Nicole Mitchell on Her Projects and Process

Flautist and composer Nicole Mitchell, internationally lauded artist and former president of the AACM, discusses her prolific work and what's to come in 2018.


Molly Jones: Where have you been playing recently?


Nicole Mitchell: I haven’t gone to Europe in a little while, so I’ve mostly been playing in New York and Chicago.  But I’m going to Vancouver, and I’m doing a big thing in New York, the Winter Jazz Fest, like four concerts.  Then my group [the Black Earth Ensemble] is going to play in Sweden coming up, so that’ll be the next few months.


MJ: Mandorla Awakening II came out a while ago now, but the ensemble includes some people from Black Earth as well as others.  I’m curious how you met all those folks and put them together.


NM: Actually, I’m not sure if people know, but Black Earth is kind of a community of musicians, probably over 30 musicians, and every project has different instrumentation and different personnel.  The guests in that one were Ko Umezaki, who teaches here at ICIT [the University of California, Irvine’s program in Integrated Composition, Improvisation, and Technology], and Tatsu Aoki, who I’ve been performing with the last few years on his projects.  He has a taiko legacy project and reduction that he’s been doing every year at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.  He’s super experimental in how he approaches taiko.  He definitely learned the tradition in Japan before he moved to Chicago years ago, and he’s also an experimental filmmaker.  


I'm not an expert, but it seems that taiko drumming in the United States and on college campuses has focused mainly on tradition. It's also been useful for protests and asserting Asian American identity. But the way Tatsu approaches it, he’s created a whole other generation of taiko drummers who are looking at it as a flexible and experimental artform. I’m really inspired by what he’s doing, so it was exciting to have him in the project for Mandorla Awakening.  


Mandorla Awakening is really about cultural collision and having traditional Japanese music as another language that’s colliding, this whole idea of colliding duality, urban vs country, folk vs electric, traditional vs experimental.  It’s bringing these things together in one platform.  It was a lot of fun and challenging to figure that out, to be able to have everyone’s voice authentically coexist with each other without overcomposing to the point where people aren’t expressing their organic sound and what they do.


MJ: How did you wind up striking that balance between composing and letting people express?


NM: I think graphic scores were really helpful for that one.  Hybrid notation, where I don’t have everything totally written out measure for measure.  It’s a mixture of notation and gestural images and verbal communication and gestural communication in the concert and all of that.  Making sure there was enough space for the improvisation.


MJ: I read in The Wire article about a piece of prose that you’d written, and I can’t find that anywhere.


NM: It’s not out there!  I haven’t released that yet.  Now I’ve piqued a little interest in it, so when I release it hopefully people will be interested in reading it.  I have been doing some other writing though.  I just had an article in Arcana that came out in August, which expresses the approach of writing that I’ve been working on, which I don’t have a name for, but it’s definitely not academic writing.


MJ: Is this writing process you’re developing integrated with writing music or is it a separate thing?


NM: I think there’s a relationship.  I have a project that was just on the Stone commission series at National Sawdust in New York earlier this year called Maroon Cloud, and that music was actually written in connection with the piece I’m talking about that came out on Arcana.  I’ve been working with narrative for a long time; you know I did it with the Xenogenesis Octavia Butler works, but it’s something that’s continuing to be really core to my process.  Now I’m also starting to share the work more than I was before.


MJ: Do you see it as yourself creating multimedia work?  Would you say that?


NM: Yeah!  Actually I’ve been doing some video, and on Mandorla Awakening I collaborated with Ulysses Jenkins.  I gave him lots of descriptions to work off of to create clips.  He created most of the clips, and then I edited them to create this visual, I don’t want to call it a storyline because it’s not directly related to my narrative, but it is directly related to some of the pieces and to be performed with the music.  


But it’s something I’m working on.  What I see with video and imagery, and even with choreography, when you put it with music, usually the music ends up being the support and the background; but how can you use video in a way that it supports the music without dominating it?  That’s what I’m trying to work on, where visuals enhance the music but don’t dominate the experience.  I think that happens a lot.  We’re visually oriented.  I’m still working on that.  Also, when I did that Voices Heard Festival: Black Women in Creative Music in Chicago last December, I made three video documentaries.  They’re very short, and they’re still works in progress.


MJ: Since you play in so many different locations, do you feel like you have one artistic home at this point?


NM: I still feel my practice is rooted in Chicago.  My ensemble is still based in Chicago, and we’re going to be celebrating our twentieth anniversary in 2018.  I’m going to be doing something on April 27 at Constellation.  Now I have to get it together. [laughs]


Yeah, I still see Chicago as the center, because that was where I did most of my artistic development and all the work that I did with the AACM, and I continue to premier most of my work in Chicago.  Some of it’s been happening in New York, and a little bit here.  I do have a new group here with Billy Childs, Mark Dresser, and Dwight Trible, and I’m hoping I can record that soon. Then this new group that I’m excited about in New York.  Well, there’s a few cropping up in New York, actually.  One is called Pterodactyl with Sara Serpa and guitarist Liberty Ellman, and that’s a collective.  Then another group with Taylor Ho Bynum on trumpet, Fay Victor on vocals, Rufus Reid on bass, Shirazette Tinnin on drums, which is the most unlikely combination ever and it totally worked.


MJ: Do you think teaching at Irvine and your colleagues and students there have had any influence on what you’re doing?


NM: I feel it’s definitely had an influence.  A few years ago we did an ICIT concert where I did my first piece using Max, and I worked with Richard Savery to help me with it, but it was for a Disklavier. It was triggering the Disklavier at certain points of the composition.  It was a piano solo piece with me pre-recorded, and then I made a video.  I was really interested, and this is probably from doing telematics with Michael Dessen and Mark Dresser, in this idea of merging realities.  I feel like when you’re doing telematics, you’ve got these different locations that are collaborating in one space, but it’s literally two or three spaces, and each location has a concept of being with the other people even though they’re physically not there.  I don’t really think there’s been a lot done in terms of thinking about that philosophically, what that means and how we cognitively negotiate that.  


