought of very different people combining in a loosely regulated but potent kind of cooperation. It’s structured by ideals, but not restricted by rules. And I get a similar sense of genuine optimism in your work, even when you’re dealing with very difficult and challenging subjects. I like the duality that you find the term “dark matter,” both in the cosmic sense of that term and in its poetic allusion to Black Lives Matter: the political is universal.
Thanks for catching all of that!
Well, I’d wondered about it, and then you confirmed it in that excellent profile in The Wire magazine a few months ago. In terms of your drawing on science fiction, did you see yourself as part of a continuum of artists who’ve done that? One obvious precursor that people point to is Sun Ra. Is there a tradition that you feel a part of?
Well, actually, I do, but it’s not anything that anyone would know, because my mother was a science-fiction writer, and she also was a painter.
Ah, I only knew about her painting.
Her stories and her visuals directly impacted my own vision. Basically, my mother committed suicide when I was 16, and I really took on this idea that I would continue her path as an artist because she couldn’t get where she wanted to go with it.
That’s an incredibly strong decision to reach under such circumstances, especially for a teenager. I recall reading that about you and wondering, where does anyone find the fortitude to do something like that? What enabled you to proceed?
I really believed in her, and I believed in the stuff she was doing. The craziest thing was, three days after she died, I opened a letter from the American Poetry Association, and they had just accepted one of her poems to be published. They were apologizing for being late in sending their notice. And I’m like, wow, if this had come a few days earlier, she might have had enough encouragement. I feel that she was battling these negative forces in her own world, and I feel blessed that I was able to look at that from a distance and decide what I wanted to deal with and what I didn’t want to deal with… to be aware of those fears, and the intensity and the pain, but to make my own choice with my life. A core belief for me is that we do have the power as human beings to be co-creators of our future.
Oh, I like that.
That’s such an important theme in my belief system. What it means is that our imagination is one of the most important aspects of being human, because that’s what allows us to be able to see something that maybe doesn’t exist right now, and then change and transform the reality that we have. So that’s kind of what I’m trying to do with my music: I’m trying to keep that imagination alive, and hopefully inspire other people to be imaginative, because we all have it, but this dystopic reality doesn’t really support hope and imagination.
It was fascinating to realize that a lot of the darkness you endured in your early life, the negative things that you went through, were all taking place basically in Disneyland.
In Orange County! [laughs]
You look at it from the outside and think, “There’s the American dream,” this invented ideal paradigm. But your experience was anything but that.
You know, I never quite put it together the way you phrased it, but yeah, it is fascinating. I’ve been wanting to write something about Orange County, because I’m there again—can you believe that? I’m teaching in Irvine, of all places. But I live in Long Beach, and Long Beach is great.
What was it that led you to Chicago? That move really feels serendipitous to your journey.
Well, actually my mother was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, so there was a romanticism there of being connected to where she came from, being around that family.
Did she still have people there?
Yeah, my grandparents were there when I moved there, and my cousins on both sides. I wanted to be connected to a place that really allowed me to see that there were other possibilities. So when I was living in Orange County, I could spend my summers and Christmas vacations in Chicago, and then I could see that there was another way—that people could have a different way of expressing community. It was critical to have those experiences in Chicago, growing up.
There’s so much illumination coming out now about the kind of community that Chicago was in the late ’60s and onward, in terms of opportunity and creativity. The Chicago we tend to hear about nowadays is the one Washington, D.C. tries to spin, this war-torn disaster area. But you read George Lewis’s A Power Stronger Than Itself, detailing the formation and chronicling the development of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and you get the sense of a transformative place where huge advances in art and new ideas about community were taking form. What brought you into the A.A.C.M.?
Well, you know, going back to my mother again, when we lived in Syracuse [New York] she was one of the founding members of the Black Folk Art Gallery—which still exists, believe it or not. And there was an energy of those people that were creating something new as a collective of black artists. I was a small child, but I absorbed that energy. So when I went to Chicago on my own, adult and independent, I sought out that same energy. And that’s where it was, in the A.A.C.M., in terms of this group of creative people that were visionaries, and cooperating with each other to create something new. It was almost like an energy I was trained to be able to perceive and to connect with.
So I looked it up in the phone book and I showed up… [laughs] I showed up in the office, and got kicked out at the door by Ameen Muhammad: [snarls] “No, we don’t want any,” and slammed the door in my face. He was like, “We don’t need any new people right now.” But that didn’t stop me, because then I met Maia. She’s a multi-instrumentalist that most people may not know about, and she lives in L.A. now. We connected, and then she became the person that brought me into the organization – her and Ann Ward.
