Nicole Mitchell is a leading flutist in jazz, a player with one of the strongest senses of swing there is, either inside a beat or playing freely. Her thematic albums and projects like “Mandorla Awakening” and “EarthSeed” are inspired by, and develop, Afrofuturist ideas that she first discovered through the great speculative fiction writer Octavia Butler. She described these in depth and poetic detail in her recent book, The Mandorla Letters: for the hopeful, published last year by Green Lantern Press. The book’s purpose is to be “an open source of seeds for anyone, artist or otherwise, to fuel imaginations toward the co-creation of positive futures.”
But Mitchell is also a contemporary composer in the classical sense: she writes music for other ensembles to play. This substantial side of her work will be on display March 30 at Miller Theatre in New York City, for one of Miller’s great Composer Portraits series: concerts of contemporary music from one single composer, giving the listener a more in-depth experience of the artist than the usual program from a variety of sources. Mitchell and colleagues vocalist Lisa E. Harris and violinist Mazz Swift will be joined by the International Contemporary Ensemble in five pieces, all from the last ten years. Mitchell spoke with me about her music in anticipation of the concert.
VAN: I’m interested in how musicians who are usually identified with jazz, improvisation and playing their own work, translate their language into writing for other ensembles. Does the quality of your playing, like your tremendous sense of swing, come out in your composing for others? Do you use different processes for making music for yourself and for others?
Nicole Mitchell: When I write pieces that don’t have improvisation involved, I think I can get really nerded out with different ways [of writing] sometimes. But I think that it’ll still have the aesthetic of improvisation wrapped into it no matter what I write. I’ve had several ensembles play a piece called “Cult of Electromagnetic Connectivity” [commissioned in 2021 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra] which is written for quintet. That piece is not written for improvisers, but it has a question or two in there that challenges the musicians to play in a different way with the instructions I’m giving them.
I enjoy challenging musicians, no matter who they are. If they’re improvisers, I might challenge them to do something differently than they’ve done before. In the same way, if they don’t have an improvisational background, I like challenging them to do something a little bit differently.
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Do all the pieces being played at the Miller Theatre have improvisation in them?
I would say that all of them do except for “Procession Time” . “Transitions Beyond”  has a combination of through-composed movements and graphic scoring. And that’s the same with “Inescapable Spiral” [2017, commissioned by the International Contemporary Ensemble]. “Building Stuff”  is highly notated, even though it’s for an improvising ensemble—it has a lot of notation, but then it has sections for solos in more of a jazz context. And “Whispering Flame” [2017, co-composed with Lisa E. Harris] is a handwritten score, it’s a mixture of traditional and graphic notation.
Do you use a variety of improvising strategies for the musicians, like graphic scoring or written instructions?
It’s rarely just graphics. I’ll say that there’s definitely a very solid identity to [each] composition. But there might be elements of improvisation where I might use graphics. I like the immediacy that graphic scoring has, it brings out another side of the musician. It puts them on edge, and it brings a lot of adrenaline and a lot of intensity that written music just doesn’t bring. But I like having a clear identity for the music. So that’s why I like combining the two things.
Is there an explicit connection between the Miller Theatre concert program and the ideas you advocate for in your recent book?
Every piece of music I write is connected to some type of narrative. Narrative is first, before music, in life for me. “Whispering Flame” came out of an Octavia Butler work, for example. And I talk about Octavia Butler in the book, I talk about the influence of Black speculative fiction as a kind of paradigm. The whole focus of the book for me is about the power of our imaginations, and how we end up collectively buying into other people’s creative vision of the future unless we take the initiative and start to really utilize our own creativity. That’s a really big point I have in the book. I talk about Afrofuturism because of the importance of Black imagination as one of the keys to solving our Western roadblocks, or whatever you want to call them.
“Procession Time” was inspired by a visual artist, Norman Lewis—out of the Harlem Renaissance—a visual piece that he made called “Ritual.” I guess you can say I’m a poetic composer. “Transitions Beyond” is a piece I wrote for my late husband [Calvin Bernard Gantt]: it’s like a communication with family about the next life, the kind of desires and visions of how we will live and continue our legacies, it’s about that tender transition between life and death with someone you’re really close to, they have fear and pain. And there’s also the aspect of mystery, because we don’t understand how it works, it doesn’t matter how much we try to understand it, it’s still going to be a mystery. And so all of those things are inside of that piece.
“Building Stuff” was written for my Black Earth Ensemble, it’s kind of the opposite, that came out of my Moments of Fatherhood project. It’s literally this idea of imagining … a dad playing with a younger child, whether his kid or grandkid, building stuff. So it’s fun. And there’s some comedy in there, it’s kind of silly. “Inescapable Spiral” is about the inevitable rotation of the stars, it’s a kind of magnetism, inevitably bringing each other within their rotation.
If things begin in narrative for you, do you feel the piece must give the listener some idea of what this narrative is?
No, they don’t need to know the guideline for the shape of my composition. And [they don’t need to know] what type of energies I want to bring to the composition.
I love the complexity and diversity of energies that nature brings, and natural phenomena, and as a composer, that’s a very big palette of possibilities… I enjoy exploring through the music. I like for the music to go somewhere, and for it to bring a certain type of feeling. The narratives help me to home in on what those things might be for that particular piece.
Do you play any of this, or is it all for other musicians and ensembles?
It’s mostly for other people to play. [At Miller Theatre] I’m going to play on “Whispering Flame” and “Building Stuff,” but I don’t necessarily have to. It’s just something fun to do. Those pieces were not written for an ensemble that has mostly a contemporary music background, they were made for an improvising ensemble. But of course the International Contemporary Ensemble can do all that.
Is there some specific part of—let’s call it the American compositional tradition—that you feel you gather into your work?
I probably take that for granted. That’s something that I can contemplate more, but I don’t think about it so much, unless you talk about Charles Mingus. He has been a big influence.
What about any contemporary composers?
I definitely have some Kaija Saariaho in me. If you listen to “Building Stuff” you’ll hear that. I really like what Courtney Bryan has been doing, she just seems unstoppable to me. And I still feel that Leroy Jenkins is a really great composer, I don’t know if his work is being played now that he passed, but he wrote some really amazing music. In terms of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, that is all really interesting to me. ¶
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