Perfect Sound Forever


by Jason Gross (May 1998)

The more you learn about multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell's work, you just have to be more and more impressed by this icon of avant garde jazz. If his only legacy was as a founding member of the Chicago's legendary Assocation for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (the AACM as its known, along with Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill and Anthony Braxton among many others) and later, as an off-shoot of this, the Art Ensemble of Chicago (which began as an extension of one of his own groups), his place in history would be secured and then some. But that's only the beginning of Mitchell's work.

Even the most cursory book about the history of post-war jazz has to deal with Mitchell's work. His enormous catalog of works have included pieces for string ensembles, trios, percussion ensembles, orchestras, a recorder ensemble, toy instruments and his own solo horns. In Robert Jourdain's MUSIC, THE BRAIN, AND ECSTACY, the author describes how humans are able to take different sounds from instruments and configure this information in our brain as 'music.' An important part of Mitchell's work has been to deconfigure and reconfigure these sounds into strange new patterns that aren't bound by conventional melody or rhythm, and thus rethink what we consider to be 'music.' Recent performances of "L-R-G/The Maze/S II Examples" (with Art Ensemble members Malachi Favors and Joseph Jarman among others) were the perfect reminder that Mitchell's work doesn't ignore his past achievements, which today still seem very revolutionary.

Special thanks to Richard Abrams and William G. Sacks for their help with this piece.

PSF: I wanted to ask about the pieces that you performed recently. "L-R-G" for you, Leo Smith, and George Lewis, seemed like a dialog or conversation with sixteen different instruments.

The way that I constructed that piece was to make a study of each player's vocabulary and then put it together like that, along with different notes, different sounds, different effects and things like that. It is like a conversation in a way because any one person can control the conversation at any one time- it doesn't have a fixed tempo and that's movable from time to time, depending on the individual players' indivdual flows.

Having the different instruments also builds in the spatial factor. I've always been interested in shaping music in odd ways, with odd riffs and that's been probably something that I've continued on with my studies with improvisation as I'm working with people. Creating that odd space like that and also there's more than that. Just the timbre of different instruments, sounds, going from one instrument to another. Let's say you play the B flat soprano and change that over to alto and change that to tenor and so on and so forth. When you change instruments, each instrument has a different timbre, even if you're playing the same notes. I find that interesting also, when you're able to switch actual phrases back and forth.

PSF: With another piece from that evening, "The Maze," your ensemble was using a lot of unconventional percussion instruments- rattles, pans, hubcaps.

In Chicago at that time, there were a number of people who developed in that area. Not everyone was a percusssionist. Overall at that time, people were really starting to explore sounds and different ways of putting together their own sounds. For me, it was something similar to putting together "L-R-G"- putting the piece together according to the instruments that each person was dealing with. Then also maintaining that individual flow so that the performances could change from night to night. For me, I like that kind of thing, doing pieces that are a bit unusual.

PSF: Are percussion ensembles something that you'd like to continue with? Have you worked in with groups like that before?

Well, the Art Ensemble did play for a while without a percussionist after Philip Wilson left. We stayed without a real drummer with each of us playing percussion until we left to go to Europe where we brought in Don Moye as a regular drummer- basically the idea was always to have woodwinds in the group. I haven't really done other percussion pieces but I would like to write more of those. I've wanted to do something with the ensemble (that performed "Maze") with just bells. There's so many bell sounds that are available, different levels, soft ones and loud ones and so on. In the orchestral piece I've written ("Fallen Heros"), there's a small part for solo percussion.

I have so many ideas that my head is EXPLODING with ideas! (laughs) There's so much music that I almost feel that things are coming back around in a circle and things are opening up. I think people have always wanted to hear this kind of music but there hasn't been much of an opportunity for people to hear it. Now, it seems like it's coming back around to that again. I remember times when the whole music scene was just flourishing.

PSF: What do you think has made that happen?

I just think that everything goes in a circle. That was the '60's before and we're in the '90's now- that's a complete circle. It's that time. Not to mention that now you can have a whole other group of people who are now interested in that music. When I was young and doing it, there were also young people. So there's the people that were there a long time ago. And now, it's starting to be like a whole younger crowd of people that are interested also.

PSF: You started talking about your recent orchestral piece. You've done others, haven't you?