That brings up a sensitive point: even now that a wider public knows about and appreciates the contributions of the A.A.C.M., it’s still largely a story dominated by great men. Coming into the organization as a woman, did you find it a welcoming experience? Or was there some entrenched dudeness that you had to overcome?
I would say there’s both. Muhal [Richard Abrams, first leader of the A.A.C.M.] was no longer in Chicago when I got there.
He was already in New York.
But his spirit was so central to the development of the organization that there’s this sense of camaraderie that really went beyond male/female. This is something that annoyed me at first, but I started to understand it: I was always referred to as “Mitchell,” I wasn’t referred to as Nicky or Nicole or whatever. What I realized was, that put me on an even playing field: I’m this person, and I’m doing this music, and we’re working together. And we’re kind of like soldiers, in a way, battling the challenges of getting this non-profit to keep functioning and to create opportunities for younger members and things like this. So I started to embrace that idea of being “Mitchell,” you know what I mean? It kind of took away that thing.
The thing about creative music, maybe it’s all music, but there’s so many subtle complexities with everyone’s positioning. There’s complexities in age between the elders and the younger people, especially in an organization like this, where people have committed so much of their energy and their time. If you’re a younger person coming in, it’s like, are you worthy to take this on? Can we really trust you and your vision to take this to the next step? That was a lot heavier for me than the woman/man thing, just the generational thing. There’s lots of organizations where you have people that hold on and hold on and hold on in leadership, and they don’t want to let it go and pass the baton. And that can be a big challenge for the organization to continue and to keep going.
So yes, there was definitely women stuff, because first of all, there’s never enough. There’s never enough gender balance, and that’s the real issue. And that’s what I work to solve in my own projects. There’s a lot of great male musicians that talk a lot of stuff about being progressive and supportive of women. But if you look at it, what are the projects they put together? Who do they hire? Who do they bring in to do their music? Have they actually brought in anyone except other white dudes? That’s, to me, what I think people don’t take seriously enough, and that’s really where the change happens.
It’s definitely there, the issues are there – George [Lewis] talked about them, to an extent – but I didn’t feel limited. I felt like the challenges that I had were challenges that any individual would have in a collective where really everyone truly has to decide as a group, and that’s a huge challenge.
I’m thinking now, again about Mandorla Awakening, that in addition to the science fiction, in addition to the very rich multicultural mix of instrumentation, that the piece is also a political statement. To what extent should people be aware of that when they’re encountering and listening to it?
That’s a good question. I think people haven’t been able to hear it, just for the sake of what it sounds like. I think that the philosophies and the questions and all of that have been very connected to people’s experience. And I think that’s okay, because it helps people to look beyond the surface, and look beyond what maybe their assumptions were. And that’s kind of what I want, so I’m okay with that.
A lot of people are asking me now about my narrative, if they can get ahold of my narrative, and I’m holding off on that, but I will eventually share it. But this is Mandorla Awakening II, because there was one before it, and it’s completely different: a different storyline, but from the same premise. And I really feel like this is a period where I feel like there’s a lot more that could come out of it, and I haven’t really finished working through it yet.
And Mandorla Awakening is just one of four distinct projects you’re presenting throughout Winter JazzFest. Let’s talk about Maroon Cloud.
Maroon Cloud also started with a narrative, and it is available – it’s a piece I published in the new Arcana [anthology edited by John Zorn] that just came out, called “What Was Feared Lost.” It’s about musical lineage, in a lot of ways. It speaks to a few of my influences, and the idea that, you know, you may look at an artist and kind of receive who they are and what their music is, but who influenced them? Sometimes we don’t even know who those other lineages are before that person kind of appeared out of nowhere. Even Muhal: did Muhal just come from the sky? Who were the people that really impacted him to be who he became? Or Roscoe Mitchell, for example. I know that Braxton, Roscoe scared the shit out of him—I got to hear him tell me that. So that’s what I’m writing about in this piece, but the way I approached the piece was this new way that I want to approach writing, and so it represented something important for me. I’m writing my own story like it’s not fiction, but the way it’s written, it reads like fiction. It’s kind of poetic creative nonfiction – I’m not sure what to call it.
It’s a really interesting instrumentation, too: flutes augmented with electronics, cello and piano, and then Fay Victor’s voice.
One thing I’m talking about in that piece is the space where creativity comes from. I’m calling that the maroon cloud, and we all have access to it. I’m trying to name it, and trying to reach around in that space and bring awareness of it to a space that can’t really be named.
Is there a significance to using the term maroon?
Yeah, because maroon is actually the color that I see… like, if you close your eyes right now and you actually keep your eyes alert, and you try to look inside of there, you’ll see this movement, like a tunnel, you know? And for me, the color is normally like this deep reddish color. But I also like the idea of maroon being like rebellion, like maroon being on one hand those who have escaped and found another space to be in, and then it being a cloud. So all of that is in there; all the layers are in there.