When I did the first Mandorla Awakening, it was actually a work in progress that I did at UC Irvine which is completely different from the project that I put out, and in that project there was  interaction between video, the dancers, and the musicians.  So there was this idea of communication from other realms or between realms.  With my Interdimensional Interplay video, I was interested in if the audience perceived that concert as a duo or a solo.  Because you would hear me play, but I wasn’t physically there, but I was on the video, and my flute was interacting with piano in a way.  I’m interested in exploring that more, and that’s a direct influence from ICIT.  I’ve collaborated with a lot of my faculty colleagues, like with Ko on shakuhachi on Mandorla Awakening, and that’s been exciting.  With Michael Dessen doing telematic stuff with Mark Dresser.  All the stuff I just talked about is coming from the experience of working with them.  It’s about community.





Then the students, it’s really great to be in touch with the younger generation and how people perceive music now.  When I was coming up playing music, people were very much categorizing themselves, like, I play this style of music or this kind of music or this genre of music.  And now that’s just gone.  That doesn’t even exist anymore.  More and more, I’m finding students coming in who are super interested in graphic notation, in conducted improvisation, and not so interested in composing dots on lines on paper.  That is becoming less and less of interest as we move forward through time.  It’s fascinating for me to philosophically negotiate all these ideas with the work that they’re doing. I guess I feel it’s important that my role be to help people to deepen and further develop their own voice. Whereas the old school composition teacher, especially in a jazz tradition, that’s jazz in academia not jazz in the world, a lot of times it’s about, you gotta do it this way, this is the language, you have to learn this and then you can take these tools and do your thing with it.  A lot of times there’s not an opportunity for people to say, Look, I have a vision of what I’m trying to do, and I need help deepening what that is and clarifying it and making it stronger.  Each individual does have something special to offer, and a lot of times an education program will turn out people factory-style, everybody trying to do the same thing.  That’s what I like about the ICIT program; it promotes individuality and there’s an openness and community for people to support each other being different.  That’s what makes it unique and that’s what I like about being part of it.


MJ: I also wanted to ask you about the Hyde Park Jazz Festival in September where you put together that collaboration with Ballake Sissoko and musicians from Mali.  How did you meet them and how did you put that together?  Were you pleased with how it all came out?


NM: What’s crazy about that is, when I think about those few days in Chicago, from when they landed until when I took them back to the airport, the music ended up being such a small part of the whole experience.  I was very involved in the whole preparation, which took almost two years.  It’s very complicated, and I think it’s also very important for our country to continue to invite and be supportive of people from other cultures coming here, especially now.  


I met Ballake in 2013, and our first meeting was when I had a concert in Milano.  I knew that we were going to have an opportunity to do a residency, so I used that opportunity to create music that just featured him improvising.  That was our first meeting.  Then in 2014, we did a residency in France at the Royaumont.  We had the opportunity to do an improvisational collaboration with these musicians from Mali and musicians from my Black Earth ensemble in Chicago.  That was our second meeting, and it was really successful, and we got along really well.  There were some institutional challenges that we experienced, I guess because we were in this third geography and culture.  You have this attempt to communicate between American culture and Malian culture, and then an even smaller version of that, African American culture and griot culture of Mali. But then the space that you’re trying to do it in is actually the colonial space of Mali, and the institution is bringing the attitudes and the residue of that colonial mentality into the whole experience.  So it was very educational. [laughs]  I’m still trying to unwrap it, and I’m probably going to try to write something about the experience.  Overall I’m very thankful that I’ve had the opportunity and the support from the foundation.  In the big picture, they helped it to happen, and it’s a lot of work to do that.  We did several performances throughout France between 2014 and 2015.  Then it took almost two years to be able to take the project to Chicago, and the Hyde Park Jazz Fest was a total heroic effort on their part.


Ballake and I both composed for both the previous project and for this project, and we also went into the studio after the performance.  And the thing I was really excited about is I was able to coordinate workshops where the Malian musicians performed at several Chicago public schools that don’t even have arts programs, like on the south and west sides of Chicago.  These children are seeing people that look like them but talk like they’ve never heard and play this music with these instruments they’ve never seen before in their life.  That was extremely exciting to see these little kids totally in shock.  I hope there was some kind of impact from that experience for them, which was something that was really important for me.  It was a really positive experience.  Now the goal is that we go to Bamako.  We don’t really have a timeline, but we have to start over with trying to write grants.


MJ: What all are you looking forward to in 2018?


NM: I’m hoping to put out another solo flute record.  This time, I want to publish sheet music to go with it.  I’m also super excited to play the Moog Festival in North Carolina.  They are inviting me to choose what instruments I want to use, and then I can borrow them and use them to prepare for the concert, so I’m super excited about that, and it’s a solo concert so it’s going to be crazy.  I told you about Mandorla Awakening in Sweden and the Winter Jazz Festival.  Then the Tiger Trio with myself, Myra Melford, and Joëlle Léandre are doing a tour in 2018. And I’m hoping to also finish the project JBM: Images Beyond that I worked on for my mother, who was a visual artist and a poet. I premiered it in Chicago in 2013; it's basically a solo theater piece with live music and an exhibition of her paintings.  I want to be able to put that out again, to perform it and also to record and finish it.  Those are just a few of the things I’m working on.


MJ: I’m still unsure how you do all those things while teaching and traveling.


NM: I really don’t know! [laughs]










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