Yes, there's "Non Cognitive Aspects of the City" which was done by Eric Lund in Champaigne Urbana. There's another work I have called "Memories of A Dying Parachutist" that was done by the SEM Ensemble. Another work for orchestra was "Variations and Sketches from the Bamboo Terrace." I've had a few performances of that- it was done here in Madison and out in L.A. and by the 1750 Arch Ensemble on a tour of Europe in Cologne.

PSF: Is there anything that sets "Fallen Heros" apart from these other works?

I don't think so, not in the way that I work. I'll get into one area and I'll explore it. That's happened to me. Even "Variations" started out as trio for the group Space and then went on to be an orchestra piece. I think I did a transcription for mezzo-soprano at another time. It developed on. There were parts of it that I had which were improvisations. When I went back and listened to it, I said 'oh, I'll put that in.' Mel Graves inspired the bass solo that I wound up writting for that piece, which became a solo piece for contrabass within the structure of the orchestra. With "Nonaah," it started out the same way. I just thought that I would create a body of music that I would go back and forth to extract different compositions.

So in that way, it's kind of like in keeping with the way that I write most of the time. Certainly, there are pieces that I write where there's only one version of it. But that's one way that I've been doing it.

PSF: "Nonaah" is something that you've come back to again and again. What is it about that piece that intrigues you?

I guess it represents a time for me when I left the cities and moved out into the country. I felt that I had been influenced by being in the city enough and I wanted to go off by myself to see what was going on. I remember going out there and looking in the mirror and thinking I wasn't anything. (laughs) That's when I wrote the piece though there's several different versions. But again, I was inspired by hearing one version that made me want to do another. When I did the saxophone quartet version on the Nessa recording, after listening to the middle part with the four saxophones, the slower section, I thought 'oh my god- it would be nice to have something like this for strings.' I was talking to a friend of mine who's a composer and I said that this might be nice for a string quartet. And he said 'well, how about four cellos?' That's how I went on to do the completely notated version for four cellos. Now, what I want to do with that is something for four bass recorders. Look at that material and condense it in a way. One of the main features of "Nonaah" is that it has these very large intervals. I like to do it like that. For me, I know it makes me think it's easier to generate a piece if I need to do that.

PSF: A recent release of yours, Sound Songs, has you playing alone the whole time, including a version of "Fallen Heros." What made you go back to working solo?

I developed the material like that. I'll do that a lot of times with pieces. Then I'll go on from there. It's the same way that I developed "Nonaah"- I'll move the intervals real fast so that it appears to be more than one instrument and you get that effect because of the way that the horn is soundings in all the different registers. I work like that sometimes. What I wanted to do was develop a language that I felt comfortable with so when I did sit down to write the orchestra piece, I knew I would be sitting down writing and not saying 'oh, I can't write today.' (laughs) That's the reason that it's like that.

PSF: One of your methods of composition is 'scored improvisation' that you've used for the Sound Ensemble. How would you describe this?

I developed those for a lot of classes that I taught in improvisation. I found that the inexperienced improviser always has the same problems. Once they understand it, they deal with it clearer. Somehow imagine yourself as an improviser that really knew your part, if you had taken a piece of music and studied it and figured out how you were going to play each note, which dynamic level, what attack and so on. This is the kind of thing that you're after here. I found that a lot of times in improvisation, a lot of people don't know what to play. That was a problem for me. I figured that I would have some systems that will give the player information to play but distribute it in such a way that it's a improvisation. So that each time that this material is played, it will present a different improvisation. Theses scored improvisations were build to do this- fix players so that they don't follow. Following is like being behind on a written piece of music. This does that. You can do that and then you'll have an improvisation. What it does is it gives players a longer time to function in an improvisation that's really working. That helps because I found that it builds concentration. Knowing compositional form, the study of improvisation parallels composition.

PSF: How so?

You have to know composition to be a good improviser. If you don't know how to think like a composer, you'll never be able to construct long pieces.

PSF: Do you think that silence is an important component of your work?

Yes, that's true. I weigh it as about fifty percent. It's like you got silence, that's a strong element. If you're just sitting somewhere and it's totally silent, a lot of people don't even have that luxury anymore, living in a city. In a concert hall, you can have that. When you interrupt that with a sound, then you have music. It's fascinating to study what efffect that has and what effect it has on silence. I think that's one of the things that inspires me to keep working in these irregular patterns.