Knowing what I know now about your thought processes, I’m thinking, okay, it’s literally a cloud floating through the sky—but it’s also a virtual information cloud…
What struck me in hearing the premiere last spring at National Sawdust – especially in what you gave Fay to do, but also what you gave [cellist] Tomeka [Reid] to do – was the fact that the roles were so fluid and interchangeable and nobody was playing to type, necessarily…
You mean the roles weren’t traditional, necessarily?
Yeah, it wasn’t like: singer, flute, rhythm section. There was a lot of interchange among who was in the lead and who was supporting, and a lot of really rich mixing of timbres and registers. There’s also something really rich about matching what’s essentially a chamber-music instrumentation with Fay adding this very earthy kind of Bessie Smith quality. Coming out of the premiere, I spent a lot of time really thinking about what was in the piece and how it worked together.
I was really moved that you reflected on that concert, because I did a lot of premieres in 2017, but that one, I felt I was really trying to do something new. I was really reaching, and it was really difficult to find the space that I was hearing and to try to actually pull it out.
And actually, ICE will be doing the New York premiere of my Inescapable Spiral [at National Sawdust] on the 21st. I was thinking about what you were saying about the democracy thing: This is me playing with the democracy thing. [laughs] As the composer, I’m not the ensemble leader. I’m not even going to be present. So this is a piece for open instrumentation and variable ensemble. It could be 20 people; it has to be a minimum of five players. There are moments where they’re all playing at the same time, but the way it’s designed, there’s like 22 miniature pieces for solo, duo, and trio – there might be one quartet piece – and it’s like a choreography of these little miniature pieces, with the intent of collision. I’m still into this collision thing. The players have to listen and decide when to enter, so that a fair amount of the piece is exposed without collision, but that some of it will obviously collide. That’s their challenge. I really wish I could be there, so I could hear what they do.
So, four different presentations at Winter JazzFest, and then a New York premiere with ICE. That’s your January. So, what else you got?
[laughs] This is a really incredible moment. It’s kind of a once in a lifetime opportunity, to be able to share so much of my music in New York City during one timeframe.
And it might seem like, “Hey, look, Nicole Mitchell has arrived!” But really, you’ve been working incredibly hard at all of this for a very long time. But seriously, what’s next on your agenda?
Honestly, I’m very fascinated with doing more chamber pieces; I would like to do that more. I just did a premiere with Steven Schick in San Francisco a few months ago. That was a lot of fun, and I would like to continue doing that. And also, this Mandorla idea, I really would like to write a book… or edit a book where people are making these contributions, maybe globally, with their ideas about what this new world can look like. I really don’t want to let that go. That’s the exciting thing about music: No matter what’s happening, it’s always going to be there, and no one can take it away. And yet, you can do limitless things with it. You can create communities with music.
Can you effect social and political change with music?
I think so, because it raises questions, and it helps people to imagine things, and to think about things differently. And that’s all art. That’s why art is so important, because it allows us to step outside of the assumed. We make so many assumptions from when we wake up in the morning about “this is what this looks like.” When we’re little kids, there’s that magic element, and then we’re taught that that’s not real. But actually, it is. Actually, that’s the power of the mind to change things. That is real, and music can help to keep that alive.
If you create a group that’s gender-balanced and multicultural, then those friendships continue. One of my bigger projects last year was a collaboration with Ballaké Sissoko from Mali, and we did a premiere in Chicago in September for the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. Mali is for all intents and purposes a Muslim country, so we had to go through hell with the visas and just trying to make it happen. Then you have these people come, and they don’t speak English; okay, you have French, but the fact is, they speak probably 30 different languages in Mali, and French is probably not the No. 1 language. So you’re trying to communicate through music with musicians who don’t read music, so just totally by ear.
And I learned that when you do something like that, the music is only a small percentage of the whole experience. The music was the vehicle that allowed this experience to happen, and the music gives us evidence that it happened, and it gives us something to remember it by. But there’s so much more that happened in that whole collaboration. We did the first one in France, and then this happened in Chicago, and so the next goal is for us to go to Mali and perform it there.
Nicole Mitchell presents Mandorla Awakening II on Jan. 16 and Maroon Cloud on Jan. 17 at Le Poisson Rouge; winterjazzfest.com. The International Contemporary Ensemble performs Mitchell’s Inescapable Spiral on Jan. 21 at National Sawdust; nationalsawdust.org.
[Writer/editor’s note: This interview was scheduled for publication last week, but was delayed unavoidably by illness. I want to extend my apologies to all involved for the delay and any inconvenience it may have caused.—Steve Smith]