PSF: Your work also seems to deal with not just rhythms and melodies but the SOUNDS of the instruments themselves.

Absolutely. "SII Examples" was a study of a curved soprano saxophone that I had. I looked at all the different fingering possibilities and wrote down the sounds that they produced. With saxophones, sometimes the mechanisms of the older instruments work more independently than the newer ones so that what you can get will vary from saxophone to saxophone. I might study that instrument to put together melodic structures that weren't quite in the regular way where they might be moving one sound to another, a quarter tone instead of a regular note or using quarter tone and then a regular note and so on. I've always been fascinated by that. I like to hear melodies that go from one extreme to the next- saxophone to a bell to a whistle, for instance.

PSF: It is true that sometimes you'll compose a piece without worrying how the piece will sound in the end?

I'm probably not worrying about that too much. I'm after something else. Everything that I try to do is relaxed. I try to relate that to nature. If you listen to nature, all the sounds are done in a confident way. I'm trying to do that. With improvisation, there's a lot of factors that come in. You have to open yourself up, of course after you've got your skills down. It's not some sort of thing that comes out of the sky to you. Then you can get into some areas that you're not accustomed to.

I don't like to box myself in when I'm composing. I'll outline in a piece what I want to happen. When I'm writing, I exhaust each situation just to convince myself that it's the right choice that I'm making. With the piano piece I'm doing, it started on 8-8-88 (August 8, 1988) so it relates to the piano with 88 keys. I'm going to have three movements and I want them to relate to an 8, that would be 35 measures for the first movement, very long measures. I'm still flexible- the middle movement I said was going to be 17 measures and I may change that.

PSF: You've said before that you'd prefer to stay home and write music and let other people perform your works. Is that still true?

Not really. I'd like to perform. I'm approaching a period in my life though where I'd like to be totally absorbed into music, doing concerts, writing something. Basically, that IS what I am doing. (laughs) I just want to get more into it somehow, in this period especially. Maybe I think I can get some of these things happening. I know I've spent a lot of time doing different things. I figured that when I got back into these baroque instruments, I thought 'oh my god, what am I doing?' But really, it's a very rich experience. Working with all these people who play these instruments, I've learned so much and then a year or so has gone by and I'm actually playing them. I just feel that the most valuble thing right now is time to do all these different things.

PSF: Could you talk about some of your playing techniques like circular breathing and multi-phonics?

Circular breathing is a very old tradition, done by Egyptian musicians and in Australia. I probably got interested in it because of Roland Kirk. He's the guy that could really do all these things- play the double, triple horns, a flute out of his nose at the same time. He just turned me on to so much. I'd say to him 'I'm listening to you' and he was always saying 'no, I'm listening to YOU!' (laughs). He just turned me onto so many possibilities with the music. Even in retrospective, some of the things I did earlier in the music by having that as a vehicle that I could also use, it just opens up so many possibilities.

Like the piece "SII Examples." When I did that twenty years ago, I didn't do circular breathing. The version that's on the record is fine, I like it but I was breathing. I thought 'I can do that same thing and don't have to breath.' So that opens up more possibilities. In retrospect, I like that advantage.

I think the multiphonic thing is in keeping with the way that I study, with all these different sounds that fascinate me. I would say that kind of relates to what I was saying about nature where all these different things are coming out at you. I've also been fortunate to work with musicians who have been helpful in developing this vocabulary. One person has been a woodwind player named Gerald Oshita, who was in Space (a trio that Mitchell formed). I just consider myself a student, trying to learn more about it. I hear a lot of different things and I like it as an extension. I always try to think of a vocabulary to match different musical situations. Like when you're playing with an electrical situation or a computer situation. To me, it's a challenge.

PSF: You once said 'when I was just playing alto saxophone, everything was great. No problem. Then I started to add all these other instruments and everything fell apart.' What did you mean?

That was true. I only had one instrument to worry about. I'm glad that I struggled through! (laughs) I do know that there's a lot of things going on there but if you always give it 100% when you're there, you'll always go back to where you left off. That's a good feeling- you can always feel as if you're improving. I feel like now, just recently, that I'm just beginning to get a real tenor sound. But it paid off to hang in there and do that. I'm certainly getting a better understanding of the flute. It really works. It takes that kind of time on each instrument. Musicians are living longer today so you do have a little more time to do these things.

PSF: When you play solo as opposed to playing in an ensemble, what kind of effect does that have on you and your music?

Solo is the opposite end of playing in an ensemble. I think that good improvisers should be able to play solo as well as master all the problems that happen within a group improvisation. Solo playing for me has really given me that feeling of independence, where I know that I can function independently when in a group improvisation. For me, it's just that I'm studying in terms of performance. I'm thinking of starting a whole new series of solo pieces. I'm working on this one for the "Fallen Heros" because there is a part at the end for improvisation for the voice, where the alto saxophone joins the voice.

PSF: You've done some workshops in high schools. What kind of things were you trying to impart to the students?

I've done several types of programs at schools. If you have a longer period of time, you have time to work with the students. If it's a shorter period, a day or so, I'm usually doing a lecture/demonstration type of thing. I did also teach here at the University of Wisconsin for a while where I did actually have ensembles that I was working with. At Cal Arts, I was there for two semesters where I taught four classes. Those were much more involved. You want to leave people with SOMETHING when you go in there for an hour. It's been a challenge to put things like that together.

The last thing I did was Upstate where I took along video tapes and did some lecture/demonstrations, Q & A's. I almost want to have a Q & A after every concert. We had them when we played in Chicago recently. I would have had them in New York but we were a little pressed for time.

What I try to impart to a musician is to really try to practice the instrument in a really sincere way. Learn as much about music as you possibily can. Learn composition. Study to try to create compositions of your own and put your own personal touch on your music. Basically, the same kind of thing that I was taught- inspire the individual to really study music in a sincere way and to try to bring out the creative side in a person.

PSF: I've heard that you're interested in probing parts of your earlier work now.

That's the good thing about having all of this. I was just listening to an Art Ensemble record. It sounded very fresh. Some of the styles I was writing in at the time I might go back to. For me, this period here, I'm not lacking in ideas. The problem is having the time to get to all of these things.

PSF: Since you brought up the Art Ensemble, how do you see the work you've done with the group differing from your own ensembles that you lead?

I think that we set a philosophy, even before the Art Ensemble, in AACM. A way of working. That just kind of follows through with most of my groups. I've been fortunate to get guys that have been interested in music for a long time. With the Note Factory, you're looking at guys that have been with me for twenty years. Some of them are newer than others so it's really a long experience of making music together.

PSF: You've called the Art Ensemble 'a ceremony with certain people enacting certain roles.' What do you thing your role has been?

If I view the Art Ensemble, I see it as five individuals. Each person all has their strong individual lifestyles and they were able to come together and blend these things into a cohesive ensemble. That's the way I would view the Art Ensemble.

PSF: Joseph Jarman characterized the individual interests of each member of the AEC. He said that your interest is 'polytonal.' Would you agree?

I guess that's one aspect. But I also have music for... whatever would be the opposite for that! (laughs) I always think that if there's one thing, then there's the other. The middle will kind of present itself to you then. The thing is to have control over both ends of the spectrum. Then you're able to get to the things in the middle.

PSF: Being from Chicago, growing up there and evolving as musician there, what kind of effect did the area have on you?

There's a lot of history there. Just doing this piece now and having the same people there like Chuck Nessa, who recorded those works 20 years ago and now recording them again. Today, it's different out there but there's still people out there like Chuck Nessa who had a vision and stuck to that vision. My college music professor was there too, Richard Wang, and old friends from 30 years ago, other musicians. Chicago has a special thing. I always liked the pace of Chicago because you could get more done there. In New York, a lot of musicians are involved in many things. A lot of people who go there don't end up being their own self. In Chicago, you have that kind of opportunity to do that.

PSF: What about being in Wisconsin now? How does that effect your work?

What's most interesting to me right now is time to study. I could be anywhere right now. I like Madison because you really don't have the hustle and bustle that you have in the big cities, getting around and so forth.

PSF: What do you think about the evolution of the AACM and some of the great things it's achieved?

I think it's still evolving. There was a slogan once 'a power stronger than itself.' It's kind of like that. For me, I feel like we're on a revival. I'm just looking forward to doing a lot more with different people in the AACM and just in general, music-wise. The AACM has been an influence on so many different factors throughout the evolution of the music of the '60's to now.

PSF: What are some of your current goals as a composer and an improviser?

I don't really have any except to get better. I would like to continue to study and to write more compositions. To me, music is my life's work.